One of the most daunting challenges ACAMS members find is studying for the CAMS exam. For many of us, it has been years since we last picked up a textbook with the intent of learning it well enough to take an exam. In addition, since we are no longer in the academic life, we no longer enjoy the luxury of time that academics often offers – at least not compared to the professional life, where the demands seem even more pressing than in school. So how can one fit in the time to study and how can one learn effectively?
I have taught unofficial CAMS prep seminars on and off for several years. Besides imparting the overall knowledge to the candidates, I tried to provide them with a few tips on how to study for the exam. So far, it has worked quite well. What follows are some of the tips I’ve passed along over the years.
Memory Formation Basics
Before we go much further, it might be helpful to have a little basic information on the formation of memory. After all, the goal of studying is to form memories that you can use when you need them. Memory is formed by associations between specialized cells called neurons in the brain. Neurons will make connections with each other as they are stimulated in certain ways. In terms of forming memory, they will take sensory input (like sight, sound or motion) and build connections with other neurons. Each of these sensory inputs comes from different areas of your brain. The more different ways you can bring the sensory input in, the more connections are made between neurons. The more connections means the more readily you can get access to the underlying memory. The more often you use the memory, the better the connection itself. As an analogy, think of the connections as being roads between places (memories). The more roads you have, the easier it is to get to a place; the more demand you have for the road – that is, the more often you use the memory – the better the road will be. Also, the more roads you have to take to get to a place, the better you can get to the memory from any other location in your brain. Thus, if there is a roadblock in one connection (test anxiety for example), by having a number of connections, you can still get to the memory. Also, the more often you travel these roads, the more familiar they become to you. At this point, you start to approach mastery.
In addition, sleep appears to have a key role in memory formation. Thus, it is important that as you study, you get sufficient rest. Many studies suggest that you should study shortly before you go to sleep to help reinforce your memory and free it from other distractions. However, this does not indicate you should study until you fall asleep. When you study, you should be fully awake and have as few distractions as possible. Distractions include not only the typical distractions like phone calls, emails, barking dogs and coworker/family interruptions, but also other memories being formed; hence why studies indicate sleep is the best way to cement those connections. To continue the road analogy, there is a limited capacity to develop connections between neurons, so you should try to divert as much of this capacity to making the connections you want to keep. To further the analogy, there is only so much that the connection developing capacity can handle, which is why it is better to break your studying into smaller time chunks than to try to study for a long period. Generally, the material studied at the beginning and the end are best retained, while the material in the middle is most often forgotten. Thus, studying for three 30 minute periods may be more effective than studying for an hour and a half at a time.
Lastly, another tip I learned in college was that you often are able to recall information best in the same type of setting in which you learned it. Thus, it is important that you try to learn your material in a manner similar to the way you will put it into practice. That is to say, it is probably best not to study in a crowded bar or in front of the television; since you are likely to be taking the exam in a proctored setting and applying your knowledge in a work setting. This is not advocating that you study instead of doing your work; that could cause a distraction that may seriously impair your ability to study.
When studying, one of the first questions you should ask is why are you studying? What do you intend to do with the material? For the candidate taking the CAMS exam, the ultimate goal is likely to obtain the CAMS designation. However, if you are only studying for the certification, you are likely missing out on one of the most important aspects of studying. Most candidates for the exam are likely involved in a field where advanced AML knowledge is useful if not essential. Rather than thinking of the learning as merely a path to the certification, think of the learning as a way to make yourself better at your profession. This way, you get more than just the certification – not that it is "just" a certification, it is definitely worth pursuing for its own sake – you get a deeper understanding of AML, which can lead you to becoming a better AML professional. Deeper knowledge and mastery – the process by which learning becomes integrated to the point that it can be applied – can lead to greater professional satisfaction, increased pay and greater job security. Think of the certification as a formal recognition of your increased knowledge rather than the sole goal. After all, I use the knowledge acquired during my studies for the CAMS designation far more than the certificate that hangs in my office.
However, regardless of what you are studying for, find some reason for which you are studying so that you can tailor your approach to achieve your objectives.
