How Not to Outrun a Bear

I had a conversation on Facebook last week (as you do), and I thought it worthy of elaboration and posterity. It has to do with Actuarial exams, which everyone knows are harder than diamonds, and more difficult to pass than kidney stones.

The best way of illustrating this is to point out the feedback mechanism. The results slip you get in the post about 10 weeks after the exam doesn’t tell you how well you did – it lets you know how well you didn’t do. If you’re in the lucky 25% that passes, you just get a simple “PASS”. If you fail, however, they take great delight in letting you know how badly you failed, in order to make it clear how much harder you need to try next time round.

A “Fail A”, or FA, indicates that you missed the mark by less than 5%. FB is from 5 – 15%, FC is 15 – 25%, while FD means that you’re more than 25% below the pass mark. I managed an FD once – and I’m rather proud of it. There aren’t too many qualified actuaries who have one (or who admit to having one). I’m rather upset that I didn’t keep the paper with it on, which also had wording to the effect that getting an FD is a pretty good indication that an immediate reorientation in career choice is highly advisable. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances – it was an exam I didn’t have the choice of writing (in those days, Communication had to be taken together with the Fellowship Specialist exam the first time it was written), and I knew I didn’t really have a chance with the Fellowship. Especially when 50% of the paper (there were only two questions) dealt with some legal issue in the UK market (which I’d skimmed over in my preparation). So I saw the FD as a small token of defiance against the stiff-upper-lip, somewhat toffy Institute of Actuaries. A sort of “You think you can make me feel like a loser – but I’m proud of being able to lose as excellently as this”.

And so, when someone suggested this week that repeated FCs were just as bad as an FD, I knew I had to stand up for the honour of the FD. Because they’re completely different. An FC says that you just didn’t have a clue. An FD says that not only didn’t you have a clue, but you don’t really care about clues too much – you’re too busy being awesome at the time. To explain further, I’ll use a simple analogy:

Imagine you’re in a forest, and you come up against a large, ferocious bear (the actuarial examiner). It sees you, and for whatever reason, charges towards you. To survive, you’re going to have to outrun it, outsmart it, or scare it away. It doesn’t really matter which method you employ – you’re alive to tell the tale, and that’s what counts.

An FA is if you manage somehow to keep the bear at bay long enough to enable you to back away to a tree, climb out of reach of the bear, and then slowly bleed to death from a cut sustained near the top of the tree. You did everything right, but didn’t quite make it.

An FB is if you make a run for it to a tree, but the bear catches you before you manage to climb high enough to be out of reach.

An FC is where you turn and run, but slip in the mud before you’ve got more than a few feet away.

But an FD is where you nonchalantly turn around and moon the bear in a final, audacious act of defiance.


Disclaimer: while one FD in an actuarial career is something worth having, it’s the uniqueness that has appeal. It has to be an outlier, or it doesn’t count. If you moon a bear every time you go for a walk in a forest, it’s probably an indication that hiking is not your thing.

Note: If you ended up at this page looking for advice on how to escape from a bear, please forget everything you read above, and try this page instead.

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