In this page, you will find my personal advice for selecting a certification that is appropriate for your career plans – and for maximizing your chances to pass professional exams. The focus will clearly be on SOA exams, but I will discuss other exams such as those administered by the CAS, GARP or CFA Institute.

Which certification is best for you ?

Not yet sure on which journey to embark? Here are a few suggestions.

If you like mathematics and are sure that you want to become an actuary and work for an insurance company, then you already know that you have to take or continue taking actuarial exams. From which society? If you are interested in life insurance, risk management, the frontiers of finance and insurance, pension funds, health insurance, then you should take the exams of the Society of Actuaries (SOA). If it is perfectly clear that you want to work in the Property/Casualty (P/C) field, then you should take the exams of the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS). The difficult situation is when you are interested in the P/C field, but you also have broader interests. Then, perhaps it is better to contemplate taking the fellowship exams of the general insurance track of the SOA. See www.soa.org or www.casact.org.

If you are not a big fan of mathematics and you have a minimal background in calculus and if you want to work in corporate finance or to apply non-quantitative or semi-quantitative skills to the financial markets by working for a bank or a fund? Then, you should take the three Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams. The advantage of this certification is that it gives you a very solid and broad knowledge about financial markets, economics, accounting, and other related fields. So many people are taking this certification now that taking the exams seems inevitable. This certification will give you a common culture on which you will be able to build your career. See www.cfainstitute.org.

But, if you like mathematics and you want to work in risk-management for a bank, then, the Financial Risk Manager (FRM) or Professional Risk Manager (PRM) certifications are for you. They are now virtual prerequisites for working in risk management. I will give more details about the FRM certification, because it is the one I took. The FRM exams are very well designed and you can reasonably expect to pass them if you have attended solid quantitative finance classes, in a business school for instance. The FRM exams allow you to build a vision beyond these classes. The curriculum is very up to date. See www.garp.org or www.prmia.org.

The above discussion offers a first-order approximation of what is needed for your career. There are many situations that are blurred or mixed. For example, if you want to work for a pension fund, it may make sense to both take the SOA exams and to become a CFA Charterholder.

In what order should you take the Associateship exams and modules of the SOA ?

If you have not already done so, take a look at the following SOA’s webpage, which is pretty instructive: https://www.soa.org/pathway/.

My first advice is to start the Fundamentals of Actuarial Practice (FAP) e-learning course as soon as possible. The eight modules of the FAP course come with a lot of activities to perform: lots of things to read, lots of spreadsheets to play with, six end-of-module reports to write, an interim assessment, and a final assessment. It can take quite a while (one year or more) before you complete it plus it is very time consuming while you are doing it, so I really recommend that you start with it as soon as possible.

My second recommendation is to start preparing for the probability exam P at the same time you enroll in the FAP course. What you learn when preparing for exam P will be useful for all subsequent exams, so prepare for it well. Actuarial science, and finance for a large part, is built on probability theory. The next exam to take after exam P is the Financial Mathematics exam FM. Preparing for this exam will allow you to master the passage of money backward and forward in time. This discounting / compounding process is also critical to actuarial science and a key tool to master before considering taking the MLC/LTAM, C/STAM, and MFE/IFM exams.

About one year has passed and you have typically completed – or are nearing completion of – the FAP course and exams P and FM. Your second year of distance learning should be devoted to starting the preparation for the MLC/LTAM, C/STAM, MFE/IFM plus SRM and PA exams.

In what order should you take these exams? There is no unequivocal answer to this question. All exams are hard and cover mostly distinct topics (except SRM and PA, which go together and make use of the R software). The best idea is perhaps to start with the exam that best matches your current fields of competence. Indeed, there is a huge gap in difficulty between exams P and FM on the one hand and the next exams on the other hand. Therefore, it may be wiser to gradually advance by degree of difficulty. What is the common feature between these exams? As already hinted at, they are extremely hard. You should prepare them one at a time and devote a substantial amount of time and energy to prepare for each of them.

