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How to Succeed as an Intern in 2021

By Selina Zeng and Veeraj Mehta

The Stepping Stone, July 2021

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Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is perhaps the youngest generation who face the most pressing challenges. Thousands of young aspiring actuaries have navigated a completely new online learning environment, an all-time low employment rate and one of the most difficult economic conditions in all of history. 

Great leaders of the past century have also been in unprecedented times. Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, Malala, and Mandela each had their own vision to change the world, and without perseverance to overcome tribulations, we would not be where we are today. 

Many of us face new kinds of struggles, but we can all learn to power through just like those leaders who have overcome each and every obstacle in their path.

Not only are actuaries intelligent and adaptive, but we are also resilient and act as leaders against some of the world's greatest problems. No matter where you are in your career path, struggles will arise, and how you overcome them is crucial to keeping you on the path to success. We’ve compiled a list of a few common struggles young professionals face, and tools to help overcome them.

Proper Time Management

Young professionals typically feel as if we’re in a never-ending battle against time. As a new intern myself, I often feel as if there’s not enough time to enjoy my everyday life because I constantly have to study for exams. I know others feel the same way, too. 

This feeling of being constricted by time doesn’t just fade away after moving out of the “young professional” phase—after all, time is an uncontrollable aspect of life that will not slow down for anyone. Personally, being constricted by time makes me feel stressed, anxious, and sometimes even demotivated. This is human nature, and it’s important to understand how to manage and overcome these feelings. 

Time management is a skill that will improve the quality of your life, not only in actuarial work, but also in your personal life. Once you learn how to prioritize and manage your time efficiently around studying and work, the feelings of stress, anxiety, and demotivation will begin to fade. This may seem quite obvious, but in reality, effective time management is often left in the back of our minds without implementation in our daily practices.

Ultimately, whether we like it or not, days are going to continue to go by—exams or even deadlines will often approach quicker than anticipated. As young professionals continue through the rigorous process of becoming an actuary, it is crucial to ensure that time management is always at the top of the priority list.

One of the main tools I would recommend in order to properly manage your time, especially in 2021, is to physically write down a list, each night, of tasks you need to complete the next day. I encourage you to also to regularly write down tasks you complete. Include items important for your mental well-being such as “go for a walk” or “coffee break.”

This simple tool is quite effective as you gain satisfaction by crossing off completed tasks. Each time you cross something off, you are motivated to move onto the next task.

This year, since we are all working remotely, it is crucial to have a structured plan for your day, so you can maintain focus in your own home, avoiding the endless number of distractions that surround you. If you start off each and every day being proactive about time management, time will no longer become one of your worst enemies. As William Penn, English Quaker leader, once said, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst,” so if there is one take away from this section, it is to not be a victim of William Penn’s wise words. 

Resilience and Optimism

Personally, I sometimes feel intimidated in this online workplace—(virtually) surrounded by people who are much more experienced, intelligent, and accomplished than I am, while also being told to complete tasks I sometimes don’t understand. I know that other interns and co-op students also feel this way. By no means is this a negative implication of our journey to become an actuary, but it is an intimidating factor that can be addressed by a simple mindset change—resilience and optimism

No matter the stage of your career path, it is just as important to have the capacity to overcome difficulties, as it is to have a positive mindset. For interns who face the intimidation factor in their workplace, remember that each and every person who is around you has worked extremely hard to get to their position. They are the people who have already completed the path you are following, and most importantly, they are also the people who can help you reach your goals in a much more efficient and timely manner. 

By having a resilient and optimistic mindset, not only do you alter your perspective of your work, but you also improve your efficiency in the workplace. Instead of viewing your fellow, accomplished employees as “intimidating,” try altering your perspective to “those who can help guide you on your career path.” Similarly, instead of viewing your work as “complicated and difficult to understand,” an optimist could view this work as an opportunity to learn and develop your skills—no matter how difficult you find it to grasp the concepts being thrown at you.

Ultimately, resilience and optimism are foundations for success that all professionals should practice. We know that this year has certainly been an interesting one for all of us, with many different types of challenges thrown our way. Remember that a positive outlook toward your work and career, alongside the capacity to overcome difficulties, is a powerful combination that enables you to achieve your goals more quickly. This goes past achieving just career goals. A positive mindset not only allows you to overcome challenges, it enables you to become stronger as the journey continues, both mentally and emotionally. 

