8 Steps to Becoming an Actuary in the U.S. or Canada

by | Apr 14, 2018 | Career Development, Education, Getting Started |

 

If you’re wondering how to become an actuary, and you want to know the exact steps you should take, you’re in the right place!.

In this post I’m going to go through the 8-step process that you’ll need to follow to become a fully qualified actuary in Canada or the United States.

As a quick overview, here are the 8 steps to become an actuary:

Step # 1: Get your degree.

Step # 2: Pass 2 actuarial exams.

Step # 3: Improve your technical skills.

Step # 4: Find an actuarial internship.

Step # 5: Get your first actuarial job.

Step # 6: Attain associateship. (First level actuary)

Step # 7: Attain fellowship. (Certified actuary)

Step # 8: Get promoted to management.

 

Please note that these steps don’t always occur in the exact same order for everyone.  And many of them will be occurring at the same time as others too (overlap).  Throughout the post, I’ll make note of which steps may be all occurring at the same time.

 

How to Become an Actuary in the U.S. or Canada

Becoming an actuary isn’t something that you can do quickly.  There are quite a few steps and it takes a lot of dedication and commitment.  However, it’s completely worth it! The interesting work and high potential salaries make this a dream job for many people.

Here are the steps you need to take in order to become an actuary.

 

Step 1: Get Your Bachelor’s Degree

The first step in becoming an actuary is to get a Bachelor’s degree.  Although this step isn’t technically required in order to become an actuary, it’s highly recommended because an employer is unlikely to hire anyone into an actuarial role without one.

The specific field of study isn’t that important.  It would be helpful to major in something like actuarial science, statistics, business, economics or finance.  If you want to know more about this, you should read this post where I go into tons of detail on the different fields of study that are best for an aspiring actuary and how each option will help in your future actuarial career.

If you’re Bachelor’s degree requirements don’t include courses in calculus, algebra, finance, statistics, economics and computer science then you should take those courses as your electives. This knowledge will be extremely valuable on actuarial exams (more about those later) and in the workplace.

But if you’re a career-changer and didn’t major in one of those fields, that’s OK.  As long as you have a Bachelor’s degree you won’t be held back.  If you’re considering getting your Master’s degree, read this first! I actually recommend you don’t do that if you want to become an actuary.

 

Majoring in Actuarial Science

Should you major in Actuarial Science?  Well, that’s debatable.  There are pros and cons to doing so.

My advice is to get your degree in a field of study that’s more general.  Actuarial science if a very specialized degree so you’re really narrowing down your options by majoring in it.  It’s important to remember that even though you’re interested in a career as an actuary now, that may not be the case forever so you want to keep your options open.

At some point, you may decide that you don’t like actuarial work or maybe the process of becoming an actuary is longer/harder than you expected. So if you have a degree that’s more general (like statistics, business, finance, economics, etc.) you’re allowing more job opportunities for yourself.  An actuarial science degree is not as highly valued outside of the insurance industry because most people don’t know what it entails.

Personally, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Actuarial Science from the University of Waterloo.  I don’t regret majoring in actuarial science because I decided to stick on that path and loved the work.  But when I decided to do that, I never even considered the possibility of not becoming an actuary.  It was a rookie mistake!

Fortunately, as a result of getting an actuarial science degree, I discovered one major benefit of it.  That is that I was able to take specific courses that taught me the concepts that are tested on the first several actuarial exams (more about those later).  This put me in a really good position to pass them because I had been exposed to all the material beforehand.

However, this same benefit could be gained just by using your electives to take actuarial science related courses.  And, generally the study materials available for the exams do a good job of explaining all the concepts.  This post that I wrote goes into lots more detail about what actuarial science is and why I believe you shouldn’t major in it.

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Step 2: Pass Your First 2 Exams

The second step that you’ll need to complete in order to become an actuary is to pass two actuarial exams.  For most people, the first two exams are Exam P and Exam FM which are offered through the Society of Actuaries.  Here’s a post on how to decide which one to write first because the order doesn’t really matter here.

If you’re not sure how actuarial exams work, you should read this super-detailed post that I wrote about them.  It includes everything you could possibly want to know about the exams.  It’s an excellent resource for anyone just starting out.

Anyway, each actuarial exam is a big time commitment.  For most people it takes anywhere from 3-6 months to fully prepare for just one exam.  There are 10 exams in total so you can imagine how much dedication you need to have in order to become a certified actuary.

The pass rate for Exam P and FM is usually between 40% and 50%.  That means that only 40% – 50% of candidates pass each sitting.  They need to earn a grade of about 70% in order to pass.

Most people that decide that they want to be an actuary while they’re still in college or university end up graduating with at least 1 – 2 exams passed.

If you’re planning to become an actuary in Canada, you may be able to qualify for actuarial exam exemptions on some exams, including Exam P and FM.  To do this, you have to pass courses (and get good enough grades) at a college or university with programs that have been accredited by the Canadian Institute of Actuaries (CIA).  I talk more about that here in my post about how actuarial exams work.

The U.S. does not have these kinds of exemptions.

