Don’t Get Mad – Get Even: Exam Memories

By Chris Fievoli, FCIA

As I look at the new education pathways that have been introduced by the CIA, it becomes obvious to me how much the system has evolved since the days when I was writing exams. We now have online modules, in-person events, recognition of university education and opportunities for remote exam administration. This is a far cry from what I was used to, which was basically study for the exam, write the exam, wait for the results, hope you got a six or better on the ten-point grading scale, and then repeat – a new exam if you passed, the same one if you didn’t. Again and again, until you were done.

I’m sure that most actuaries, as they went through this process, had one exam that proved to be their nemesis (and if you’re a student now, just wait for it). You know what I mean – the one that you had to attempt multiple times before you passed or the one that you were certain you had killed, only to find out you got a four. For me, it was one exam that somehow found multiple ways to haunt me, but this story is not just one of vindication. It’s even better than that – it’s a story of revenge.

I started writing actuarial exams just as the Society of Actuaries was introducing the Flexible Education System (FES). In short, what FES did was replace a small number of large exams with a large number of small exams, ranging in duration from one to four hours. Once you attained your Associateship, you needed to complete 25 hours worth of exams to get to Fellowship. Some of these exams were mandatory for your chosen track, and the rest were electives.

There were some good things about this system, in that you could somewhat tailor the exams you took, and the speed at which you wrote them. On the downside, especially with the smaller exams, you had to know the material in much greater depth – unlike when it was buried within a larger exam, where you could maybe skate by and be propped up by strong performance on another section. There was no place to hide.

When I started writing Fellowship exams, I was constantly reminded that they were “different.” Yes, I knew that they were written answer as opposed to multiple choice, but I had made it this far, so they couldn’t be that dissimilar, could they? (I have since learned there is a term for this – hubris.) So, for my first session, I decided to sign up for five hours’ worth of exams. One of them was Exam 220, a mandatory exam clocking in at three hours, covering asset-liability management topics. In addition to that, I chose I342C, an hour-long exam that dealt with law and taxation, and for my final elective choice, I went with I542 – also one hour – which seemed interesting as it covered insurance underwriting.

“I quickly learned that ‘seems interesting’ was a terrible criterion by which to choose an exam.”

When I received the material, I immediately realized that this was not a pleasant stroll through the underwriting process, but rather a detailed dive into what felt like every horrible medical condition known to science. It included a whole litany of diseases, most of which I had never heard of, and several of which I couldn’t even pronounce. Perhaps this would be enjoyable for someone who had completed a medical degree; for a budding actuary it was a titanic struggle to get through, let alone understand.

My memories of preparing for these exams are somewhat foggy, for reasons I wouldn’t understand until much later. In any case, I managed to slog through the material, write the exams and then put everything completely out of my mind for the two months it would take to get my results. Even though I wasn’t expecting to see stellar marks, I was optimistic that I had done well enough to move on.

That illusion was shattered when I received my results. For 220 and I342C, I received a five, which was the worst mark possible in my eyes, since it meant that had I studied an extra week (or day?), I might have been able to pass.

But for I542, the results were even worse. I landed on a three, which essentially said, “you managed to cobble together a few thoughts that somewhat made sense, but otherwise you were nowhere near what we wanted.” That three represents the lowest mark I ever received on an actuarial exam, before or since. I now understand why I don’t remember much about the study process leading up to these exams – I clearly didn’t do enough of it.

The conventional wisdom at the time was that you didn’t abandon a failed exam – given that you had invested a fair amount of time already, it was more efficient to build upon that and try again. It turns out there is also a term for this – the sunk cost fallacy. I had no intention of ever revisiting that underwriting material. I was quite content to send it down the memory hole, pick some other elective exam and start from scratch again.

However, even though I was done with I542, it apparently wasn’t done with me. A short time later, my employer hired some first-year co-op students. One of the courses they could take while at school dealt with my new “favourite” subject, insurance underwriting. Some of them took that course and then decided that they could write the corresponding actuarial exam, since they hadn’t yet taken theory of interest, life contingencies or any of the traditional subjects with which one normally starts the exam process. And since the material was still fresh in their minds, they actually passed. This was adding insult to injury. I wasn’t pleased about being shown up by students who were barely out of high school. I542 had found a new way to humiliate me.

I eventually did complete all my exam requirements, and immediately joined an examination committee. (The fact that their grading meetings were held in sunny Florida during December played no role in that decision, of course.) I soon discovered that I really enjoyed being involved with the exam system, and after a few years of not saying “no” often enough, I was asked to serve as a general officer (GO) for the finance and investment exams.

The first GO meeting I attended was in St. Petersburg (Florida again, surprisingly), and much to my amazement, Exam I542 reared its ugly head again. This time, however, the circumstances were different. At the meeting, there was a motion on the agenda to no longer offer it as an elective exam.

You can imagine how I voted. I may have done so with both hands. In any case, Exam I542 was now dead, and I was one of the people responsible for its demise. It felt good.

“So, what did I learn from this whole experience? In a strange way, it once again pointed to the value of volunteering for the profession. If there’s something you would like to see changed, don’t just sit and complain about it – get involved, bring your ideas to the table, and maybe you can make that change happen.”

Would I advise volunteering as a means to take revenge against an exam that particularly vexed you? No, I wouldn’t – but I have to admit, it’s nice when the opportunity presents itself.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and does not represent an official statement of the CIA.

1 comment

  • I remember studying for that underwriting exam as well. For me it was a mandatory part of a five hour multi-topic exam. I recall self diagnosing myself with about a dozen dread diseases during that time. Fortunately, I then displayed the traditional male tendency to avoid checking with a doctor.

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