For most people, it takes between 7 and 10 years to become a fully qualified actuary. Aspiring actuaries in Canada and the U.S. typically spend between 3 and 5 years getting a bachelor’s degree and about 7-8 years passing all ten actuarial exams. Actuarial exams can be written before a bachelor’s degree is completed so there’s usually some overlap in these two time frames.
In this post, I’ll dig deeper into the exam process and schooling in order to help you get a better idea of the time commitment.
Getting Your Bachelor’s Degree
In order to be an actuary, having a college or university degree isn’t a requirement, but you’re unlikely to get far in the career without one. That being said, the type of degree that you get isn’t very important. Some people decide to get their bachelor’s degree in actuarial science, whereas others choose different majors such as computer science, biology, or finance.
To learn more about which majors would best serve you as an aspiring actuary, read this post.
No matter what the discipline, the education requirements for an actuary typically take somewhere between 3 and 5 years. This will vary greatly depending on the exact major and the particular college or university.
Some schools, like the University of Waterloo which is very well known for it’s actuarial science program, have a co-op program that some actuarial students get accepted to. Having co-op (aka internship) experience during school is very helpful for getting a job afterward, but it typically increases the amount of time a student is in school.
When I went to University of Waterloo, the actuarial co-op program was a 5-year program but I graduated with 2 full years of work experience (2/3 of it was actuarial related).
In order to become an actuary there is a series of 10 professional examinations that you need to pass in order to become fully qualified. It you’d like a breakdown of the entire exam system, read this post about how actuarial exams work. It goes into much more detail than I will here.
The exams are known to be very difficult and they take hundreds of hours to study for each one. The failure rates for many of the exams are somewhere between 40% and 60%. It’s very rare for anyone to make it through all the exams without failing at least a couple times.
The difficulty of these exams, along with the fact that many of the later ones are only available to write twice per year makes it difficult to speed through them.
Fortunately, you can work as an actuary while you’re still writing exams. But while it is great to be able to work before you’re finished exams, the one downside is that working and studying at the same time is very difficult.
This is another reason that many people can’t speed through actuarial exams. They have to balance work, studying and family. It’s hard to do! So I recommend planning on studying for at least 14 weeks before you plan to write exam.
Working While Writing Exams
As I mentioned, the fortunate thing is that you don’t have to be a fully qualified actuary in order to start working as an actuary. That means you don’t need to wait 7 to 10 years in order to start getting paid!
Entry-level actuaries typically have just 2-3 exams passed when they get their first job in the field. As an entry-level actuary, the work is much more technical than later on in the career when actuaries need to make important business decisions, determine methodologies, and guide their team on different projects.
But, it’s still important for an actuary to have time to develop and become accustom to how insurance works in the real world. Exams don’t teach you that.
It would be extremely difficult, and risky, to allow a fully qualified actuary into a management position without any prior experience. You need to learn from the group up, and working while writing exams allows for that to happen.
If you’re interested in learning what an entry-level valuation actuary does, read this day-in-the-life post that talks about my first 3 years of working as an actuary full-time.
What Happens if You Don’t Finish?
There are several reasons that someone may decide not to finish writing all the actuarial exams. It could be that they no longer have the time to dedicate to them, they don’t like actuarial work anymore and are considering different positions, or they may just become tired and bored of the whole process.
Many actuarial employers require that their actuaries continue writing exams until they’re fully qualified.
Levels of Actuaries
Before getting into the details here, it’s important to understand the different levels of actuaries. The first level is an Associate. To reach this first milestone it requires passing 7 actuarial exams (called the preliminary exams) and meeting a few other, much easier, requirements.
Once obtaining that, the next level is a Fellow. A Fellow is a fully qualified actuary. In order to go from an Associate to a Fellow there are 3 additional exams to pass (on top of the first 7) plus a few other requirements. These exams are called the fellowship exams.
Consequences of Quitting
If someone decides to stop writing exams once they’ve already attained the Associate level, then they’ll probably be able to continue working as an actuary. Usually these types of people are referred to as “career associates” because they don’t plan to ever obtain fellowship.
Anyone that decides to quit writing actuarial exams before they’ve obtained the Associate level will likely not be able to continue working in an actuarial role. The only exception would be if their employer at the time was OK with this, and allowed them to keep their job as an actuary.
If that were the case, that person would likely have to stay at that company for the rest of their career if they wanted to continue working as an actuary, because another actuarial employer would be unlikely to hire someone that wrote some exams but has decided not to write any more.
Shortening the Exam Process
Shortening the whole exam process has tons of benefits. It means there’s a increased likelihood that you’ll actually get through all the exams and not end up in a situation as described above. It also means that your salary will increase faster (and start higher if you have more exams passed) and you can sooner be done with the stress that is often associated with writing actuarial exams. You’ll also be in a better position to move up in the company.
Like I mentioned above, the failure rates for many of the actuarial exams are between 40% and 60%. These failure rates include people that are writing their exam for the second, third, forth, etc. time. You’d expect those people to being the failure rates down since they’re more experienced and have had longer to study.
So, that means that the percentage of people passing the very first time they write any actuarial exam is very low.
Why Exam Candidates Fail
It’s not that actuarial exam candidates aren’t smart enough. They’re actually very smart people! But the problem is that they often don’t know how to properly prepare for actuarial exams and that they don’t dedicate enough time to studying. Both are completely understandable.
Actuarial exams are much different than any other exam that they’ve ever written. And since the study period is so long it’s easy to procrastinate on studying, or let it get pushed to the side when life gets too busy or you’re too tired.
How to Prevent Failure and Get Through Exams Faster
One of the best ways to prevent this from happening to you is to join the Study Strategy Program where you’ll get step-by-step personalized guidance (from me) throughout your entire study period for your first exam. You’ll learn how to study for the exam efficiently so you’re not wasting time on things you don’t need to do, and you’ll exponentially increase your changes of passing the first time.
Not only that, but you also have accountability through regular check-ins that assures you don’t let studying fall to the back-burner.
Learning the correct way to study for actuarial exams from the beginning is a great way to shave 1-2 years off of the exam process. You essentially skip past the trial-and-error process that most people go through. It’s definitely worth considering if you do decide you want to write actuarial exams.
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