It’s no exaggeration for me to say that studying for my Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams has been one of the challenging, yet thoroughly enjoyable things I’ve ever done. It’s challenging for most candidates (and I would humbly generalize here) not just due to the content, but also because of the time and undivided attention that the curriculum requires.
I passed the last of the three exams in summer 2017; my journey started somewhere in 2013. Currently, I am working toward my work experience requirements. On average, I spent between 300 and 350 hours studying for each test, which meant a seemingly endless number of late nights and weekends.
Among finance and investment professionals, the CFA certification is seen as something of a gold standard. In my opinion, working toward and achieving the CFA designation demonstrates not only technical competence, but also a passion and commitment toward clients to do the best possible job in managing their money.
Thinking in a different way
The CFA certification has an immense focus on ethics, and CFA charter holders may be naturally geared toward providing the highest standard of ethics and respect for compliance. The curriculum enhances and fosters an independent and critical mindset that is important for research and to understand complex instruments and strategies. Apart from improving your technical and analytical skills, the curriculum also places emphasis on the behavioral aspect of finance. It gives you a framework for looking at investments in a way that considers not just numbers and financial models, but the human element that helps explain why markets behave the way they do. You can’t be a successful and well-rounded investment professional if you don’t factor in that human component.
Earning the CFA charter involves passing a series of three exams plus fulfilling the work experience requirements, a process that could take a minimum of four years. The first level or exam can be taken twice a year, while the other two are once every year. Having cleared all the exams, I am currently working toward my work experience requirement. The curriculum for each level covers a variety of broad subjects including ethics, financial analysis, derivatives, alternative investments, private equity, behavioral finance and quantitative analysis. A great deal of importance is placed on ethics throughout all three levels.
Why I pursued the CFA certification
One of my university professors initially encouraged me to think about the CFA curriculum. It took me a couple of years after graduation to get serious about studying for it, and when I did, he mentored me in going down that path.
I think the CFA process is often the most challenging to those who try to shift into finance after working in other careers. If you already work in a finance or investment-related field, as I do, you tend to latch on to the material very quickly — even though internalizing all the information does require a great deal of undivided attention. Personally, I enjoyed dedicating myself to the entire process.
The hardest part of the CFA process
The Level 3 test was by far the most challenging for me, due to the deeper breadth of the study topics compared with the previous two levels. I feel the tight timeframe is common across all the exams, but it gets more manageable with practice and mock tests.
I was among the many people who didn’t pass the Level 3 test the first time. Reflecting back on the experience, I realize that I had gone into it overly confident and without adequate preparation. Failing the test brought me back to reality.
Studying for all those years straight definitely took a toll, so I took some time to recharge before rededicating myself. The second time around, I went into the test feeling that I was well prepared. After a one-month wait for the results, it was a relief to learn that I had passed. I celebrated with friends and family and took a well-deserved vacation.
A test of patience and dedication
The CFA journey has undoubtedly improved and enhanced my analytical thought process while increasing the patience, dedication and attention to detail I bring to my work.
Currently, I am an active member of the CFA Society’s Oklahoma City chapter and aim to become more involved in chapter leadership as opportunities arise.
My university encourages finance majors to give thought to the CFA program and also allows alumni to talk to and mentor current students who are planning to start their journey. I’ve had the opportunity to converse with and motivate a few students who were at the time studying for their Level 1.
The major piece of advice I have for people interested in the program, or for anyone reading, is that studying for the CFA certification requires a lot of time and total dedication. You have to make it a priority over everything else. That’s the key.