June 2016

So you want to be an SOA Item Writer?

By Stuart Klugman

SOA exam questions do not appear with the wave of a wizarding wand. Rather, they represent months of writing, reviewing, and revising by a dedicated team of experts. I decided to learn more about that team of experts by asking a set of questions regarding their experiences. The following are consolidated replies from seven of our general insurance volunteer item writers.

Why did you decide to become a GI item writer?

A universal response that applies to volunteers in any capacity is the reward from giving back to their profession. But there were also reasons that were specific to the General Insurance (GI) track. Some wanted to participate in building something new and not be held to how it had been done forever. Some of our volunteers have a deep and rich background in the subject matter. For them it was an opportunity to learn from newly written materials and gain new perspectives. Those who worked in related areas had an opportunity to expand their knowledge by learning how other practice areas approach similar problems.

What personal benefits have you gained?

The most common response was the opportunity to work with talented peers and expand personal networks. The face-to-face discussions of exam problems provided exposure to how other actuaries think about similar problems. Because item writers contribute to the discussion of all questions on the exam, there is an opportunity to learn about all aspects of the curriculum, not just your own specialty area. One item writer observed a carryover benefit—being forced to write clear and unambiguous questions sharpens writing skills in other work.

How do you get ideas for a question?

The responses were fairly identical throughout. Begin with the readings to get a grounding in the topic for the question. Then think of a personal experience with that topic or a current issue that relates back to the topic. This allows the question to be placed in a practical context. Several noted that the harder part is turning that idea into a challenging, but fair, question that requires a thoughtful response.

What is the most fun about being an item writer?

One volunteer wrote that it was almost as much fun as taking exams (that may be a minority opinion). The face-to-face meetings provide an opportunity to meet actuaries with different backgrounds and perspectives. They have all chosen to be there and that brings a lot of energy and commitment to the group. And the meetings tend to be in nice places and provide additional time for socializing. There is a great feeling when a question comes together that unifies several topics in a coherent way that is further rewarded when candidates get the point and perform well.

Stuart Klugman, FSA, CERA, Ph.D., is a senior staff fellow for the Society of Actuaries. He can be contacted at sklugman@soa.org.