Lynne Xu is a senior at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, where she is double majoring in Applied Mathematics and Business. Lynne was president of the Actuarial Club this past year, and she worked this past summer at Ernst & Young as an actuarial intern. We spoke with Lynne in October 2019.
Tell us one thing about you that’s not on your resume.
Cross-stitching is one of my favorite hobbies. I love doing cross-stitch because it’s a long-term project. It can take a few months or years to finish one cross-stitch pattern, and I find that really interesting because it’s kind of like keeping a journal. I take a picture of my progress every single day, and I can see where I am that day by looking at the picture and reflecting.
Cross-stitch also gives me a lot of time to think about life when I’m doing the cross-stitch. I think it has also strengthened my patience and has helped me be a more thoughtful and patient person.
What has your experience at the University of Rochester been like?
I’m an international student from China, so my first time to the U.S. was a little over three years ago when I first came here for college. Rochester wasn’t what I expected, but I’ve really enjoyed my time at the University because it has given me a lot of independence and freedom. Rochester is a small school, and because of that, I have a better sense of what’s happening around me and a better connection with the people at Rochester.
The best thing I’ve gotten from this program is independence. Because we don’t have a very defined or structured program, I was able to progress at my own pace, without being compared to other students.
Over the past three years, I’ve been really grateful for every opportunity I’ve gotten on campus, from being a TA to working for the admissions office. I’ve enjoyed working with everyone, and I think these opportunities have also strengthened my interpersonal skills.
I’ve found the students at Rochester to be really helpful and down-to-earth, and it’s always great to talk to other students about math or whatever’s happening in our lives. I really appreciate the relationships and friendships I’ve made with classmates, as well as the close relationships with my professors, who are always really approachable and nice to all the students in the class.
The last thing I want to mention is just how much I appreciate the independence and freedom the school gives us. Because of the open-curriculum system, we don’t really have any required classes, so I was basically free to take any class I wanted. I was able to adjust my class schedule to accommodate my internship work or my actuarial exam schedule, which really helped me balance my work and studies.
What other schools were you considering, and why did you choose Rochester?
I originally wanted to go to a school with an actuarial science program, so I applied to schools like New York University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Ohio State. I also found the University of Rochester, which has an actuarial certificate program. It’s a small school with a good reputation, so I decided to apply here Early Decision 2. I didn’t really have a hard time making decisions after that because once I got accepted, it’s binding.
What influenced you to pursue actuarial science?
Ever since I was a little kid, I was always interested in numbers. I remember when I was in elementary school, and I would do housework for my mom. I would ask her to pay me for the housework I’d do, and I would write down every single thing that I did for her and calculate the numbers. And I loved doing that. I think working with numbers is just very interesting.
I originally wanted to become an accountant, but in high school my dad asked me if I had ever thought about becoming an actuary. The translation of “actuary” in Chinese is actually something like “accurate computation.” I thought, “I don’t want to do computations for the rest of my life.” But my dad told me that it wasn’t like that, and he explained what an actuary does, including how challenging it would be to take the actuarial exams, as well as eventually being an actuary.
But I found it fascinating. Actuarial science allows me to do math, and it’s more challenging than accounting. So I felt up for the challenge, and that’s how I initially got into actuarial science. After I got into college, I decided to stick with actuarial science because I really enjoy math, and I really enjoy studying for the exams. I don’t think there’s any other thing that would make me happier than doing actuarial science.
Why should other students consider a focus in actuarial science?
The big thing about actuarial science is that it’s math; it’s business; and it’s computer science—all together. I think if someone likes math and the logic and analytics in math, but also wants to do some hands-on applications, they should really consider actuarial science because it’s not just doing research. It’s not staring at a board all day. It’s actually using the math skills and computer science skills to solve some real problems in society.
To some extent, actuarial science helps in building a better world by doing the right thing in pricing insurance products and mitigating risks. So I think it has a purpose, and it has a cause in the long term for human beings.
What has been your experience with the actuarial science program at your school?
Our program is on the small side, and we don’t have an actuarial science major, but we do have an actuarial certificate program. The program lists out the different courses you should take if you want to become an actuary. After taking the suggested courses, I feel like they’ve really prepared me well to take the first few actuarial science exams.
The best thing I’ve gotten from this program is independence. Because we don’t have a very defined or structured program, I was able to progress at my own pace, without being compared to other students. So I didn’t really have any peer pressure going through the exam process, and I was really able to learn the material on my own, as well as assist others who are in the process.
It is a bit of a struggle to learn everything from scratch for some of the exams because we don’t have the courses to prepare for those exams. But I’ve learned a lot about self-discipline, self-teaching, and about maintaining good study habits. At the end of the day, it’s all about math, so I really appreciate that the professors didn’t put too much pressure in following what the program suggests, and they just encouraged us to do whatever we think is right for us and explore other subjects.
