The importance (or not?) of actuarial exams

Erik Wenzel posed a provocative question on his LinkedIn stream.

I began my reply there, but the character limit foiled me.

Erik asks:

“Thought experiment– what if there were no more actuarial exams?”

He gives a starting set of pros and cons, many of which are interesting. That, and the comments on his post, left me a little confused as to what was actually being proposed.

Here are my thoughts.

Actuarial exams are predictive of later success

Although there are obviously exceptions, I’ve found performance in actuarial exams to be a strong predictor of the quality of work and later career success. No system is perfect, but discarding a system that works because it has some false negatives requires more evidence on the extent of false negatives vs true positives.

I recall one of the reasons employers hire PhDs is because it proves a level of commitment and determination and focus and work ethic and (also) smarts. So too with a tough set of actuarial exams.

The exams don’t test every relevant capability that we might want from an actuary – there are a range of other requirements to become an actuary which address at least some of these.

The proposal was for removing exams, but…

Removing the exams because “some students aren’t good at taking tests” is a very different point from removing the underlying course material or the need to study and understand them.  The actual time taken for the exam is negligible.

If the idea is to not bother understanding the material at an in-depth level, then I have additional concerns. But that wasn’t what was actually proposed.

The solution to “some people being bad at taking tests” is not to scrap all the study material. The solution to the problem of “the study material isn’t keeping up with demands” isn’t to scrap exams.

The material underlying the exams should not be dismissed just because it isn’t all about machine learning and CRISPR. A critical challenge in not being forced to have depth of knowledge on areas, even if the details become hazy over time, is the understanding of the boundaries of one’s knowledge and the extent to which the problems encountered already have possible solutions. There is a world of difference in understanding material at a level to pass an exam and what can be gleaned from reading an article or skimming a book.

Removal of exams doesn’t automatically create an appropriate alternative

How would an actuary know when to ask for help? Are we really sure the extent of mentoring in the actuarial profession is good enough for everyone? Better informed actuaries will better be able to critically evaluate the guidance they receive.

Should the exams actually be harder?

Incidentally, I’m generally more concerned about false positives.  I’d be happy to see regularly updated exam materials that are broader and more complex and, yes, harder than current materials.

Improving actuarial education

Actuarial education has not been stagnant. Should we strive for faster change and better improvements? Should we focus more on the use of technology enablement and add additional short courses on cutting edge topics? Should the profession better understand what is predictive of later success, self-reported or otherwise?


Published by David Kirk

The opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and other commenters and are not necessarily those of his employer or any other organisation. David Kirk runs Milliman’s actuarial consulting practice in Africa. He is an actuary and is the creator of New Business Margin on Revenue. He specialises in risk and capital management, regulatory change and insurance strategy . He also has extensive experience in embedded value reporting, insurance-related IFRS and share option valuation.

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