What happens if you fail?

Written by Anton Kobelev of the Actuarial Start UpAnton Kobelev Avatar

“We are sorry, it seems that you did not meet the requirements of this unreasonably hard exam and are not cut out to be an actuary. Try again later… or don’t!”

This is not exactly what you see on the monitor when you’ve failed a test, but it’s for sure the way you read it. And you’ve just answered that silly survey very positively! Yes, the survey they make you take right before they tell you if you’ve passed or not.

Do not fear, my friends. Most of the qualified actuaries, even those in very high places, likely did not pass every exam on their first try. I was once pleasantly surprised when, after failing a test, our CEO told me that he failed one exam twice! It was the best piece of news I could have gotten that day.

It does not really matter how many tries it took you to pass the exam, as long as you pass it. Some hiring managers may ask you whether you passed every single exam on your first try, but they are very understanding of the situations where you did not, as long as you explain why.

So get up, dust yourself off and try again, as they say. Here are a few tips to help you get back on that horse:

Enough Practice

It all depends on the exam you are studying for, but my personal benchmark has been to do one full mock exam every other day. It is very important to simulate the exam room environment as much as you can so you do not get a shock when you are actually there. Use the same earplugs, calculators, pens, pencils, scratch pads and watches as you would on the actual exam.

The day after your mock exam, make sure you mark yourself and review the topics you were deficient on. Depending on how close you are to the exam date and how prepared you feel, feel free to modify the number of mock exams per week. The key here is to ensure that you can do these problems in your sleep.

Enough Memorization

Some exams require you to memorize some material. In my experience, memorizing formulas is best done while practicing problems, but there are still some items that require flash card memorization.

Ensure that you allocate enough time for memorization. It is impossible to remember everything if you just started two weeks before the exam. Allocate at least two months for all of the material and follow a Leitner Flashcard System, which I talk about in this post: http://www.actuarialstartup.com/2013/01/23/n-study-habits-of-highly-effective-actuarial-students/

Understanding the Concepts

Your memory alone will not help you for most of the exams. You need to understand the concepts and not just remember formulas. Exam questions are designed to be tricky and test your understanding, not memory.

A good practice is to solve verbal problems in your head conceptually on your way to work or while doing some chores or working out. For example: “Given Y and Z, if they want me to find X using the J method, there are 3 steps that I need to take: find K and L from Y, find M from K and L, then use Z, K and L to find X”. You don’t need to have a specific numerical example as long as you remember the steps and the reasoning behind your calculations.


Because you did not pass your exam last time, it is likely that you did not sacrifice enough. Watch this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTsMRsR8ABc) for some light-hearted humor about the sacrifices of a typical actuarial student and then go and do exactly what the student in the video did.

Actuarial exams are all about short-term pain for a long-term gain, so have the big picture in mind and keep ploughing on!

Best of luck to you on your next try!