So the actuarial exam process -- there's more than just one, by the way -- can be pretty grueling for most people. It is hard work for me, akin to the amount of effort I had to put in to prepare for my written qualifying exams at Courant; it's nowhere near the level I needed for my oral quals. And forget about the thesis.
That said, there's two components to the tests: knowledge and skill. You can't just derive important stuff from other knowledge as one may be able to do in math. This is investments and insurance, and there's some real life details you just have to memorize or thoroughly implant in long term memory. Fine, many people can do that, regardless of intelligence level (of course, this is the hardest part for me. Sure, I love memorizing poems and Monty Python repartee, but that's about it.) But you can't just get by on memorization: you've actually got to solve problems in a time-critical setting. This is what kills people on all the exams that require it, which is almost all the exams (only one, the FAP, looks like it's more practical info than needing complex analysis skills). People can understand all the relevant concepts and yet not be able to pass the exams, because their facility with it is not as frictionless as necessary.
These thoughts are inspired by a particular thread at the Actuarial Outpost where someone asked about how doable it was to do 3 exams in one sitting. Many people had an automatically hostile response (which later turned out to be justified), but I made a comment that it was, indeed, doable, but that one should try out the old exams to gauge if you really could go through with it. After all, I did two exams at once without breaking a sweat, so I could see someone totally committed to studying being able to pull it off (besides, other people =have= done it in the past). But the original poster decided this was a useful time to make fun of all those people who had such a hard time with those =easy= multiple choice math exams. Who tried to prepare by doing a lot of problems, where simple understanding of the concepts would suffice.
I tried to disabuse him of his notion:
I tell people to do practice problems so that they know what level of speed they need to get up to, and are comfortable with the types of questions. You need to be able to correctly read the problem, know what you're solving for, and not spend time with "dead end" approaches to solving a particular problem. You need both the understanding of what's going on and the familiarity with the types of problems so that as little friction as possible enters the process.And this is why there's about a 40% pass rate on most of the actuarial exams. They are not trivial. Some very smart people have failed these exams - such as Milton Friedman. Heck, we even keep track of two separate passrates: one excludes all the people who scored 0, which generally indicates being totally outclassed or not having prepared at all. In some companies, you can lose your job for failing exams too often, and at the lowest levels, raises, promotions, and bonuses are almost entirely dependent on exam progress (yes, your actual work does come into play as you get more experience...and yes, you can flunk out of the actuarial student program, but get a different job in the actuarial department permanently. I know several people who did this at my company.)
For example, I understand the concept of multiplication. I could re-derive the 12x12 times table if need be. But I don't have to think about it because I drilled on the times table when I was in elementary school. Likewise, when I took calculus in high school, I had homework every night where I was doing problem after problem of symbol manipulation. I understood the concepts of taking derivatives, the chain rule, the product rule (and how to derive them)... so I could theoretically work out everything each time I hit a derivative, but when I was actually using it (such as in physics), I did not want the mental friction of thinking through the whole process of taking the derivative. I got to where I could take derivatives of certain functions and their compositions as easily as I could multiply one-digit numbers.
It takes quite a bit of work to get to the level of unconscious mastery. I had taken calculus and probability for the first time over 10 years previous to taking Course 1 (similar to P), and I had been using it regularly during those 10+ years. At that point I could give impromptu lectures in probability (I still can, actually). So no, I didn't need much preparation for the exam...but you could also say those 10 years of using prob & calc for other stuff was preparing me for the exam. In that sense, I spent a whole bunch more time than most people studying for Course 1.
Most people taking Course P/1/whatever might have recently learned some of the concepts, and understand it in a conscious sense, but still have difficulty in execution in a set amount of time. It is rare that one is at a level of full mastery the first time one encounters a subject. It's only through repeated use and application that most people can get a "gut feel" for how something actually behaves, and which approaches are the fastest way to get to the answer.
That said, some really inappropriate people try for these exams. The early exams may seem unnecessarily difficult for the math one will actually do on the job, but it's a good way to screen for those who just will not be able to hack it at a higher level. I remember sitting in the room for the first exam, which had a =huge= number of people at the NYC location, and the woman next to me asking if we were expected to know the quadratic formula. Oh, and she was a middle school math teacher. Did I mention I was flabbergasted? In any case, I doubt she passed.
Anyway, back to my exam from the fall. There's this one problem that really really bugged me, as I had done one JUST LIKE IT the night before, and I'm doing it over right now. Man, it really burns my britches. It should have been easy and it was like running around in circles. I'm doing it over just for some peace of mind, actually. If it turns out to be less trivial than I originally thought, I'll perhaps have gotten sufficient partial credit on it, and I doubt many people would have gotten many points on it.
FURTHER: Before anyone asks, yes, I saw Charles Murray's bit in the WSJ yesterday, but I'm waiting for his three-article bit to end before I put in my own opinion.