Is the actuary field for you?

Written by Jeff:

I’m 30-something and the majority of my career has been spent in education, teaching mathematics to all ages and skill levels. Recently someone asked me, “If you like math so much why aren’t you an actuary?” My honest reply was that I wasn’t sure.


Now to most of the public, it is safe to say that actuaries are totally unknown or maybe their perceived as some kind of strange accountant, or maybe they study bugs or dead birds. Sounds boring, right? Wrong. These are all incorrect explanations, adding mystery to this intriguing field of endeavor. The actuarial field is really all about analyzing risk, about understanding how the world works, about using mathematics to help businesses, governments and organizations navigate the uncertainty that is life. This is a field where, believe it or not, creativity is critical. A field where in larger part than most other jobs, you can determine how quickly you want to advance and how much money you want to make.

When you stop and think about it, what other profession offers such a straightforward path? It’s also consistently and independently ranked as the top profession in America… no small fact. So of course at this point you are probably thinking that there has to be a catch! The catch is you must pass exams to progress in the field, and these are not your run-of-the-mill exams. These exams are really, really tough. These are the types of exams where it is dangerous to assume that just because you earned top grades in a math program, you are somehow guaranteed instant success. It’s like the old adage, “If it was really so easy, everyone would do it.” Indeed, these exams are a different animal altogether, requiring the ability to synthesize mathematical concepts in repeatedly novel ways. In some sense, no 2 questions are ever alike on an actuarial exam. It is this uniqueness factor that makes the actuarial field so simultaneously challenging and interesting. The world, after all, is a complicated place, and it should be no big surprise that the mathematics in turn would need to reflect the varied nature of life.

So you have read this far, and you are still interested in pursuing this career path. Now what is the next step? Well, simply prove to yourself and the world that you have the skills, knowledge, and determination necessary to cut it as an actuary, and that, as we said before, requires passing exams. Interestingly, there is no mandatory path as to the order in which you take exams, but all roads will lead you back to Probability. More commonly referred to as P or P/1, it has the lowest passing rate of any actuary exam, and it really serves to ensure that only those individuals who are really dedicated to working in this profession make it through. At first glance, it is a beguilingly simple exam, but make no mistake, its purpose is to “separate the wheat from the chaff”. In fact, a fair proportion (est. 15%) of those attempts register a score of 0 on the 1-10 scale. Just ponder the number of people entering other high-paying professions like the legal and medical fields, and by gosh, the small number of passing actuary scores demonstrate that actuaries are truly in an elite class unto themselves.

So how can you, the aspiring actuary be successful? Or for the purpose of this article, what advice can I offer to guide you through that first exam? Naturally, as individuals we all possess different strengths and weaknesses; it is what makes the world go round, after all. There are overlapping qualities that every aspiring actuary really needs to have to ensure they are successful. In probability, we call these overlapping qualities the “intersection”. So what comprises the intersection?

1. First, and foremost, you should love doing math. At the heart of this work is computation and calculation, and the thoughts of numbers should excite you, not make you cringe with fear.

2. A steely will, a resolute spirit, an ability to get back up when you get knocked down. The density of the material can, at times, almost tease you to throw in the towel. The great statesman Winston Churchill summed up this crucial quality of determination saying, “Never, never, never give up.” I would edit his wise words just a tad to say, Never, never, never, never, never, never give up.

3. Humility. If your ego cannot handle getting it wrong for a while before you get it right, or if telling your loved ones that you failed an exam sends a shiver down your spine, then this is probably not the job for you.

4. Calm under pressure. At the end of the day, it is just you, your pencil and paper, and what’s between your ears. If you cannot learn to calmly take exams, you will be permanently stuck in the mud.

If you can follow these intersection principles, you can do it!

So, the next time someone asks you what math has to do with “acting”, just give them a big grin and say in your best Jack Nicholson impression, “Everything!”

Jeff enjoys writing about mathematics, and is happy to report that his p scores can be represented by the inequality: 5 < adapt < actual.