If you’re considering becoming an actuary and think you may write Exam P or FM in the future, be sure to sign up for my Exam P and FM study tips and advice emails here.

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Step 3: Improve Your Technical Skills

Next you’re going to need to work on your technical computer and programming skills.  Like actuarial exams, this is often done while you’re still in school.  Your technical skills will be extremely helpful in getting an internship position and your first actuarial job later on.

One of the most important skills for an aspiring actuary to have is Excel proficiency.  You’ll need to know how to use functions like vlookup, hlookup, and if statements.  Knowing how to filter and sort data, use conditional formatting and pivot tables are more advanced skills that you should know. By the way, this post talks about all the specific skills you’ll need to know in Excel to be proficient in an actuarial position.

You can learn Excel through online courses (like the TIA Technical Skills course), but it’s preferable to get actual on-the-job experience using them too.

Another technical skill that will come in useful as an entry-level actuary is computer programming.  The first coding language that I recommend you learn is VBA which is used to automate tasks in Excel and other Microsoft programs.  Since entry-level actuaries use Excel so much, there will be many opportunities to use this knowledge.  It will save you hours of manual work.

Some other coding languages that would be nice to learn (but aren’t near as important as VBA) are Python and SAS.

Employers will highly value an employee that has these technical skills and you’ll be happy you do too once you start working.  It’s a great way to boost your resume and make you more competitive in the job market.

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Step 4: Get an Actuarial Internship

Ideally, you’ll have at least one actuarial internship (or co-op for any Canadian readers) before you’ve graduated from school.  Finding an actuarial internship can be hard sometimes so there are other related positions that will still be very helpful in your career and on your resume.

Positions in or related to underwriting, data analysis, risk management, or investments would all be high quality internship opportunities for an aspiring actuary.  Most positions in an insurance company would be great too if you’d be improving your understanding of how insurance products work.

To get internship positions you’ll need to pass at least one exam and may have to be flexible (geographically) in where you work. Be open to the opportunities you have, and try not to be too picky.  After all, an actuarial internship will significantly improve your chances of being successful in the actuarial field.

Not only does an actuarial internship help you get experience for your resume but it will also help you determine whether or not you really like actuarial work.  You want to know that early on!

An internship will also help you get your foot in the door to insurance companies that may hire you in the future.  If you can show them that you’re a hard worker and understand the work you’re doing, they’ll be likely to have you back full-time when you’re done school.

Unfortunately, internships tend to go to people that are still in school (although that isn’t always the case).  If you’ve already graduated and/or are a career-changer you still have some options.  You could apply for jobs (rather than internships) that are in the same areas of work that I mentioned above for internships.  These would make a great stepping stone to becoming an actuary.

You could also try finding volunteer openings that may help you get some of the same experience.  Any opportunity you can get to use your analytical skills will improve your resume.

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Step 5: Get Your First Entry-Level Actuarial Position

This is a really exciting time because everything that you’ve worked towards up to this point is finally coming together!  This step is usually done simultaneously with Step 6 which involves passing more exams.

Fortunately, you can start working in an entry-level actuarial position before you’ve passed all your exams.  To get a job in the U.S., usually having 2 – 3 exams passed is sufficient.  If you’re in Canada then 4-5 exams passed is more common for an entry-level actuarial position because the job market is more competitive.

When you’re in your first actuarial position you’re going to start learning so much!  There’s a big learning curve in the first few years.

You’ll really start to realize how fascinating and interesting insurance concepts are. In my first actuarial position, I found that everything I had learned up to that point in exams was helpful but the on-the-job experience really helped me tie it all together.

When you’re working, you’ll want to make sure you’re understanding as much as you possibly can and always asking questions so that you can do high-quality work.  Typically, other actuaries are very nice and are willing to help!

Once you’ve been in your position for several months, you can start adding more value to the company.  You can begin thinking of ways that you can improve processes and you may even be able to contribute valuable information to conversations.  That will make you a really helpful member of the actuarial team and you’ll be recognized for that.

Of course you can do this when you’re at your internship too but there usually isn’t as much opportunity to do that.

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Step 6: Attain Associateship

Associateship is considered the first level of actuary.

An ASA is an Associate of the Society of Actuaries and an ACAS is an Associate of the Casualty Actuarial Society. To obtain one of these designations, you’d have to pass 7 exams (including the 2 that you passed in step 2) and you’ll have to meet a few other, easier, requirements too.

You won’t get both designations. That’s unnecessary.  The one you decide to get will depend on whether you want to be a life/health insurance actuary or a property and casualty insurance actuary.

If you decide to be a property and casualty insurance actuary, then you’ll attain the ACAS credential (through the CAS).  If you decide to be an life/health insurance actuary, then you’ll attain the ASA credential (through the SOA).

Choosing the CAS or SOA route is a big decision.  It will impact the types of jobs you can get, and the exams that you write in the future.  Luckily the first 3 actuarial exams are the same for both societies (Exam P, FM, and IFM).  To find out all the differences between these two societies and how to decide on which route to take you can check out this post where I explain all the details.