A few words about VEEs. In case your university credits do not give you the three VEEs, you should consider taking additional exams or certifications to achieve them. If you are interested in finance, the best idea is probably to take and pass the first two levels of the CFA program, which allow you to achieve the three VEEs at the same time.

Once you have achieved the three VEEs, passed all the FAP requirements, and have obtained a mark superior or equal to six for each of the ASA exams; congratulations. Now you only need to complete the Associateship Professionalism Course. This is a (little bit less than) one-day seminar in which case studies and ethics considerations are put forward. On completion of this seminar, you are now an Associate of the Society of Actuaries.

In what order should you take the Fellowship (QFI track) exams and modules of the SOA ?

I will only discuss the case of the Quantitative Finance and Investment (QFI) track, which is the track I chose to follow. However, most of what is written here is also applicable to the other tracks.

As in the case of associateship activities, I recommend that you take the three modules (except the Decision Making And Communication or DMAC module discussed later on) before you take the exams. Why? First, completing the modules gives you a preliminary vision of what the SOA wants from its future fellows. It gives you hints of what you will find in exams, and you can start reading additional material that will be useful later on. Then, if you thought the ASA exams were hard, you will discover that the FSA exams are at another level. The fellowship exams are extremely hard. Each of them requires reading about 2,000 pages of articles and books. Although there are good companion texts made available by Actex, the material tested is so broad that it is not possible to find a unique and synthetic book for each of these exams, which implies you will need to study for an uncountable number of hours. So, completing the modules first will give you a sense of accomplishment before you cross a very long and dry desert.

More specifically, what order should you take the exams of the QFI track in? I suggest that you take the ERM exam first – in case you are interested in becoming a Chartered Enterprise Risk Analyst (CERA) – because it is shorter and slightly “easier” (or if you prefer very very hard instead of crazily hard) than the QFI Core and QFI Advanced exams. So, taking the ERM exam before the QFI exams prepares you for what you will be facing when taking these latter exams. If instead of taking the ERM exam you prefer to take the Investment Risk Management exam, it is even clearer that you should take the IRM exam first, because this is a two hour exam only, while the ERM exam is a four hour exam.

All right, now you have passed all three fundamental modules plus exam ERM or exam IRM. Now, what should you do? What is for sure is that you must absolutely take the QFI Core exam before the QFI Advanced exam. This is because there are lots of things about stochastic analysis that you will learn when you prepare for the QFI Core exam that are reused when you take the QFI Advanced exam. For instance, you cannot master the contents related to advanced interest rate models that are tested in the QFI Advanced exam without first mastering the fundamental recipes about Brownian motion that you will learn when you prepare for the QFI Core exam.

Let us say that two years have elapsed and you have passed the three fundamental fellowship modules and two out of three fellowship exams. Thus, you just have one more exam to take and pass, presumably the QFI Advanced exam. It is about time to register for and complete the Decision Making And Communication (DMAC) module. When your DMAC report is validated, you have two years to validate your remaining exams and modules. If you are working sufficiently hard, it is reasonable to expect validating the final fellowship exam in less than two years, given that you can take an exam every six months. Put differently, if you could pass each of the ERM (assuming you chose the CERA subtrack) and QFI Core exams in much less than four trials, then it is reasonable to expect the same thing for the remaining QFI Advanced exam. So, do it, register for the DMAC exam and enjoy: you will learn lots of non-technical skills that will be extremely useful for the rest of your career. Better advice is to go even further: buy all the books recommended in the DMAC e-learning system, read them and reread them!

That’s it, you have now completed all the activities in your track: the three fundamental modules, the three exams and the DMAC module. You can now attend the Fellowship Admissions Course. What can you expect from this course? Lots of case studies and lots of discussion and thinking about ethics, entertaining keynote presentations, and a lot of networking ; all of this in a top-notch hotel. It is not difficult to pass (at last!), you just need to be polite and always on time. However, aren’t these conditions also required in everyday professional life? You are now a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries: this is the beginning, not the end, of your career.