Yawen Zhang is a senior at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, where she is majoring in Actuarial Science. Yawen previously interned at Mercer and has an upcoming internship at AXA XL. We spoke with Yawen in January 2020.
Tell us one thing about you that’s not on your resume.
Besides math and the actuarial world, I am also interested in cultural studies and art. In my free time, I like oil painting and dancing. Last semester, I studied abroad in Spain, where I learned flamenco dancing and some Spanish. It was a really fun experience.
What has your experience at Elizabethtown College been like?
I’ve really liked my experience at Elizabethtown College. I’m able to pass actuarial science exams and also enjoy after-class activities. I was the ambassador of the college diversity team and the president of the Asian Culture Club, and I also joined our school dance team. My favorite part about this school is that it has a very high quality of education. Our school is a liberal arts college, so the class sizes are fairly small. The benefit of this is that whenever I need help, my professors are always available to help me.
Actuarial science connects business and math. You have to know everything: accounting, economics, finance, coding, and, of course, math.
For example, I came into college with no AP classes. However, I wanted to move faster because I wanted to graduate earlier. I talked with my professors, and they let me take the challenge tests, so I studied by myself for Calculus I, Calculus II, and the first statistics class. I passed the tests, so I didn’t need to take these introductory classes and was able to move onto more advanced classes.
What other schools were you considering, and why did you choose Elizabethtown?
I actually applied through an agency, and the agency helped me find which schools had good programs for international students and which schools had actuarial science. They gave me some good options, and I ended up applying to Elizabethtown College. I actually didn’t consider any other schools because Elizabethtown offered me a great scholarship, and I also really wanted to go to a liberal arts college.
What influenced you to pursue actuarial science?
I’ve always liked math and enjoyed solving problems, so I researched majors related to math. I saw that professionals with actuarial science degrees had good work-life balance and good pay, and the major was also all about math. So, I just tried it out. I took the first two exams, and they weren’t too difficult for me. The more I studied actuarial science, the more I enjoyed the major because I saw that I would be able to use math and statistics to solve real-life problems. That was very appealing and attractive to me. In addition, I enjoy explaining complicated and technical things to others, and this communication skill is highly valued when working in the actuarial field.
What has been your experience with the actuarial science program at your school?
I really like the actuarial science program at Elizabethtown. I think the program has been really good because we have small class sizes and high education quality, and our school provides courses for the first five SOA exams. In addition, Elizabethtown provides a minor called Data Analytics, and I think that’s also very helpful for my future career. Generally, I think our school prepares students well for their future careers. I’ve spoken with a lot of alumni, and they all seem really happy about their careers and appreciate the help they got at Elizabethtown. The alumni have been very nice, and they’ve given me advice and even provided help in searching for an internship.
Elizabethtown also has an actuarial science club. We invite speakers to come in and give talks on actuarial science and what it’s like to work in actuarial science. We also invite people in career services to teach us about resume writing and preparing for interviews.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
I really liked this class called Creative Problem Solving, where we basically used creative ways to solve math problems. What’s unique about this class is that, for homework, students are assigned to different groups so we can practice getting along well with people with different working styles. Also, we needed to make videos individually to show our solutions to these problems, so we were also able to practice our communication skills. It was a fun class, and you got to practice a lot of your soft skills.
What is unique about focusing on actuarial science relative to other majors you could have chosen?
Actuarial science connects business and math. You have to know everything: accounting, economics, finance, coding, and, of course, math. I think that’s very unique about actuarial science. Also, with an actuarial science degree, you can start working with a bachelor’s degree, and the more exams you pass, the higher salary you will earn. The exam process is also very unique and rewarding compared to other majors related to math.
What has been most challenging about studying actuarial science? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
I think the most challenging part is understanding how business and statistics can connect. Some people only know the math part, and others may only know the business part. In order to be a person who is good at both math and business, and be able to explain them well, you need to put in a lot of effort. Also, another challenge I’ve experienced is finding an internship as an international student.
Have you had any insurance-related internships? If so, how was your experience?
This past summer, I interned at Mercer in Philadelphia. I really liked this experience because Mercer treated me like a real employee, and I learned a lot about the company and about the industry.
I worked in the wealth department at Mercer as an actuarial intern. Most of my work was about figuring out retirement plans. I finished a mock valuation project using a highly integrated software called Retirement Studio. I also helped other actuarial consultants with retirement plan changes. Besides that, I reviewed and finished some benefit calculations and evaluation reports in Excel. Finally, I presented about the future and transformation of retirement plans in front of my colleagues.
Aside from the work, I also enjoyed the social events that Mercer provided. For example, I went to a softball event where various insurance companies competed against each other. It was a competition but more like a social event. You got to meet with and talk to a lot of people in the insurance industry.
What are your future aspirations or career plans?
My last internship at Mercer was on the life insurance side. In December, I received an internship offer from AXA XL in New York, working in the property and casualty department. After these two internships, I think I’ll have a better idea of which side, L&H or P&C, is more suitable for me. After that, I will hopefully find a full-time job—my dream full-time job—and then start to work as an actuarial analyst. In about five years, I can see myself really immersed in this position, and moreover, I hope I can pass all the actuarial science exams before I turn 30.
What advice would you give someone interested in the insurance field?
Talk with as many people as you can in insurance, and ask a lot of questions. The more you talk with these people, the better understanding you’ll have as to whether or not you’re suitable for this career. Also, I recommend taking the first two actuarial exams as soon as possible because I think the first two exams are a good test to see if you are suitable for this major. Additionally, after you pass the first two exams, you can easily get internships, and then you can learn even more about this industry.
» If you liked Yawen’s interview, check out our other actuarial science student interviews.