Rochester also has the Actuarial Club, which was founded when I was a freshman. Because of the small population of actuarial students, we don’t have a lot of events planned on campus, but we do hold meetings at the beginning of every semester to get everyone together and introduce the actuarial profession, and then throughout the semester, we invite alumni to do talks on campus and help students and alumni connect with each other. We also hold study sessions for the actuarial exams.
The best thing about the club is the community. It’s a way for the actuarial students to get to know each other. Since we’re not really organized by program, we know each other from events and clubs like the Actuarial Club. And we really support and help each other grow through the club experience.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
My favorite class is actually a class I’m taking right now called Combinatorics. The class has really challenged me this semester because the professor takes a different approach in teaching. He has us read the material on the weekends so we learn the material on our own, and then the majority of class time is devoted to doing problems related to the material.
I feel like in this way, he has really helped us be responsible for learning, instead of him teaching all the time. At first, I struggled a little bit because I felt like the textbook was really hard to understand. But I’ve enjoyed the challenge. I was able to learn a lot about time management and self-teaching, as well as seeking help when necessary in this class.
And the material itself is very interesting. It’s not directly related to actuarial science, but I think it really trained my way of thinking about problems. It also helped me understand how to rigorously prove something, a subject that might seem so obvious.
What has been most challenging about studying actuarial science? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
I’ve had a lot of struggles going through the exams, but my biggest struggle was probably self-doubt. I would question if I could do it, a million times, before taking one exam. The actuarial profession is advertised to be very difficult, and the pass rates for exams are constantly less than 50 percent.
So every time before I take an exam, I need to really think about whether or not I can do it. I ask myself, “Am I working hard enough? Am I smart enough to pursue this path?” Because even though I’ve passed a couple exams, I feel like maybe that’s all I can do. Maybe I’m only smart enough to pass the first three exams and not the fourth. And that kind of mentality stresses me out because I constantly feel like I can’t do it.
Have you had any insurance-related internships? If so, how was your experience?
I’ve had two internships. The first was with Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield, which is a health insurance company in Rochester. I did a summer internship there, and they extended me throughout the school year, so I worked part-time there as well.
This past summer, I interned at Ernst & Young in Dallas, Texas, for an actuarial internship. The internship was in pension and involved a lot of auditing work. I learned a lot about how pension plans should be funded and what’s happening in the retirement industry right now.
What are the latest developments or trends in insurance?
The two things that I pay attention to when I look through the news are increases in health care costs and the “Medicare For All” plan. The rising costs of health care are a problem for both patients and insurance companies. And if “Medicare For All” does happen, there will be big changes in the health insurance industry. I’m not exactly sure what will happen, but I’m interested in seeing the actions that health insurers will take if the policy is actually implemented.
What are your future aspirations or career plans?
Right now, I’ve finished all my preliminary exams, so I hope I can get my ASA credential in the next year or two. Professionally, I want to work as an actuary and learn about different industries, as well as develop myself in terms of different technical and soft skills.
One other thing about my future plans is that I want to be a mentor to actuarial students. I want to help students who are confused about what they can do with actuarial science or are not sure if it is right for them. I want to be able to talk to them about my experience, give them advice, and be of some help to them.
What advice would you give someone interested in the insurance field?
The first advice I would give is that you can be an actuary regardless of major. You might think that if you want to be an actuary, you have to be a math major or an actuarial science major. But in reality, anyone can be an actuary. As long as you want to do it, there’s no barrier. There’s no requirement that you have to take this many classes or this many credits in math to take the actuarial science exams. It’s completely open.
Secondly, if you end up failing an exam, don’t feel like, “It’s not the right career for me.” A lot of us have failed, and failure is such a common thing in actuarial science. If you fail an actuarial exam, take it as a step closer to success.
Last but not least, I want to encourage them to follow their heart and do whatever they think is right, because even though actuarial science sounds very interesting, I’ve seen a lot of people who looked into this career, took a couple of exams, and decided not to do it. Even if you decide later that you don’t want to be an actuary, and you want to pursue some other field, don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time. You did something that’s worthwhile, and you did something that definitely gives you skills that are transferable to other industries. So whatever you do, just follow your heart and look forward; don’t look back.
Do you have any favorite books, websites, or media that you would recommend for someone interested in insurance?
For general actuarial information, I go to SOA’s website. They have a magazine called The Actuary Magazine, and I’ve read a lot of interesting articles in that. Another resource is the website BeAnActuary.org. It has a lot of information about how to be an actuary and what it’s like to be an actuary.
I also recently discovered this site called Rethink Studying. It was founded by the youngest FSA in SOA history, who got his FSA when he was 20 and also wrote a book about how to take exams. The site is a really good resource for people who want to become actuaries and who are struggling in the actuarial exam process.