So, if there is one thing to always keep in the back of your mind while you progress through your career, it is to (1) be resilient, and (2) understand that positive outcomes will begin to appear in your life as soon as you maintain a positive mindset.

Redefine Failure

Humans tend to focus on the successes and achievements of life, and shy away from sharing hardships, evidenced through many social media platforms. It is natural to feel inclined to hide our failures, however we as aspiring actuaries must be able to address them as we will be met with many failures along the way. We all fail, if not at exams, then at work, and if not at work, maybe in our relationships.

Failures often feel as if we are taking two steps back—the struggles and challenges often feel as if they are continuously building onto each other. In reality, failure has taught me more than any success has—I’ve learnt that the sacrifices I’ve made were not in vain. The free time I sacrificed for extracurriculars was all worth it because I was able to meet new people, even in a virtual environment. The moments where I could not be with my friends has taught me how to say no at times and to learn how to stick to a firm study schedule. 

We interns already knew of the challenges when we decided to pursue the actuarial path with the inherently difficult actuarial exams with pass rates of less than 50 percent, each one harder than the last. But the decision to commit to that path is already in itself overcoming a challenge. Every failure, no matter how big or small, can be used as a stepping stone to move forward. 

You will encounter failures throughout your career, but how you come back is what ultimately matters. Reach out to your friends, family and actuarial colleagues to talk about your experiences and then create a plan for your next approach. Given the surge in lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, my routine became fixated on staying home all day with not much consideration to my own health. It was my mother who reminded me that I would not succeed at work and studying for exams if I shut myself in my room all day. Thus, I decided to start off each day by going on a walk and immediately saw the positive effects it had for me in my work.

Something as simple as prioritizing health and wellbeing during the pandemic can be so easily forgotten, but having an honest conversation about these practices will allow you to see things you might not have realized needed improvement. Whether it is your physical wellbeing, taking more strategic study breaks, or even making time for the things you love to revitalize yourself, these can all be helpful.

Remember that everyone makes mistakes and punishing yourself over things in the past is not beneficial. Taking control of your abilities and not allowing these instances to beat you down is key, so rest, and develop a growth mindset to take on the challenge again. These moments will define your career as you complete internships, and develop your actuarial expertise. 

Alter Your Perspective

In a long career, a difference of one or two years to complete your exams won’t matter. Instead, build a strong foundation for which you will be able to become the best version of yourself. If you need more time to study for an exam and get it right the second, third or fourth time around, then that is OK. 

Remember your reason for becoming an actuary and allow your purpose to transcend your motivations to make you better. One thing that I took for granted prior to the pandemic was my family, and now I can genuinely say that it is my family who inspires me to push through any challenges. So, ask yourself, what is your purpose and ultimate reason for pursuing this career? What are some things that push you to become better and not waver when it gets tough? Your answer will be the thing that you can always fall back on.

One quote that has always stuck with me is, “The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”—Paul Coelho. So, remember that we must have perseverance and the will to become stronger with each failure. 

The Time is Now

At the end of the day, each and every one of us will face hardships over the course of our lives. Whether it’s a battle against time, the inability to keep up with work, or even facing a failure, it’s critical to remember that these obstacles are the reason you will continue to grow and develop as an individual. By practicing sound time management skills, having a resilient and optimistic mindset, and remembering to always bounce back and learn from your failures, success is bound to come your way. Remember that you are your own unique person and are made up of experiences, ideas, and quality traits that are different from anyone else. Ultimately it is up to you to realize that you have the ability to become the next great leader.


Selina Zeng is a third year Economics student at the University of Waterloo with experience in P&C underwriting and is currently interning at Foresters Financial in its pricing team. She has also been involved with TEDxUW as a Content Manager and with the UW Actuarial Science Club. She can be reached at selina.zeng@uwaterloo.ca. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/selina-zeng/

Veeraj Mehta, third year student at the University of Waterloo, is currently an intern at Manulife in the US Life Pricing department. He has previously interned at firms such as Swiss Re as well as Ernst & Young, and is on track to pursuing his actuarial designation. He can be reached at veerajmehta@gmail.com. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/veerajmehta/