You don’t need to make this decision now though.  You’ll need to decide when you write your fourth actuarial exam.

If you’re in Canada, you’re likely going to apply for your ACIA designation too, which is an Associate of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries.  If you meet the requirements to become an ASA or an ACAS than you can become an ACIA pretty easily (you just have to have some work experience and apply to the CIA).

In Canada, we don’t have different actuarial exams than in the U.S.  You’ll write the SOA exams.  Then you can simply get your Canadian ACIA designation too by applying to the CIA.

I should mention here that there are a few other requirements in addition to actuarial exams that you have to meet before you become an associate.  Those are that you need to complete online modules, attend a one-day in-person course, and obtain some VEE credits.

I talk extensively about all those requirements in this post about how long it takes to become ACAS or ASA.  It’s an interesting post that you should definitely check out when you’re done reading this post.  It gives you a 4 year game plan on how to achieve associateship.

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Step 7: Attain Fellowship

Before you can attain fellowship, you’ll have to pass all your exams.  Fellowship means that you’re a fully qualified and certified actuary.

Once you have a full-time job, that’s when you’ll eventually finish your exams.  There are 3 more exams to pass to go from associateship to fellowship. It usually takes 2-4 years to pass those exams and meet the other (easier) requirements.

When you’re employed as an actuary, your employer will probably pay for your study materials and exams, and they’ll give you paid study time.  These are all  benefits of being in the company’s “Actuarial Student Program”.  A good student program is something to look for and ask about when you’re interviewing for jobs.  You’ll want to know what kind of support they offer to their actuarial staff.

In order to attain fellowship, there are a few other requirements you have to meet in addition to the 3 fellowship-level exams that I mentioned.  The specific requirements depend on whether you go the SOA or the CAS route.

Once you’ve completed all the requirements, you’ll either be an FSA (Fellow of the Society of Actuaries) or an FCAS (Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society).  In Canada, you’ll also apply for FCIA (Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries)

After that, you’ll have to start paying annual fees to those societies (SOA, CAS and/or CIA in Canada) to remain a member.  Usually your employer will pay though.

You’ll also have to have to do some continuing education to keep up-to-date on industry standards and everything going on and changing in the industry.

Once you reach this level, you can start to really take advantage of the work-life balance that you hear about in the actuarial career!  Studying for exams and working usually doesn’t lend itself well to “balance”.

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Step 8: Move Up to a Management Position

This stage isn’t a requirement to becoming an fully-qualified actuary, but it is the next stage in your career (if you want it to be). In this stage you start moving up the ranks.  You’re getting higher and higher level positions, higher salary, and more responsibility.  You’ll likely have a small actuarial team reporting to you.

In some smaller companies you may need to be fully qualified (FSA, FCAS, and/or FCIA in Canada) in order to be in a management position.  In bigger companies, management positions are available for actuaries that still aren’t through all their exams yet.  That allows up-and-coming actuaries to gain management experience before being a Fellow.

At this point,  you’ll do less and less of the technical work that you started off doing as an entry-level actuary.  You gain more knowledge and expertise and usually move to more high-level, business planning and thinking.  Your team will do all the technical work for you.

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Readings Mentioned

How Actuarial Exams Work – This is a great post to read if you want an in-depth breakdown of exactly what to expect on actuarial exams.  It tells you ever detail you could possibly want to know.

Why You Shouldn’t Get an M.S. in Actuarial Science – Thinking of getting a Master’s degree in actuarial science?  Read this first!

Best Majors for an Actuary – There are certain fields of study that are better suited for actuarial work.  If you haven’t already got your Bachelor’s degree have a look at this.

What is actuarial science? (Don’t Major in it!) – Actuarial science is a common Bachelor’s degree major that aspiring actuaries pursue.  But actually, I don’t recommend it.  This post will tell you why.

Exam P or FM. Which actuarial exam to write first? – When you’re ready to start step # 2 (pass your first 2 actuarial exams) you should read this first.  It’ll help you decide which exam to write first.  Some people will find one easier than the other.

SOA vs CAS.  What’s the difference? Which should you choose? – This isn’t something that you need to worry about right now, but if you want to know as much as possible about the actuarial career path, this is a great article to read.  The SOA and CAS are two actuarial societies in the U.S.

How long does it take to reach ASA or ACAS? – This will give you a timeline on how to get through Step # 2 (pass your first 2 actuarial exams) to Step # 6 (attain associateship) in just 4 years.

 

Related Topics (Short Answer)

How to become an actuary with a math degree – If you already have a Bachelor’s degree in math then you’ve got a head start.  Your next step is to pass your first actuarial exams.  The steps mentioned above apply even if you got your math degree several years ago.

How to become an actuary without a degree – It will be almost impossible to get an actuarial position without a Bachelor’s degree, so your first step will be to get one.  Anything in math, economics, finance, or statistics would be a great choice.

How to become an actuary after college – If you have a Bachelor’s degree already then you should work on passing your first actuarial exam.  If you don’t, then getting your degree is the first step.

 

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