One of the most powerful tools we can have for learning is a desire to learn the subject material. If you really are not that interested in the material, it will be a tedious chore to learn it. I recall looking at some textbooks (especially physics and statistics) where the material was mostly written in formulas and involved complicated mathematical concepts that I found hard to get interested in (this was back in the days when you had to calculate your own statistics, not when you could just use a computer program). This is why I didn’t end up as a math major; neither the interest nor the aptitude (there likely is some correlation, but I can’t remember how to calculate that) was there.
There are many studies that support the concept that learning interesting material is easier, but you probably already know this. Think about your favorite magazines or sections of the newspaper. You probably know the subject matter quite well and find the time to further your interest in the material. Consider too the rabid sports fan who can rattle off almost encyclopedic knowledge of statistics about his favorite team and its players but has a hard time getting out the basics on something he’s not familiar with at all. This guy loves his team and just cannot get enough information about them. Interestingly, the sports fan does not consider himself to be studying, but rather it is a matter of him satisfying a hunger for information about his team. Not that you need to become a rabid AML nut (although you might want to be able to rattle off some FATF and USA PATRIOT Act stats), but having a passion to learn AML will definitely make it much easier to study.
Now that you’ve decided what you want to get out of studying and you are all motivated to do it, how do you go about doing it? First, it is helpful to find the material you’ll need to study. For the CAMS candidate, there is a CAMS Study Guide that contains the material you’ll need for the exam, for our sports fan, there are plenty of radio and TV shows, as well as magazines, internet sites and fellow fans to provide a wealth of information.
Second, once you find the materials you need to study, you need to start to study. This often is a matter of reading the material. While you can easily sit and read the entire CAMS Study Guide in a month’s time, this is probably not the best way to go about learning the material. Studies on learning show that you retain about 10 percent of what you read; yes, you will forget far more than you remember if you just read it (I know enough stats to be able to figure that out). Instead of re-reading the material ten times in the hope of retaining all the material, there are a few other study habits that may be helpful. One is to read the material to get a general understanding of the big concepts in the material. Since you are only retaining a little bit, this way, you will begin to form a basic skeletal outline of the material you need to learn. In the next reading of the material, you should be able to fill in more information around the basic skeleton. Further readings can continue to fill in the material.
However, rather than just reading and re-reading only, you should apply additional strategies, particularly the act of doing something while studying. No, I’m not referring to doodling in your Study Guide, rather, this refers to transferring some of the key concepts or items you want to review in greater detail (or just remember for later use) into a separate sheet of notes. The very act of transferring will greatly increase your retention of the material – up to 90 percent. Transferring material – not a verbatim copying – to notes will become very useful as you get a greater understanding of the material and it will enable you to test your knowledge and determine which aspects require additional work. Here, it is key to rephrase the material in your own words rather than to just copy the exact text from the Study Guide. When I took the CAMS exam, I had a set of handwritten notes covering 44 pages. When it came time for last minute preparations, it was far easier to review 44 pages than the hundreds of pages in the Study Guide. I could review my rather skeletal notes and fill in the gaps well enough – which indicated to me that I’d gotten fairly close to mastering the material.
Additional study tips you may want to consider are to read your notes out loud – speaking the material as well as thinking about it increases retention to about 70 percent of the material. Take the material you’ve written in your notes and re-organize it in different ways. Create flash cards for those areas you feel you need more practice; this requires you to rephrase the material and come at the material as though you were an instructor rather than just a student. Create mnemonics for the more complicated sections, like HOMES for the Great Lakes, where "H" stands for Huron, "O" for Ontario, "M" for Michigan and so on. These additional strategies will significantly increase your retention of the material. The varied means of studying the material will get you to understand the material in different ways, removing it from simple rote learning to a more active learning. This will also create significantly more connections with the material, meaning you are likely to remember it – both at exam time and afterwards in your professional capacities – when you need it.
Persistence and Pacing
As was indicated above, repetition is a key to effective retention and recollection of material. You likely will find trying to remember the key concepts contained in the Study Guide will not happen overnight or in just a week. Thus, it is important to start early. One of the questions I have heard a lot in prep courses is "how long should I study for the exam?" I cannot give a straightforward answer to this, as everyone learns at their own pace. I personally studied for over 50 hours over three months. But I knew the information cold going into the exam.
