Interview questions that actuaries will almost always encounter, and how to answer them

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Remember, actuaries are people too, even if (as one reinsurance hiring manager put it) they have “brains as big as a planet”. When it comes to interviews, most firms are keener to find out about personality, rather than technical skills, and actuaries are not renowned for being extroverts.

According to specialist recruiters, most actuaries fall down on the questions that demand some degree of personal introspection. They might be happy talking shop with fellow actuaries, but when they encounter chief financial officers, chief risk officers, HR or other senior business figures, they often fail to come across well.

Here are five common questions:

1. This is how we do things around here, what would you change?

Most insurance, consulting or life insurance firms will ask actuaries to undertake a case study, whereby they exam the (mock) models currently employed by the potential employer and are asked to explain what’s wrong with them, and what could change, suggests Steve Stubbings, managing director of actuarial recruiters The Emerald Group.

“This is more of a test of personality than technical skills,” he says. “An employer is essentially asking the actuary to use their professional judgement to identify a problem, but explain it in an easily understandable way.”

2. Explain to me why you’re interested in this role/company.

Yes, this is something of a generic question, but there’s an added weight to it when asked to actuaries. Because it’s such a candidate-led market, most recruiters are headhunting rather than being deluged by CVs, suggests Stubbings, and as a result they want to see some enthusiasm for the role.

“Why are they moving? Actuaries are not the most among the most risk-taking people, so employers want to understand their motivations for making a move, whether that’s culture or potential career progression,” he says.

3. How would you explain – XX technical term – to my grandmother?

Being an actuary doesn’t just mean producing the work, it also involves explaining the rationale for the mathematical models and assumptions to relative lay people. Michael Walker, pensions consultant at Aon Hewitt, gives the example of having to explain an annual report to a diverse set of people sitting on a board.

“I would consider what it is the board needs to know, minimise the level of detail if possible and use language and ideas that are appropriate to the audience - perhaps use analogies, even draw pictures/diagrams. It's always important to bear in mind that what works for some might not work for others,” he says.

4. Can you tell me a time when you encountered a difficult situation with a colleague and how you resolved it?

Part of the reason for asking this question is to gain an idea of how the actuary interacts with peers and managers – whether that’s developing or assessing a junior colleague, or responding to the demands of a superior. However, very often simply calling on actuaries to relay this information is a test of their communication skills, says Paul Walsh, CEO of actuarial recruiters Acumen Resources.

“Employers want to see evidence of healthy working relationships, but half the point in asking it is to see how actuaries respond when they’re required to tell a story for five minutes,” he says. “Increasingly, it’s important for actuaries to be commercial as well as technical and communication skills are integral to this.”

5. We’re looking for someone diverse to deploy to various clients, how are you going to be adaptable?

It’s tempting to launch into a monologue about the various skills and experiences you have in a bid to show just how pliable you are in the workplace, but interviewers are simply looking for some evidence of personality, says Dr Geraldine Kaye, managing director of GAAPS Actuarial Recruitment.

“The ideal answer is ‘I’m a Swiss army knife; I have a tool for every occasion’. If an interviewer wants to assess your technical skills, they’ll give you a case study.”

Separately, these are some brain-teasers allegedly asked to actuaries at interview. We won’t pretend we’re able to answer then without reams of paper and a calculator. Could you?

What is the weekly turnover of the average mid-sized out-of-town Sainbury’s supermarket?

Why are manhole covers round?

How many trees are there in Sherwood Forest?

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