The interview process

by | March 10, 2009

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Interviewing at most major actuary employers mirrors that of the majority of financial services companies. Insurers and pension funds will rely heavily on HR to vet their candidates, then will bring them in for a series of interviews with HR and actuaries in the firm.

As mentioned, the process starts on campus or through contact with the HR department of the firm. Your first interview will be with an HR representative or campus recruiter and will be very straightforward. You'll do most of the talking as you discuss your goals and abilities, and your academic work. The aim here is for the rep to get all the basic information to determine whether, in theory, you have the skills and demeanor necessary for an entry-level position. You'll also get a general sense of what the company's entry-level positions are like.

After that, if all goes well, you'll be contacted by a more senior HR representative for a phone interview. That rep will go into more detail as to your skill set, and will have a passing familiarity with actuarial skills so that he or she can better measure where you are in your studies. The rep will also ask more in-depth questions about your background, your career goals and your reasons for wanting to become an actuary. They can also answer more detailed questions about the company's hiring and positions.

If that interview goes well, you'll then be invited to the company's office, or a satellite nearby, for a final round of interviews. Here, you'll talk not only with more HR people, but also with the actuaries that work with entry-level staff and the actuaries heading the divisions in which you may be best suited to work. You'll be asked extensive questions about your actuarial knowledge, and some companies may even give you a few proofs or questions to test your skills. Below are some questions you may encounter during this last round of interviews.

1. Why do you want a career as an actuary?
You should be honest here. Discuss whether you enjoy the mathematical challenges, the idea of helping people insure their property, lives, retirements, etc. Perhaps you enjoy ferreting out, quantifying and mitigating unforeseen risks. Whatever it is, describe it and show some enthusiasm. One thing that won't fly, however, is to say you're doing it for the money or lifestyle. Actuaries know they have a good thing going. Like most employers, they would rather see enthusiasm for the job, rather than the paycheck.

2. What led you to this company?
You should familiarize yourself not only with the company with which you're interviewing, but also a number of other actuarial employers as well, for comparison's sake. Know the different insurance products the company your interviewing with offers, or its investment plan if the company is a pension fund. Familiarize yourself with its history and recent performance. If you know someone at the company, or had it recommended to you, include that as well. Don't make it seem like you're there just because they were the biggest company that extended you an interview.

3. What are your greatest strengths?
If mathematics is your forte, this isn't a bad place to mention it, but if you can discuss other aspects of your strengths beyond the technical, that could be well received. At this point, you've passed at least one actuarial exam, so they know you're competent. They may not know that you consider yourself a good communicator, or you work well with groups, or that you pride yourself on thinking of things others have missed. Creative thinking, communication and teamwork are all big plusses for many employers.

4. What are your greatest weaknesses?
This is a tough question to answer, since at times the most honest and forthright answer can put a serious dent in your candidacy. Saying that you don't have any weaknesses is fallacy, of course -- everyone does. You need to say something here that is honest, but ultimately harmless. Maybe you had trouble with a sociology course you took, or you can be a little stubborn when it comes to ferreting out solutions to difficult problems. Perhaps you have a fear of boats. Whatever it is, don't be too cute with it, and make sure that it's something that really can't be held against you for the position under consideration.

5. What motivates you?
Again, this is not about making money. It's a good job, everyone at the table knows it, and they're looking for more. Similar to the first question, this is a chance to talk about the better side of yourself. Talk about meeting challenges, finding solutions, mitigating risks, helping companies, helping people. Don't talk about helping yourself.

6. Are you a risk taker?
A great question for an actuary! One reaction might be to say that, no, risk is bad. But risk is a part of life, and experienced actuaries know that. You can never completely anticipate or mitigate risk. So while it's probably good not to say that you're a bungee-jumping adrenaline junkie, don't be afraid to say that, yes, there are some risks worth taking, even if they can't be well quantified. Though you may want to add that smart risks are very different from stupid ones. And, really, if you're not a risk taker, that's fine. Just don't leave them with the impression that you're utterly risk-adverse, or think that you can eliminate risk in your life.

7. What are some of your outside interests?
This is actually a pretty easy one. Go ahead and be honest. The interviewers will certainly be looking for a sense of balance -- perhaps you bike or jog in addition to playing chess or Sudoku. Perhaps you're involved in your church or a charity. Or maybe you just play pool and go to flea markets. The only real problem you might have here is if you don't have any outside interests, or they're all math related.

8. Where do you want to be in five years?
In this question, the interviewer is looking for a hint that you're willing to stick around at the company for a while. You can certainly mention that you'd like to pursue an advanced degree, and asking whether the company has programs to support that is a nice touch. But ultimately, you should say that you want to be working as an actuary, furthering your skills, driving toward associate membership in the CAS or SOA, and helping your company do its best in mitigating risk.

Situational Questions

1. What's the most important trait for an actuary to possess?
Again, math doesn't cut it here. You wouldn't be here if you didn't know your numbers. A better answer is the creative application of actuarial science. Stress flexibility of thinking, innovation, creativity, out-of-the-box mindset, etc. Mention the ability to beat the bushes for risk factors and find the best way to mitigate them. It's also good to stress the importance of not being married to conventional thinking. The ability to find new processes that could be even better is critical to advancing both actuarial science and the company's goals.

2. (Insert complex mathematical question here)
Yes, that's an umbrella question, but your interviewer is going to ask you about hardcore mathematics at some point. This question will likely not only test your basic knowledge of the field, but also whether you're up on the latest thinking. Expect a question that may derive from a recent journal article or even a recent news event. That means you'll have to be very much on top of the latest and greatest thinking in your field, and illustrate how such thinking can be applied in a real-world situation. The question, or questions, won't be unreasonable, but they'll certainly require you to be on top of your studies.

3. This is what we're using to calculate risk factors for our newest product idea. What do you think?
This is not only a mathematical question, but an actuarial one that also requires some knowledge of how to apply your skills. You'll have to be familiar with the company's product line, certainly, so you can appreciate how much this particular product may change the dynamic of the company's offerings. And you'll have to figure out, on the spot, how this product works from an actuarial standpoint. Sometimes, it may be apparent that this is a further test of your skill because you'll find an error in the materials presented, or a different way of doing things is a bit more readily apparent. Don't worry -- it's just a test. Chances are, they already know about the better way, and they're just testing to see if you do.

Filed Under: Interviewing

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