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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Subject 201 – Communications

The 201 examiners are concerned about the current level of pass rates in the 201 examination. The April 2003 examination had a choice between two questions but candidates had to answer only one of them. The hope is to reduce the sense of lottery that some students felt with only one topic in the past.

201 scripts are marked to a carefully constructed marking schedule to ensure that all scripts are marked as objectively as possible. Each script is double-marked and those which fall into a borderline category are further assessed by the senior examiners.

Unfortunately, when considering scripts at or close to the borderline between pass and fail, there are a lot of scripts that lose marks because relatively basic principles have been ignored. A lot of the time, the issues may seem to be no more than common sense, but perhaps common sense isn’t as common in the examination room as it is elsewhere. Anyway, here are a few ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ that the examiners feel might help many candidates improve their scripts.


  • Think about the recipient. What have they asked? What needs to be explained?
  • Identify the key ideas that you are being asked to communicate.
  • Use appropriate language and format – not many aunts want formal business reports – few business colleagues expect chatty letters.
  • Read the notes in the question – they usually give guidelines as to what is expected – and what is not.
  • Keep it simple – as far as you can. Even (perhaps especially) when concepts are not simple, write clearly.
  • Use an introduction to set the scene.
  • Use a simple example to illustrate a point.
  • Check your spelling and punctuation.
  • Use headings and paragraphs to arrange ideas into logical groups.
  • Put in a summary (to summarise your main points) or a conclusion (to highlight your key findings).


  • Put in everything you can think of. It is very easy to obscure the key ideas.
  • Confuse simplicity with clarity. The latter is a necessity, the former merely desirable.
  • Use jargon. Even quite innocuous words can become jargon when used in a specialised or technical sense.
  • Use a summary or a conclusion to repeat everything that’s already been written.
  • Write long rambling or convoluted sentences.
  • Get bogged down in detailed figures or, which is often worse, formulae.
  • Feel that you have to start a new paragraph whenever you begin a new sentence.
  • Be condescending.
  • Just repeat what’s in the question.
  • Ignore the suggested word count – if your answer is much longer or shorter than expected, you’ve probably included too much detail or repeated yourself – or oversimplified the position.

The other key message to all students is that you will need to prepare for this paper. Formal tuition is one approach but another is to practise past questions and ask other people to look at your answers rather than trying to mark them yourselves.