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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

The exam counselling service

TO MY SURPRISE AND FRUSTRATION I failed the generalinsurance exam 303 for the second time in April2002. I thought that I had a good knowledgeand understanding of the course and, because myprogress towards qualification was being held up forreasons I did not understand, I had no idea how todirect my revision. So I decided to make use of the examcounselling service.The service costs £175. Some rough calculations showthat this is extremely good value for money. One has theuse of three hours of an actuary’s time – 90 minutes offace-to-face meeting plus an equal time of preparation –cost: several hundred pounds? The potential value ofthis service to a student is, I believe, around £1,000. Thetypical starting salary for a trainee actuary is about£20,000. A newly qualified earns about £50,000. Thereare 15 exams, and the average time between exam sessionsis six months. So, accelerating the passing of anexam by one session is worth about £1,000. The examcounselling would have to be spectacularly bad torepresent poor value for money.In fact, I found that the counselling service was verygood indeed. I gained valuable insight into exactly whatthe examiners where looking for and, most importantlyfor me, the quantity and detail required to score fullmarks. My counsellor was professional and friendly, andanswered my awkward questions courteously; althoughwe didn’t always fully agree, the discussion was useful,and improved my understanding. Most reassuring forme was confirmation that my overall understanding wasgood, I just needed to work on getting more of therequired points down in the exam.Compensation cultureI would recommend the service to any student who isunsure why they failed. However, I feel that it has tomake up for weaknesses elsewhere in the education andexamination process.In particular, the communication by the examiners tothe students about what is required in the exams couldbe improved. The core reading, for example, is structuredon the actuarial control cycle (ACC); this may bean excellent way to classify already understood material,but I feel that it fails pedagogically.The core reading is too abstract, and difficult to understandwithout experience in the relevant area. The ActEd notes make up for this as best they can, but becausethey are bound by the ACC structure the improvementis limited. I also feel that the exam questions could bemuch clearer about what they are looking for. Forexample, if the examiners require a list of 12 items toscore full marks, then the question should ask for 12items. Students shouldn’t have to indulge, like latter-dayKremlinologists, in inferential studies of past exams andexaminers’ reports.The examiners’ reports claim to be written ‘with theaim of helping candidates’. I doubt, however, that I amthe only student who finds the supercilious tone of thereports as unhelpful as it is patronising. This tone isentirely unnecessary as, without exception, all thoseconnected with the exams whom I have dealt with havebeen friendly and helpful; it is a real pity that this attitudedoes not come across in the examiners’ reports.Aiming higherThese are just a few problems. If the professionaddressed these and brought the whole education andexamination service up to the same standard as thecounselling, student actuaries would enjoy an excellentservice and, I am sure, a much higher success rate.Robert Scarth works for Swiss Re in Zurich