Len’s Focus: It took me 10,000 Hours to Pass P

Written by Len Asimow, head of the Department of Mathematics at Robert Morris University and founding Director of the Actuarial Science Program, currently designated a Center of Actuarial Excellence by the SOA:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Despite the above title, this is not about a bizarre medical abnormality.  Aspiring actuaries will immediately recognize that the reference is to the professional actuarial exam covering Probability theory.

Just how difficult is it to surmount this first big hurdle on the road to an actuarial career?

The Society of Actuaries archive for the last year (6 sittings – spanning from 11/2012 to 9/2013) indicate there were a total of 18,162 P exams taken, with an overall pass rate of 41.6%.  Keep in mind; this is not a general population exam.  Test-takers constitute a highly selective subgroup of mathematically inclined people willing to bet $200 (now $225) on passing.  Still, almost six out of ten fail.

On the other hand, students can take solace in that as hard as it is to pass, it’s not as hard as it used to be.  In 2007 there were 13,416 P exams taken, with a pass rate of just less than 37%.  In other words, the pass rate has increased by 13% and the number taking P has increased by 35%.  The downside of this is that in absolute numbers, there are a lot more people passing P than there were 6 years ago, making for the most competitive hiring environment for actuarial students that I’ve seen in my 25 years as an actuarial educator.

Okay, so what does it take to pass exam P?  Clearly, a lot of study and practice, but how much? 

The renowned author Malcolm Gladwell published his enormously popular book “Outliers: The Story of Success” (#1 on the NYT best seller list for months) in 2008.  It popularized the so-called 10,000 hour rule.  The key to high achievement in almost any meaningful endeavor is relentless, dedicated and focused practice for an extended period of time.  Gladwell was summarizing the research of Florida State psychology professor Anders Ericsson, who is himself an expert in the field of expert performance.  Ericsson discovered that 10,000 hours seems to be a benchmark for reaching the pinnacle in wide variety of cognitive and/or athletic skills, from say, chess to high-jumping.  For example, practicing 20 hours a week for 10 years (with a 2 week vacation each year) works out to 10,000 hours.  This means unflagging, goal-driven effort leading to ongoing incremental improvements, not just the mindless repetition of the same drills.

Gladwell’s book added fuel to the always hotly contested debate between nature and nurture. The 10,000 hour rule led to gross over-simplifications about the triumph of perseverance over genetics.  In the more extreme formulations Gladwell seemed to be saying that, for example, if I practice basketball skills for 20 hours a week for the next 10 years I can be the first 5’-5”, 85 year-old starting point guard in the NBA.  Obviously, that’s not happening. 

On the other hand though, by the time I sat for my first actuarial exams I had been a mathematics professor with at least 10,000 hours invested in teaching and learning (alas, in that order, to the detriment of my students).  So I passed.  Fortunately you don’t need to become a world champion in probability; you just need to be good enough to earn a 6 or better.  Indeed, if it takes you 10,000 hours to pass P you should be thinking about a different profession (or a better urologist).

Working hard and doing well in the RMU Prob/Stat sequence helps a lot.  In fact, over the last 3 years 28 of the 29 Actuarial Science majors who received A’s (about 50% of all students) in the spring semester of the course passed P within 6 months (97% pass rate).  And, there is still time for the 29th student.  Many of the B students have passed as well.  Moreover, the majority of these students took the Prob/Stat sequence as freshmen.  Coaching Actuaries (the providers of the Adapt online practice exam system) has a similar success record.  Their survey indicates that 84% of users achieving at least level 4 on a 0-10 scale pass Exam P.

As I am fond of saying, it is as simple as ABC:  A is for aptitude, as measured by standardized test scores.  Most students in the program rank at the 85th percentile or above in mathematics.  B is for background, which simply means having the math prerequisites (at least a semester of calculus). The rest of it is C, which stands for character, as measured by discipline and drive (D, if you like).  Aptitude and background are minimal necessary conditions; it’s character that rounds out the equation and creates sufficient conditions for passing actuarial exams.  To paraphrase basketball coach Bob Knight, the key is not the will to pass…everyone has that.  It is the will to prepare to pass that is important.

As to the actual time involved, a long-standing rule of thumb is 100 hours of preparation per exam hour.  Exam P is 3 hours long, so this amounts to 300 hours, a non-trivial commitment, but far less daunting than 10,000 hours.  If we figure six credits of class over an academic year of 30 weeks, then 30 times 2.5 class hours /week amounts to 75 hours of class.  Figure in an additional 5 hours /week on study and homework to bring the total to 225 hours.  Now let’s say an additional 5 weeks of intensive pre-exam preparation at 15 hours per week, which brings the overall total to 300 hours.  Sounds about right.  This amount of effort will serve to level out wide variations in natural aptitude.

As even Gladwell says, “No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent.”  But the capacity for hard work and disciplined practice will close the talent gap.  We see this time and time again, as the most dedicated, hardest working students surpass their more talented but less committed classmates.  Students who possess both extraordinary aptitude and a really strong work ethic – in other words the best and the brightest – are rare, but they are easily recognized and appreciated as our future leaders and the true outliers.