Darryl Boulton picks out some of the common examination pitfalls, and offers tips on maximising the best outcome for students
My first actuarial job was in a large life office with many students sitting exams. To make results day more exciting, I ran a little competition. You had to draw six names out of a hat and the person who collected the most passes was the winner. What got people's attention though was the book I ran on who was going to win the competition.
I needed to assess the chances of each individual passing their exams, which required a reasonable amount of research and judgment. After a couple of days I nervously took a phone call from the chief actuary, fully expecting to be berated for not focusing all my efforts on product development. Happily though he was merely checking the latest odds. Even better, thanks to one chap unexpectedly passing both exams he sat, the winner was a 25/1 outsider no-one had backed. Happy days. But how much luck is involved in passing the exams?
My advice for the later subjects is to go into the exam believing you can score 100%, come out thinking you have scored 75% or more, and you might scrape through with 50% or so, depending on how harshly the exam is marked. What you know is all too often not reflected by what you write.
Preparation is obviously key. You are very much trusting to luck if you prepare insufficiently well and enter the exam hoping a particular topic does not come up.
Did you sit a mock exam? And if so, did you do it under exam conditions? ActEd reports that an astonishingly high proportion of students do not attempt mock exams under timed exam conditions. Mocks are a golden opportunity to expose topics you thought you knew but actually are a little weak on, not to mention a useful way of getting used to the conditions you will face on exam day.
So you prepare well, get to the exam venue in good time, what can go wrong? Well, are you 'exam smart'? Take, for example, the following question: 'Explain why the running yield from property investments tends to be greater than that from equity investments.'
A number of students will begin their answer along the following lines. 'The running yield from property investments tends to be greater than that from equity investments for a number of reasons...' 20 words, score so far - zero! You have merely repeated the question back to the examiner and made a bland comment that reveals nothing of your knowledge. If you do this on every question you waste quite a lot of time. So answer the question directly, don't waste time repeating it.
The marking process
How much luck is involved in the marking process? The honest answer is that it will depend partly on the subject, but there is much less involved than students believe.
Every script is double-blind marked, so independently marked by two actuaries who will have no knowledge of the scores awarded by the other marker. The lead examiner will then do extensive analysis to ensure scores are standardised and that all anomalies are investigated. Third, and sometimes even fourth, marking will be applied to borderline scripts. The later subjects require more judgment from the examiners when awarding marks. They also see a greater bunching of marks. The best candidates will pass, the worst will fail. You may perhaps be unlucky if you are in the middle, but it is clear that the better you prepare, the less luck you will need.
There has been much criticism of CA3 in the pages of this magazine, indeed it has been likened to a lottery. Owing to the very nature of this subject it can produce very different marks from different examiners and perhaps has the largest degree of luck involved in the marking process. However, it is often students' (lack of) preparation that gives them a similar chance of passing as of winning the lottery.
There are some naturals at communication and they pass easily, but too many students do not prepare thoroughly for this exam and can have no complaints at the low pass rate. Marking CA3 will never be an exact science and, yes, some students may be luckier than others. However, the examiners work very hard to provide consistent and fair analysis.
Best of luck to everyone waiting for the all-important pass or fail. However, should results not go your way, then the chances are you will find the reason by looking in the mirror.