This article was published and featured on Society of Actuaries (SOA)’s homepage in December 2016. I wrote it right after I graduated from college to reflect on my four-year journey. I’m deeply grateful for those who have provided me with guidance and the things I’ve learned along the way. It is my sincere hope that the three steps outlined in this article will help current college students and others who desire to have a rewarding actuarial journey.
Introduction: “MLC” and the author
Actuaries are known for the models we build. Our models help us use the known to navigate the unknown. For many, the journey as an actuarial candidate is unknown and even intimidating. This article aims to help aspiring actuaries get the most out of this journey through “MLC” — Model for Leveraging College. “MLC” is built on my personal experience and lessons I learned from reading extensively, conducting countless informational interviews, and attending dozens of professional conferences across the U.S.
My name is Zilong Zhao (aka “Z”), a 2016 graduate of Temple University who has passed four SOA preliminary exams. I recently joined Cigna as an actuarial senior analyst in Philadelphia, and I am a proud member of the Actuarial Executive Development Program (AEDP). While in school, I interned at Cigna, EY, and JP Morgan, and was an active student on campus. I was an officer of five student organizations, including being the president of two and the co-founder of NAAAP Temple, the Temple collegiate chapter of National Association of Asian American Professionals – Philadelphia. Besides non-profits and numbers, I have a huge passion for professional and personal development. I am always seeking opportunities to help myself and others grow, and nothing excites me more than being able to help others to achieve their own potential. It is my sincere hope that the three steps outlined in this article will help those who desire to have a rewarding actuarial journey.
Step 1: Understand What It Takes—MLC Overview
MLC Prerequisite — what to know before you begin:
Know your “Why” and personal definition of success. In the international bestseller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey repeatedly emphasizes the importance of knowing your purpose — “Begin with the end in mind.” That is especially true for someone who is about to begin his/her professional pursuit. When in a foreign land, you can navigate your ways using a GPS, but you need to know your destination, and why you want to get there. Similarly, in our professional journeys, we have to determine our own definitions of success and most importantly, the why. For actuarial candidates, we need to ask ourselves: why choose this path, and what kind of person do I aspire to become in the future?
Model Output — what “MLC” can offer you:
“Model for Leveraging College” cannot promise success, but it can guarantee you a rewarding and fulfilling journey, which in turn may very likely bring you the desired success. After all, we can’t control a future outcome (success) — what we can control is the process (journey)! American entrepreneur, Jim Rohn, put it well, “Success is not something you pursue. What you pursue will elude you; it can be like trying to chase butterflies. Success is something you attract by the person you become.” With that in mind, this Model will help you to become a “success magnet.”
Model Input — what you need to become a “success magnet”:
You may be thinking “success magnet sounds cool, but how?” Warren Buffet would answer your question by his famous quote, “The most important investment you can make is in yourself.” For us, actuarial candidates, that means continuous self-investment to improve both hard and soft skills.
Step 2: Master Your Craft—Hard Skills
1. Actuarial skills:
Master your craft; this is especially true for actuaries whose most significant value lies in the technical expertise we provide. That is also what differentiates an actuarial analyst from a business analyst. To obtain actuarial designations, set SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) when preparing for exams. A meticulous plan, however, is not enough. You have to be persistent and steadfast in pursuing your plan—more than often, knowing what to do is the easy part; actually following through the plan is difficult. What separates candidates who rapidly pass exams from those who don’t is usually plan execution.
In order to be more effective at execution, have a committed mindset. In college, I always seemed to have countless things on my plate: full-load coursework, active involvement in multiple student organizations, volunteering, and my personal workout regimen to stay competitive in a local dragon boat team. I was frustrated at times because I felt I did not have the spare time to prepare for actuarial professional exams. Despite how busy I was, I still signed up for exams—sitting after sitting—all because of a commitment I made to myself earlier on in my college career – “I will pass all five SOA preliminary exams as an undergrad student.” Although I didn’t get to all five, this goal forced me to establish a four-year goal and helped me to set a standard for all my efforts. Bruce Lee once said, “A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.” People always say “dream big” for a reason – it also has a practical implication in passing actuarial exam
To cultivate a committed mindset, Rory Vaden made an excellent point in his bestselling book, Take the Stairs: commitment is being invested in something— “the more you have invested, the less likely you will let it fail… When you’re committed, your attitude starts to shift from ‘Should I?’ to ‘How will I?’” For actuarial candidates trying to decide whether to take an exam in the next available sitting, ask yourself whether you are invested in achieving that goal and whether you have “How will I?” attitude instead of an iffy attitude of “Should I?”
Fellow of Society of Actuaries (FSA), however, is not an end, but the means to an end. When you treat studying and passing exams as a character-building process, the professional designation itself is no longer important compared to the person whom you will become. Little did I know, the constant juggle (and struggle) between actuarial exams and other commitments would gradually made me a more effective person. To handle more than I could previously manage, I had to learn to stretch myself. I read about time and energy management, habit development, how humans learn, and many other topics on productivity. The bonus? I learned to persevere in time of failure. After all, who doesn’t fail an exam or two?
