Compared to his peers studying mathematics, University of Missouri student Shang Xu is ahead of the curve — and not just by semesters. By years.

Xu, a sophomore majoring in mathematics and music, received news that he passed his sixth actuarial exam in January. He now has only one more exam to pass before he can receive his certification.

Xu shows off his calculator collection in front of the Columns

"Six columns, for each exam I’ve passed,” Xu said, reflecting over the six of seven actuarial exams he’s passed in comparison to the six columns in the Francis Quadrangle.

Usually, mathematics students emphasizing in actuarial science are encouraged to take a couple of actuarial exams before they graduate. This is likely due to how difficult each exam is and the time required to prepare. After all, the passing rate for these exams lands either at or below 50%.

However, Xu is just not one of those students. He wants to be the youngest person to achieve the title of Associate of the Society of Actuaries.

Where it all started

Xu was born in Shanghai, China and moved to Osceola, Missouri, when he was 11. He finished fifth grade at Osceola Elementary School and was so excellent at math that he was placed in high school-level math classes in sixth grade. He started playing clarinet and joined a Boy Scout troop to keep busy and make friends, but the move from a large city in China to a small Missouri town was an adjustment.

“It was very different because I was used to the big city convenience, where I could walk pretty much 10 minutes and get to wherever I wanted,” Xu said. “Now, I have to drive for 30 minutes just to get to a place with a Walmart.”

Xu eventually skipped a year in middle school and started high school early. There, he participated in band, Future Business Leaders of America and Scholar Bowl, an academic competition between high schools that is set up like a game show.

As graduation approached, he didn’t quite know how he wanted to incorporate his math skills into a future career. Then, he overheard someone talking about an alumnus of Osceola High School majoring in math and becoming an actuary. Not knowing what an actuary was, Xu asked around and did his own research.

“I found out it's pretty much someone who gets to sit in an air conditioned office, analyzing data, and getting paid decent to do so,” Xu said. “So I thought, that's the perfect job for me.”

By that point, he had already committed to MU as a math and music major, but was pleased to find that MU offered an emphasis in actuarial science. So, becoming a Tiger in the fall was a no-brainer.

Preparing for the exams

Actuaries help organizations and companies understand and manage financial risk. To join the ASA, actuaries take seven exams, ranging from topics such as probability, investments and statistics for risk modeling. Upon achieving the associate designation, candidates need to pass 3 more industry specific exams to be a fully credentialed fellow (FSA).

Xu took and passed his first exam a month into his freshman year at MU. He taught himself calculus during the summer prior since his high school did not offer the course. He enjoyed the process.

“I like the consistency of mathematics,” Xu said. “You don't have the experimental error or the other inconsistencies with physics or chemistry. One plus one always equals two.”

Xu works on math homework sitting at the Beetle Bailey statue

Xu believes that with a confident approach, anyone can pass the exams if they don’t pay attention to doubts from others. “That’s how most people get beaten” Xu said. “They believe them.”

Xu gives himself six weeks before the exams to prepare. He spends the first two weeks reading the material and the last four weeks mastering the material. He said that by the end, he can recite formula sheets from memory.

Help along the way

Xu studying with mathematics advisor Bobitan

Xu’s professors have offered support at every step of the way. Bobitan, right, helped Xu pass the long-term insurance exam with only three weeks of studying.

Xu has been receiving plenty of support from professors and friends at MU, one person being his clarinet instructor, Dr. Wesley Warnhoff.

“Dr. Warnhoff told me that if I were to compete for a clarinet job, I should be preparing myself against people who have their doctorates in performance, rather than people who I'm used to seeing as my peers,” Xu said. “That really stuck with me, because with where I want to go with my career, it's not enough to just aim for two exams by graduation. I need to aim higher, so I can spend more time doing more important things later.”

Xu also credits much of his success to MU financial math instructors Luciana Bobitan and Steven Goldschmidt. Both professors teach courses that helps students prepare for the exams.

“Those two are always there for me, even when I am not in their classes,” Xu said.

Xu’s friends also help him to study, and one of them even lent him an extra calculator once. He likes to have two calculators with him during the exams, in case batteries die.

Professional development

When he’s not studying for the exams, Xu works as a resident advisor for Residential Life, serving as a leader and mentor for students living on campus. Xu also serves as the professional development chair for Gamma Iota Sigma, MU’s risk management club. He also is an executive board member of the undergraduate statistics club. For both organizations, Xu plans bonding activities for the club members and introduces resources for networking and portfolio building.

Shang Xu, a residential advisor, checks in with resident Kaitlyn Vis in Respect Hall Feb. 06, 2020. Sam O'Keefe/University of Missouri

Xu, a residential advisor, checks in with resident Kaitlyn Vis in Respect Hall.

For example, he and the executive board for the statistics club brought in a panel of juniors and seniors to share interview tips and their experiences with summer internships. He finds professional development important for all college students.

“Besides having the skills to be a good actuary, you need to be able to actually get yourself out there,” Xu said. “So, it's good to build those professional connections to make yourself marketable and bring yourself more opportunities.”

Just like any other student

Outside of classes and organizations, Xu enjoys spending time with his friends. He remembers one late-night hamburger run with his friends during his freshman year, when winter was settling into Columbia.

Xu studies with his cat perched on his lap

Xu’s pets often keep him company during late nights of studying. “They’re a crucial part of my life,” Xu said. “My cat is just great.”

“It got better when we got the text that school was canceled for the next day,” Xu said.

Moments like these remind him that at the end of the day, he is just like any other student.

“I like the people at Mizzou,” Xu said. “It’s a very supportive community, and I’ve made some great friends along the way. All of the professors here are really nice, too, and they’re very approachable.”

Looking ahead

For other actuarial candidates looking to pass the exams and receive their certification, Xu suggests solidifying a foundation in basic mathematics and blocking out others’ complaints about how difficult the exams are.

“It’s a regular math topic, and they just put a scary mask on it,” Xu said. “So, once you take off that mask, it’s just regular math. It’s like the Scooby-Doo meme: ‘Let’s see who this really is!’”

Xu is already preparing to take his last associate exam in June, along with his first fellowship exam in April. He is on track to becoming one of the youngest Associate of the Society of Actuaries, well before he graduates in 2022.