Now a fully qualified actuary, Jason Brett reflects on what worked for him as a student – and what didn’t
I want to preface this piece by saying that it clashes with my usual style of writing. I generally feel that these pages should be insightful rather than personal – this isn’t Instagram, after all. The reason for breaking the rule on this occasion is that I genuinely hope my experiences prove somewhat valuable for other hopeful actuarial students to hear.
It’s been a long, long road to becoming a qualified actuary – far from smooth, and with more obstacles along the way than I could ever have imagined.
I found out that my journey had suddenly reached an abrupt (and to be honest, surprising) end on an arbitrary day in December 2020. I had finally passed my exams and qualified. However, my route to qualification was a learning process in more ways than one.
For my first series of actuarial exams in 2015, I treated them the same way I had treated my university exams: go through the notes, attend tutorials and do practice questions a few weeks beforehand. For me, that was a mistake, but in my hubris I stuck with the same strategy for my second sitting of 2015. One out of four passes in my first year showed me that the exams are far from child’s play, and that simply going through the tried-and-tested motions wasn’t going to cut it.
When attending lectures at university I would sit and copy everything down from the whiteboard, as I found it difficult to pay attention to what the lecturers were saying for long periods of time; after a few hours, my mind would wander. For this reason, I started to question whether tutorials were for me – plainly they were not the best use of my time.
After passing just one in four exams throughout 2015 I decided to abandon tutorials, and found that I passed four out of five in 2016.
A takeaway from this can be that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to learning, and I have many friends and colleagues who have found tutorials very useful. Instead, students should ask themselves: what is the best method of learning for me? What is most effective when it comes to my studying? How and when do I learn best, and how can I apply that to my studies?
Was abandoning tutorials and spending that time studying by myself the whole solution? Absolutely not! There’s a huge amount of content to get through: notes, practice questions, past exam papers and much, much more. The volume of content is so vast that priority order really does matter.
I found that starting with the notes before moving onto practice questions was inefficient. Instead, flipping through a few chapters relatively quickly gave me a feel for what they were about; I would then learn the method for the questions before practising other questions of the same nature.
I combined this with writing out my own acronyms with silly names, and practising them over and over and over again. When it worked, it felt like a light bulb hovered a few inches above my head. The importance of repetition, dull as this may be, cannot be overstated. Even now, the 71-word definition of Value at Risk, more than three years since learning it, refuses to leave my brain.
My journey came with some low points, and I frequently contemplated giving up on the exams altogether. In the end, persistence was absolutely key to me stepping over the finish line, and I could not be more glad to have maintained that forward momentum.
The moral of the story is: make sure you find the studying method that suits you best – and keep going. You can do it.
Jason Brett is student editor