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What Makes a Good Actuarial Student

To discuss what makes a good actuarial student and to gain an insight into how to best develop their careers, Claydon Peaker and Jack Miller sat down with Gary Heslop.  Gary has overall responsibility for recruitment and ongoing development of actuarial staff at APR. From his extensive experience in guiding graduates to becoming proficient actuaries, Gary has a good foundation to give his opinion on the key traits of a good student.

Throughout the conversation with Gary, several key themes emerged as to what differentiates a good actuarial student from their peers, and we asked him to give examples specific to actuarial work wherever possible.

“Attention to detail is key…”

While commercial nous and wider skills are increasingly in focus, there’s no getting away from the fact that many elements of actuarial work require precision.  Gary’s experience is that much as it’s nice to think as managers we can coach and refine key behaviours, to a large extent attention to detail tends to be something individuals either have or don’t.

As a relevant example,  when building or reviewing a model to a technical specification, the good student takes steps to ensure they capture all features in the spec, and discloses interpretations made or limitations of their model to the manager.

When assessing candidates for roles at APR, attention to detail is tested by using a modified policyholder letter that contains a range of different errors including simple typos. We find this gives a powerful insight into the student’s attention to detail.

“… but always maintain a big picture approach”

Actuarial models can be complex and sometimes unwieldy.  Gary believes the best students are those than can maintain a ‘top-down’ view of models or work they’re involved in even when the detail becomes complex.  For other processes, seeking an understanding of how your work fits into the bigger picture allows you to do that task better and make better decisions.

For example, your manager asks you about a model you’ve been working on for the past month – “What’s the impact on key output A if I change key input B?”.  Gary would expect a good student to have a deep enough understanding of the model to reason both for the direction of movement in A and approximate magnitude.

Alternatively, your manager scans an analysis you’ve worked on and immediately says “This can’t be right, I expected to this answer to be in region of £5m and your result is £50,000.  Please take another look and rework”.  Perhaps it’s an issue around units or not scaling by policy numbers; either way a relatively easy fix.  But by not taking a few minutes to step back from your work before delivering it, and performing a sense check via a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Gary’s view is you may undermine confidence in your ability to make sound judgements in areas of commercial significance.

When we assess candidates for roles at APR, we’ve found questions like “Estimate the number of MacDonalds restaurants in the US” are excellent for assessing candidates’ sense for numbers and ability to logically frame their thinking.

“Adopt a manager’s perspective”

Think about how the work you submit/deliver will need to be actioned by your manager.  Gary sees this as another important differentiator and that the best students will give thought to the likely questions the manager or reviewer will have in their mind. Questions to consider before handing over work might then include:

In addition to improving the student’s output, there’s an increased chance that by taking this empathetic view, you’ll be viewed as a good candidate for developing into a future manager.

“Instil confidence in your manager”

Most managers Gary comes across are keen to give responsibility to more junior staff but first need to feel the student is able to take that on – so how do you give this confidence?

Proactive work updates to managers are a prime example e.g. a weekly email informing managers of the various tasks the student has on and a brief progress update on each.  I’ve yet to find a manager who doesn’t value such communication – it has various benefits; for example, informing the manager that a low priority task that has been set has not been started but crucially has not been forgotten.   If the manager disagrees with your prioritisation, they then have the information to discuss with you.

Other errors Gary sees that can undermine confidence are allowing work deadlines to pass without comment, and not appearing to learn from previous feedback given.  What may seem like minor points like not taking in a pen and paper into discussions with managers(!) can also contribute to a sense that a student is not organised or on top of their workload.

“Developing models”

Coding and modelling is a core element of many actuarial students’ work to the extent that guidance to students in this area could easily fill another article.

But Gary believes a good starting point for junior students whose work is almost certainly subject to sign-off would be well placed to have the mantra “Better for my model to be wrong and easily reviewable rather than correct but opaque.”

Understanding of the importance of version history, and displaying good model design and high-quality documentation can have a disproportionately positive aspects on the impression of your work for relatively little outlay. Conversely a common pitfall Gary identified in modelling is insufficient testing.

“Verbal communication – engage with others”

Technical strengths in some students can be let down somewhat by insufficient emphasis on wider skills and less focus on developing these skills which post-qualification, will ultimately be those of most value in determining how your career will develop from there.  One example is verbal communication.

The students that Gary has managed who have gone on to take very senior responsibilities are commonly those that stand out for reasons well  beyond the technical; they fully engage in discussions with colleagues, have an intellectual curiosity and are prepared to ask interesting, challenging questions; this allows them to develop mutually beneficial work relationships.

When dealing with senior stakeholders or subject matter experts, being well prepared for discussions or meetings is especially important, as is being succinct and credible with questioning.  Such encounters will again hold additional emphasis in the perception of these senior stakeholders.

To conclude

Our discussion with Gary was illuminating and provided is with plenty of take-aways for our own development.  Two key ones were:

  1. Be mindful of our strengths and weaknesses, asking colleagues and peers for feedback as their views may not mirror yours.  By identifying what we are good at, we can nurture those qualities and being aware of our shortcomings is the first step to addressing them.  While conventional wisdom may be to focus on improving areas of weakness, ultimately you’re likely to focus in areas of work where you are stronger so there may be a fair argument for instead applying greater focus to your strengths and increasing your expertise there.
  1. Take all opportunities available to broaden your experience and technical exposure as a student, and to continue development of both technical and key wider skills. It can sometimes become more difficult to continue to gain a larger breadth of experience post-qualification so the early years are important in shaping your longer-term career.
Claydon Peaker & Jack Miller

January 2020

Claydon PeakerJack Miller