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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

My mistakes

START LATE, TAKE ON A BUSY JOB, have three young
children to distract you at home, and then
apply to take the actuarial exams without
your boss’s permission and with no study
leave or fees paid.
Those are a few of the many mistakes I made when
I set out to study for the actuarial exams. I got some
good advice though:
°ª ‘You’ll find it very hard’ [I did”;
°ª ‘It’s good to attend classes’ [I sometimes managed it”;
°ª ‘Do lots of old exam papers’ [excellent advice”.
At the age of 27, I found myself moving from a hospital
computing project to becoming programming
manager in a Scottish life office. I did not know much
about life assurance or pensions but I could see that
most of the top management were Scotsmen and
most were actuaries. It seemed sensible to qualify as a
Scottish actuary.
I had some great advice and experiences during my
studies and I thought I would share a few with people
who are thinking of, and are, studying.
What sticks most in my memory
°ª Starting my first exam 20 minutes late, because I
underestimated the morning rush-hour problems
in Edinburgh.
°ª Failing my first exam.
°ª All-night study sessions to catch up after a hard
month at work.
°ª Buying a cylindrical slide rule because I was too slow
with log tables (dates me!).
°ª The excellent tutorials I managed to attend.
°ª Working with a friend to share ideas.
°ª Easter weekends swotting at home, with the family
on holiday.
°ª Skiing with the family, the Easter after passing.
°ª Nearly missing the fellowship award ceremony
because I underestimated the evening rush-hour
problems in Edinburgh.
Advice for the new actuarial student
The Magnus Magnusson syndrome
Decide whether you have the four necessary attributes:
numeracy, literacy, wealth, and need.
°ª Are you good at numbers, formulae, and spreadsheets?
°ª Can you explain things in writing clearly, briefly,
and quickly?
°ª Do you have a wealth of quality time and commitment
to finish the job?
°ª Do you have a real need to get through to completion
and to benefit from the learning experience
If so, you have got the Magnus Magnusson syndrome
‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’.
Find a partner for any subject you find difficult.
Exchange answers and discuss approaches. Accept
offers of help I am particularly grateful to Stuart Neil
and Alistair Shaw, and others who helped me a lot.
Family and friends
Don’t give up outside interests, it’s too big a sacrifice.
Do put planning into activities with family and
friends, and into social activities, so you make time
and get better value from your time.
Choose less time-consuming hobbies. Tennis and
squash are quicker than golf. Manage work time effectively,
Manage your approach
Focus early on any difficulties you encounter. I found
it difficult to remember all the facts. A book by Tony
Buzan entitled Use your Head helped me to crack the
Look for the wider view
When you start studying a new practice area, start reading
the trade press. This was a bit of advice given to me
by Maxwell Thornton, subsequently to become Faculty
president. He explained that the examiners who set the
questions will be reading (or writing) the same articles,
so it pays to know what is being discussed.
Take part in discussions and seminars, and find ways
to use the knowledge you are gaining outside your job.
Exam practice
Doing old exam questions, under exam conditions, is
a great way to test yourself. Do it often, mark your own
papers, and then swap with a friend, and mark each
other’s. Check the model answers if you can get them.
If you can swot last minute, take a few days’ holiday
before the exam, get away from distractions, and
spend the time practising under exam conditions.
Retry your old exam papers, and phone people when
you get stuck.
Manage your examination process
A couple of years into working for Scottish Amicable
I took an evening job as chief examiner for information
processing at Scotbec the Scottish Business Education
Council. Setting and marking IT examinations
(while still taking the actuarial exams) was hard work
but very rewarding. My one sadness was that, however