This article was first published on Society of Actuaries (SOA) website in September, 2014. More photos can be found on SOA Facebook page.

Student representatives from 25 Centers of Actuarial Excellence (CAE) universities in the U.S., Canada, and Hong Kong gathered downtown Chicago on Aug. 14–15 to attend the Society of Actuaries (SOA) 2014 CAE Student Summit. I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the two representatives from Temple University to attend this wonderful annual event. Although only two days, it was an extremely valuable experience. I’d like to share a few things I learned, and some inspirations I received from this conference.

The first day of the conference centered around an introduction to the SOA and the actuarial profession. Through the introduction by SOA President-Elect, Errol Cramer, and other SOA staff, we learned about the background of SOA as a professional organization and its initiatives on the exam process, FSA tracks, and candidate engagement. Some exciting initiatives include the new online sample exams, exam performance feedback system, and the new SOA Explorer Map where SOA candidates and members can connect with each other.

To help students have a deeper understanding of the actuarial profession, SOA President Mark Freeman, and four Chicago-based actuaries from different practice areas discussed their career paths, offered us some very insightful career advice, and answered our questions about the profession and their respective industry. Some highlights:

  1. Career advice:
    1. Keep in touch with colleagues and clients: always remember the strength of weak ties;
    2. Use common sense and be able to explain your actuarial work to someone who hates math;
    3. Gain trust by being authentic: talking to the point;
    4. Recognize you don’t have to be the smartest person: synergy allows 1+1>2, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  2. Differences between “insurance” and “consulting” in a nutshell:
    1. Breadth vs. Depth: An insurance company can usually offer a variety of actuarial jobs through a formal rotation program, so an actuary in an insurance company has more opportunities to work across different product lines and functions; a consulting company usually expects its actuaries to specialize in some particular discipline, so a consulting actuary usually has a deeper but narrower experience and expertise.
    2. Steadiness vs. Flexibility: A consulting company usually offers more exciting problem-solving opportunities, as the needs of clients can be vastly different from day to day; however, since a consultant needs to quickly respond to clients’ requests, work hours can be long and very flexible at times. An actuarial job in an insurance company is relatively steadier in terms of hours.

Day Two of the conference was dedicated to two case studies: one on the U.S. health care system, and one on credibility for mortality. Aside from the actual subject matter, the lesson I learned from these case studies is that in the real world, unlike a theocratic math problem, there is no correct answer. You have to be able to use actuarial and professional judgment to assess the uncertainty and be able to put English behind your numbers.

Also through this conference, I had many opportunities to talk to actuarial students from other parts of the U.S., Canada, and Hong Kong. Canadian and Hong Kong students are especially inspiring. Through our conversations, I learned that in their universities, passing four to five SOA exams before they graduate as an undergraduate student is the norm. (In the U.S., passing one to three is the norm).

I was both surprised and inspired by their exam progress success, so I decided to follow up with one of the Canadian students, Jason Azzoparde, from Concordia University. He passed all five SOA preliminary exams in less than two years. The following is my email interview with him; hopefully his story can inspire you to push through actuarial exams in tough situations.

What’s the timeline that you passed the five SOA exams?

Jason: I entered university in September of 2012 and I registered for my first SOA exam in January of 2013 (Exam P). I was fairly prepared for this exam given my statistics courses in CEGEP (Pre-university for Quebec students) and in my first semester at Concordia. After passing that exam in January, I took my second exam (Exam FM) in June 2013 and passed! I was extremely excited to have two exams for the annual recruiting cocktails that take place every year in September at Concordia. I then sat for exam MLC in November 2013, which was quite difficult considering my scholastic schedule and extracurricular activities, but I managed to get through it! I then took exam MFE in March 2014 and Exam C in June 2014. Therefore, I took exactly one year and a half to pass the preliminary exams.

While you were passing exams, what were your other responsibilities?

Jason: While I was passing exams, I was always taking a full course load (five classes and sometimes six), which was mandatory because I was part of the Co-op program. I felt that studying for my actuarial exams helped me immensely in my university courses. During my first year in university, I was a rookie varsity quarterback for Concordia. Football was very demanding both physically and mentally. I would even say that my first rookie offensive playbook was harder to grasp than any actuarial exam! During my second year (2013), I had the opportunity to transfer to the defensive side of the ball and play safety. Playing defense was definitely more physically demanding! During my first year I was also playing flag football during the off-season.

What do you think contributes to Canadian students’ successful and fast progress in actuarial exams?

Jason: To be honest, there is no secret to passing exams. You need to be very religious about your exam preparation and have extremely good time management skills if you want to have all these commitments. I was fortunate to have the full support of my friends, family, and football coaches.

To be more specific, I had a good friend, Marc Antoine Bedard, who took the same exams as I did and we were grateful to pass them all on our first try. We would always motivate each other- and focus on our long term objectives (getting internships at competitive companies). We also worked for the same firm, Towers Watson, so it was easy to study together before (6:30 a.m.) and after work.

Also, our system was simple. For every ASM (Actuarial Study Manual) chapter we would make a “summary sheet” in which we would highlight the key points of that chapter. This helped us review the material at the end. Our pace was usually one chapter per day and we would try to finish early enough to have three to four weeks for practice exams. We would do half the exercise problems of each chapter.

To be honest, the level of competition is very high in Quebec. It is very normal for Quebec students to graduate with five preliminary exams. Therefore, if you want to stand out from the pack, you have no choice but to pass these exams. My internships at Intact and Towers Watson also helped me a lot with exam support.

What study materials did you use to prepare for your actuarial exams?1

Jason: I used ASM for the material and three to four weeks of Coaching Actuaries for each exam (except MLC). We also completed all the SOA sample questions for each exam!

Any other things that you would suggest or advise other actuarial students to do?

Jason: My final advice to any current or future actuarial student is that if you are willing to put in the work, I promise you that you can be successful! The actuarial career is a very rewarding one, but it requires a lot of effort. Try to get an internship as early as possible and you will be able to see the bigger picture of the actuarial industry. Keep a positive attitude and NEVER GIVE UP.

Zilong Zhao is a junior actuarial science student at Temple University (Philadelphia, PA), and a Campus Ambassador for CoachingActuaries. He can be reached at LinkedIn.com/in/ZilongZhao .

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