2. Programming skills:
The ability to code will give actuaries wings in the age of information explosion. During sophomore year at college, I picked up a computer science minor after talking to an upperclassman, Rich, one of my early mentors in the actuarial journey. Speaking of his past internships, Rich told me that programing skills have started to play an increasingly important role in actuarial jobs. The programming skills I acquired in the following few years have tremendously helped me during my internships when I had to use VBA in Excel. The importance of programing skills is also evident by the recent SOA announcement of the addition of Predictive Analytics in the new ASA curriculum. If you want to learn to code, there are countless places to start: college courses, books, YouTube tutorials, and educational sites such as codecademy.com and code.org.
3. General business knowledge:
In all three of my internships, general business knowledge was imperative – it allows an analyst to see the big picture before diving into the numbers. After all, actuaries don’t work in an isolated environment—we work in a hyper-connected business world. We need to understand the basic concepts of risk management; how life/health/property & casualty insurance industries fit into the overall economy; how companies generate profit and compete in the marketplace, and how actuaries contribute to the bottom line. I felt fortunate to be able to study actuarial science as well as general business in Fox School of Business’s Risk Management and Insurance Department, which has been consistently ranked Top five in the U.S. I was able to stay current with the business world by attending speaker series, workshops, industry events (such as SOA Candidate Connect), and reading news from excellent sources including the Wall Street Journal.
Step 3: Build Your Soft Skills—Business Is People
Driven by my huge passion for learning from others, I frequently attend conferences and conduct informational interviews. I realized that almost all successful business professionals have one thing in common—their devotion to developing soft skills. If hard skills are number skills, then soft skills can be defined as people skills. I have heard this repeatedly: “Technical expertise alone can only take you so far, you must develop soft skills in order to break through and go farther!” Based on my extensive reading and conversations with professionals, ranging from CEOs to risk managers and insurance salespeople, I believe actuarial candidates can focus on three breakthroughs in soft skill development:
In both insurance and consulting companies, actuaries constantly communicate with other professionals. How do you effectively explain actuarial concepts to non-actuaries? How to sell yourself and your company in front of clients? How do you present your highly technical and detailed findings in a team meeting without losing your audience? Effective communications require practice – no one is born an eloquent speaker or an articulate writer. So, why not start practicing early? Aside from taking public speaking and business writing classes, I found it extremely helpful to practice public speaking in organizations such as Toastmasters. I not only spoke more eloquently, but also became more logical and coherent in conveying ideas. After all, “practice makes perfect.”
For most actuaries, as we progress in our careers, we will need to manage teams. A manager needs to not only manage projects, but also lead people. When actuaries are on a fast track to managerial positions, some might say they are lucky. I believe their luck is not coincidence. As Roman philosopher Seneca pointed out, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” So, if you aspire to become a business leader one day, you can start to prepare now by leading. Yes, now even as a student.
Reading will give you a jump-start by allowing you to “stand on the shoulders of the giants.” Read about leadership, management, psychology, etc., but most importantly, put theories into practice by actually leading through serving. Get involved on campus and serve as officers at student organizations/non-profits. If no existing organization interests you, start one.
No one is born a leader, but everyone has the potential to become a great leader as long as you have the aspiration. In high school, I joined Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA). The thing that first grabbed my attention was its cool name! That aspiration gave me the extra motivation to push myself to get out of my comfort zone to pursuit leadership opportunities. In high school senior year, I ran for Class Vice President. Although I lost the election, I did not give up. Freshman year in college, I ran for a leadership position again. This time, I won. I was elected president of Temple University Asian Students Association and became the first sophomore president in the organization’s history. This experience, along with other leadership positions I served, has given me an invaluable opportunity to develop leadership skills. I feel more comfortable leading projects, speaking in front of crowds, and initiating changes than ever before.
I believe all leadership takes is practice, so don’t worry if you feel unready when an opportunity presents itself. Richard Branson would tell you “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes—then learn how to do it later.” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Once in the position to lead, you will realize that you are not able to do it all alone. You need other people! This a good segue into our next topic—creating meaningful relationships with others through networking.
Many people associate the word “networking” with negative connotations such as insincere, superficial, shallow, etc. But real networking is completely different—it’s not about “What can I take?” but more about “What can I give?” The latter mindset is the foundation for mutually beneficial relationships.
We have discussed the importance of continuously developing yourself. If developing yourself is like walking up a hill, there are three types of efforts: someone ahead pulling, someone behind pushing, and of course, your own personal efforts. One’s personal efforts are undoubtedly important, but to go far in life, you cannot do it all alone—you need other people’s pull and push. Keith Ferrazzi, the author of the bestselling networking book, Never Eat Alone, puts it well, “Today’s most valuable currency is social capital, defined as the information, expertise, trust, and total value that exist in the relationships you have and social networks to which you belong.”
The pull—be mentored by others:
In college, we all heard about the importance of having mentors, but more than often the grand idea of mentorship sounds remote and even unreachable. When I first heard about mentorship as a freshman, I thought of it as a secret agreement between two individuals. I had no idea how to find anyone who would agree to enter a “mentorship agreement” with me. But gradually, I realized mentorship can be developed by interactions as simple as asking questions.
Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In, “While asking a stranger to be a mentor rarely, if ever, works, approaching a stranger with a pointed, well-thought-out inquiry can yield results.” Everyone has someone we can learn from, so by developing genuine interest in people and what they do, you will have endless mentors by the end of your college career. (Click here to read a related article I wrote, Let Others Be Your Teachers, published on CoachingActuaries’ blog.)
In Lean In, Sandberg gave a compelling example of how you can turn the action of asking questions into a mentorship: “I have seen lower-level employees nimbly grab a moment after a meeting or in the hall to ask advice from a respected and busy senior person. The exchange is casual and quick. After taking that advice, the would-be mentee follows up to offer thanks and then uses that opportunity to ask for more guidance. Without even realizing it, the senior person becomes involved and invested in the junior person’s career. The word ‘mentor’ never needs to be uttered. The relationship is more important than the label.”
The push—give generously to people who need help:
“Real networking is about finding ways to make other people more successful… A network functions precisely because there’s recognition of mutual need. There’s no point in keeping track of favors done and owed. It’s better to give before you receive. If your interactions are ruled by generosity, your rewards will follow suit.” – Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi
In the “Walking up a hill” metaphor, “The pull” is the help from someone who is more experienced/resourceful in certain areas, and “The push” is the reward of generously helping others. Across multiple cultures, we heard about this saying, “Treat others how you want to be treated.” This reciprocal relationship is critical in networking. It is very natural to think about how others can help you, but if you want to be helped, first think about how you can help them.
As a student, how can you help others, especially in front of professionals much more experienced than you are? I was quite baffled by that question early on in my college career. Then, I realized that if I put myself in other people’s shoes to understand what they are trying to accomplish, I can usually find ways to help by connecting the dots of what/whom I know, and what they may need help with. To make this point more concrete, I’ll list a few examples of ways I helped someone by leveraging outside resources:
- Some companies’ recruiters were hoping to hire more students from my school, so I helped them to coordinate and organize information sessions on campus through my student organization.
- An Alumni Association’s president-elect was trying to better connect with alumni living overseas, so I set up a meeting between the Association and the university’s Office of International Affairs to discuss outreach strategies.
- A Philadelphia City Council member was doing a voter registration drive, so I helped him to find more volunteers by reaching out to my peers at Temple University.
- Many of my peers were having a hard time finding internships/jobs, so I started a student organization that can continuously bring in resources to help them with professional development and job hunting.
I’m a strong believer that our value in this society is measured by the values we can provide to others. The bonus of helping others is that it feels satisfying and fulfilling deep down inside.
The combination of helping and being helped is the essence of networking. It will help you to go far.
I have not yet directly addressed the No. 1 concern of all actuarial students—how to land an internship/job? First, the SOA has published many excellent articles on this topic. Second, like I said at the beginning, we cannot control the end result—we can only control the process and become a “success magnet.” If you are continuously investing in yourself to develop both hard and soft skills, you will attract internship/job offers. (A testimony: I attracted four competitive internship offers when I was a sophomore.)
This article touches a lot on accomplishing things in life, and it may give you a perception that life is a race, and it’s all about getting ahead. It’s not. There is so much more in life worth celebrating, and your career as an actuary should be a part of a bigger life mission—the why behind your life. At the end of the day, professional accomplishments are only bonuses of a fulfilled life, and what truly matters is the person you have become through the process, and the lives of people you have touched.
To make this article as concise as possible, I’m not going deep on every single topic such as time management or actuarial exam preparation, but as long as you “Stay hungry and stay foolish,” and keep investing in yourself by reading and learning from others, you will become a success magnet in no time.
I wish you a rewarding and fulfilling actuarial journey!
Zilong (Z) Zhao | Summer 2016 | Philadelphia, PA
Zilong (Z) Zhao is an actuarial senior analyst at Cigna, and he is very passionate about health and wellness. Outside work, he is the National Director of Collegiate Relations at National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP), where he oversees the growth and sustainable success of collegiate NAAAP chapters across the U.S. and Canada. If you have questions or if you’re interested in starting a collegiate NAAAP organization, he can be reached atwww.linkedin.com/in/ZilongZhao.
For readers with a busy schedule, read the summary below to determine whether to spend the time to read this article later:
Models for Leveraging College (MLC) —Three Steps to Build a Rewarding Actuarial Career:
Step 1: Know your “why” and personal definition of success.
- “Success is something you attract by the person you become.” — Jim Rohn
- Become a “success magnet” by continuous self-investment in hard and soft skills.
Step 2: Master your craft—hard skills
- Actuarial skills: use SMART goals to prepare for SOA exams and treat the process as a character-building process.
- Programming skills: learn basic coding to be better at data analytics.
- General business knowledge: stay current with the business world and see the big picture of actuarial work.
Step 3: Build your soft skills—business is people
- Communications: take public speaking and business writing classes, and practice public speaking in Toastmasters.
- Leadership: read about leadership and put theories into practice by serving on student organizations/non-profits.
- Networking: begin a mentorship by asking specific and thoughtful questions; understand other people’s needs and find ways to contribute values.