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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Facing the music

Jessica Elkin kicks off her first Student column with a look at post‑exam exhilaration and the mountain of resolutions it brings


Student pic

There’s something about the periodic examination structure that makes October and May seem full of exhilarating possibility. All those things you’ll do with your time now that exams are over! You can take up a new hobby, and read more, and go out more, and sleep more, and exercise more. Note the absence of the word ‘or’ in this list; post-exam euphoria is a vast landscape of opportunity, and discrimination is not required. It’s all ‘and’ from here on out.

Something you might naturally consider during this relaxing hiatus is your studying habits. While you shudder retrospectively at the month you have just endured, you may find yourself resolving that things are going to change, that you will change, so that you needn’t go through those last torturous weeks again.

Take two (or ten)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

This time I will be prepared. I will launch myself into study action as soon as my new materials arrive. As the next exams approach, I will relax and go to bed on time every night, with the smugness of someone who knows the material well. I will look on with a knowing sigh and shake of the head at those tearing their hair out with worry. I have learnt my lesson and I will change my ways. This time…

Then you think, well, I surely deserve a break. It’s been a tough old time. I’ll just put the TV on for a bit.

Naturally, the TV remains on, figuratively speaking, for far too long. Why is it so hard to break these patterns of bad behaviour, and what can we do to break them? Now is the time to answer such questions. So turn off the TV. As George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.”


What awful words those are. They conjure up an image of someone wielding a riding crop, like Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull.

Unfortunately, with months stretching ahead before the next exam session, self-discipline is a necessary evil. If you were born without this trait, you’ll need to manufacture it somehow.

That’s where the wonderful people at the Actuarial Education Company (ActEd) come in with their bells and whistles. In particular, I believe the assignment marking invaluable. Assignments can feel like a right pain, with deadlines that never match up to the reading you need to do for tutorials. Yet they provide a structure for study in the form of cut-off dates. Even if you’re not ‘ready’ to do an assignment in terms of your knowledge, just forcing yourself (or being forced) to sit down and do a terrible job will help you to learn the material and, moreover, spur you on with the knowledge of what stage you should have reached.

If this doesn’t suit you, a homemade timetable can help without offering the external pressure of actual deadlines. Timetables can even be used to calm you down closer to exams, as they clearly set out how it is possible to fit in all the learning that needs to be done in the time you have left. Some people – ok, maybe I’m a tiny bit unusual – find this comforting. Just don’t make timetables in lieu of getting your head down and revising.

It’s all about attitude

I don’t know about you, but I find it harder to do anything that feels obligatory, even if I enjoy it. I never even finished Prison Break, even though I got halfway through season four. If I’d had actuarial exams to sit at the time, I might have found myself suddenly addicted. I doubt it, though, as season four was terrible.

When it comes to taking the exams, it can be easy to forget why we’re all here in the first place in favour of concentrating on, say, the hassle and embarrassment of failing, or the riches and glory of passing. But most of us, at least, really enjoy maths, and even have enthusiasm for what we do for a living. We need to harness this enthusiasm to help us to Just Get On With It.

Without wishing to be trite, having the right attitude to our subjects, and not simply to studying itself, can work wonders. As Churchill said: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Take that, Shaw.

Having said all this …

You really do deserve a break. So, go on, watch some TV!