As noted with the study tips above, a lot of the learning occurs when you review the material and reprocess it in different ways. Repetition and variety are critical to successful learning. Given that the memory formation process generally works best in small chunks with frequent review and repetition in different means, and that the Study Guide is quite long, it makes sense to set out a plan that will allow you to schedule sufficient time to read the material, re-read, practice and practice some more as well as review the material. As many students learn, cramming is not an effective means of studying; trying to "learn" a several hundred page Study Guide in a short period of time is not likely to produce good results. Rather, the better solution is to take a much longer period, gradually building the base of your knowledge and finding new ways to connect the information together. As an example, in the Study Guide, many of the vulnerabilities of certain products or AML risks associated with certain customers are included in some of the international standards. Thus, the correspondent banking and Politically Exposed Persons topic will come up in both the vulnerabilities section as well as the international standards section. As you continue your studies, you will likely notice that the risk mitigation concepts included in the international standards often show up in the AML compliance program section. If you can start making these kinds of connections, you will be going a long way to mastering the material.
Another helpful tip is to develop a schedule for studying and, like a successful diet – stick to it. For those times when you cannot necessarily dedicate yourself to a time slot, make sure you are able to make it up so that you do not find yourself behind schedule. It may help to record your notes, perhaps by making a video, taping yourself dictating notes or putting them on a computer you can take with you so that you can study when you have a short break, such as while commuting (if you’re driving, please only use the audio options) or waiting for an appointment.
A Few Additional Tips
In terms of how to prepare yourself to study, there are a few basics to consider. Make sure you have the materials you will need close by, such as the Study Guide, paper, pens/pencils, highlighters or other ways of taking notes (e.g., computer); you will find your studies significantly impacted if you need to get up to get materials throughout your study sessions. You should study in a well lit place that is free from distractions; if you are studying at home, this might mean letting family/roommates know that you are not to be disturbed while you study. In some cases, it may be helpful to put on some quiet music (e.g., classical or jazz) that will help remove some distractions.
A great motivator and study aid is to have a support group. This can involve both telling family/roommates that you are studying for the exam, as well as finding others who are taking the exam and studying with them. The former option can help motivate you to study harder, as others will be waiting to hear the good news that you passed the exam, as well as motivate you to succeed the first time. The second option will have these same effects as well as the ability to consult with others who are in the same situation as you. Also, you can bounce ideas off each other and help each other when you encounter difficult sections. This level of interaction will foster more of those connections that form memories.
Perhaps the best tip is to incorporate the learning into practice. After all, why are you doing all this learning if not to be able to understand the material and use it in your job as an AML professional. If you are involved in conducting investigations for a financial institution, you probably already are familiar with what you do to conduct an investigation, but think about what happens once you file that suspicious activity report. The investigations aspect of the Study Guide will help you to learn what law enforcement does with these reports and how they freeze funds. If you are a regulator, consider some of the risks involved in certain products or associated with certain customer types and come up with ways that an institution can mitigate or control the risks posed by the relationship. The AML program section will cover a great deal of the controls that are available. If you are examining an institution, which ones are they using and which ones are they not – and if they are not using some of the controls, how else might they be controlling the risk. Perhaps there are controls that are not included in the Study Guide yet, but can help you connect the dots on how institutions can control risk. These are just a few ways to approach this, but it is this type of creative thinking that will help you become a better AML professional once you understand how the products and services offered by financial institutions are misused by money launderers, how financial institutions set up controls to mitigate these risks (and how the institution assesses the risks, both inherent and residual), how they identify and report suspicious activity to law enforcement and what law enforcement does with this. The international standards, often thought of as the hardest part, as most people do not have sufficient exposure to these rules, tie all these aspects together.
Studying is not always easy. However, if you apply the principles set forth in this article, you will find that studying can be managed. While there is a lot of material to cover in the Study Guide, by breaking it into manageable pieces and practicing the material, you will be able to master the material. You will reap the rewards of the effort you put into the studying. By realizing the interactions between all the components in the Study Guide and developing a fuller understanding of AML, you can develop strong connections that will help you not only succeed on the exam, but also succeed in your career as an AML professional.
Kevin M. Anderson, CAMS, director, Bank of America, Falls Church, VA, USA, Kevin.firstname.lastname@example.org