The Reality of CFP Exam Prep

Back in 2003, when I was single, 26, not working and freshly minted with my master’s degree from Texas Tech University, I was singularly committed to studying for the CFP® exam.

I passed the exam on my first try.

My two months and 250 hours of study rule of thumb is good if passing the exam is the only priority in your life. It worked for me because I was not working and laser-focused on studying for the exam.

I realize my situation is not the norm. While I won’t get into the battle of which study prep outfit is better—it’s all subjective and should be determined based on how the individual chooses to study based on their learning preferences. The part I will give recommendations on is study time and study behavior—even if you don’t have all the time to study like I did.

The Honest Assessment

If the exam is not the only thing in your life and you have other commitments, you have to do an honest assessment of your life leading up to the exam and go beyond my two months and 250 hour studying rule. Assess how important passing the CFP® exam is relative to everything else in your life.

Here’s a quick assessment to do:

  • Write “CFP exam” in the middle of a piece of paper.
  • Do you have a spouse or significant other? Put that person’s name above the exam.
  • Do you have a job? Put that above the exam.
  • Do you have kids? Put their names above the exam.
  • What other time commitments does your life demand? Put those down, too.
  • For every item written above the exam, add 20 to 25 hours of dedicated study time. Don’t spread this time over more than a couple of weeks.

My experience was to eat, breathe and sleep the CFP® exam with absolutely no other commitments for my time. I spent about 10 weeks or 250 to 300 hours of study while also enrolled in a long-form review course.

When I was preparing for the exam, the financial planning faculty at Texas Tech were offering an eight- or 10-week review course on campus. I took a random day off each week to decompress because I had more time than commitments. I studied more on days we had class and at least four hours on days we didn’t. Being a recent graduate, I was still able to use the university library and reserve a private study room. I had saved enough money during a semester in Singapore that I didn’t need to work to cover expenses. And, renting a room in a house also helped me save money.

The Time Commitments

Most people’s reality is they have a full-time job in the financial planning profession, and many have a spouse or significant other.

Be realistic about your time commitments. Your job takes up 40 hours a week and the odds are high that you will not be able to study during work hours.

Your relationship requires time and attention. Life happens. You need to have a serious conversation with your spouse or partner as you build out your study calendar. If you are trying to cram 250 to 300 hours into 10 weeks, it will take sacrifice and understanding. There are 1,680 hours in 10 weeks. You sleep for 560 of these hours, assuming you sleep eight hours a night. No one bounces out of bed ready to go, so budget another 100 hours for getting ready for and winding down from the day. Your job requires at least 400 of these hours.

If your average commute to work is one hour each way, there goes another 100 hours. While this time can be used to listen to relevant podcasts and recorded lectures, it’s not full-on study time. We are down to 520 hours.

You can see where this is going—we haven’t even scheduled time with our loved ones and 70 percent of our time is spoken for. If you have children or other commitments, they will require your time and attention through this process. You need to find a way to carve out three to four hours of dedicated and uninterrupted time in your day, every day.

The Big Mistake

As you can see, time is precious. Don’t waste time studying what you already know. The biggest study mistake I see people make is doing just that.

Your mind is going to draw you to spend time on what you know because you get the answers correct and it makes you feel good. But you must be disciplined and study the things you hate and aren’t good at. In my case I have a bachelor’s in corporate finance and a master’s in personal financial planning. Outside of the classroom time devoted to investments and tax, I never cracked open my Dalton materials to those sections. However, the retirement and estate planning sections of my books were marked up, flagged and tattered by the end of it.

Behind the Curtain

I wish I could say that I was a model student with a natural ability to efficiently prepare for exams—I was not. I wish I could say that no one was surprised I passed the CFP® exam the first time—they were.

But the one thing that I did have to my advantage was that I understood the seriousness of the CFP® exam early on and adjusted my study habits to fit the challenge (thank you to the late professor Robert E. Barnhill III for showing me how demanding the CFP® exam was going to be).

Accepting the Challenge

While it might feel like an impossible feat to pass the exam when you have a full-time job and other commitments, it is doable. You must be honest with yourself and your loved ones about how demanding the exam preparation is going to be. There is no way to study just enough to pass—you must be over prepared. If that means three months and 350 hours of study for you, take ownership of the process and move forward.

Jason McGarraugh, CFP® is a financial adviser with Neal Financial Group. Connect with him on LinkedIn. 

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the February issue of the FPA Next Generation Planner. Download the app (in the Apple App Store and Google Play) and issue today if you haven’t yet done so for more CFP Exam tips. 

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Categories: Advice for New Financial Planners, Continuing Education, Time Management | Permalink.

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