The CFA messed with my mind and left me lonely and addicted to cigarettes

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CFA exams hard

I have passed all three levels of the CFA exams and am a Charterholder. It took me two years and one attempt. To say that it was something of a stretch is an understatement – it took my heart and soul, left me emotionally drained and addicted to cigarettes.

It was a roller-coaster ride to Charterholder status, a ride through loneliness, addiction, insecurity and a fluctuating career.

I enrolled on a distance learning course taking the CFA programme, assuming that this would allow me time to focus on my own business (I work in financial services marketing). How wrong I was.

500+ hours of studying for Level I

I took lessons to understand CFA Level I. It was all totally new to me. I read all the books from the CFA Institute and also the Kaplan material – I must have gone through them five times, which took me about 500 hours.

Even after doing this much reading, it wasn’t enough. I only scored 50% in my first sample exam. It was scary; I couldn't sleep as a result.

I re-read my books and took more sample exams. In the last one, which I sat seven days before the real exam, I scored 70%.

In the three days before the exam, anxiety took over. And with the anxiety came smoking cigarettes - smoking a lot of cigarettes.

Exam day was the worst. I woke up at 5am and sauntered over the exam centre.. It was a huge crowd. I was overcome with social anxiety on the spot. I handed in the first paper, but couldn’t find anywhere nearby to eat afterwards. I therefore sat the second exam on a diet of cigarettes and anxiety.

Peak cigarettes for Level II 

I passed CFA Level I and opted to go straight into Level II. I was unaware that it was the hardest level of all and that I only had a few months to prepare.

I signed up to a coaching centre, but my overworked tutor was awful. In the end, I borrowed a few Kaplan books and a video from my friend.

I started smoking more and then more. Where once I smoked two cigarettes a day, now I was smoking eight, and then ten, and then more again. Had it not been for all the cigarettes I don't think I'd have cleared level II.  Yes, they're bad for your health - but they're also very good for stress. And I was stressed: as before, I was scoring less than 50% on sample tests.

Rather than giving up, I decided to smoke more. Because I was studying at home, I could smoke as much as I wanted. And I did.

I started reading Kaplan again, whilst smoking cigarettes. My focus was far better. I improved very slowly and steadily and I passed the exam - but it left me a wreck. I had severe headaches and dreamed of financial concepts for months. I was also serious addicted to nicotine. It didn't help that all my friends flunked level II, so there was no one to celebrate with. One friend - who failed - refused to speak to me for months.

Still smoking for Level III 

I was still determined to take the CFA level III at the earliest opportunity and although it took me a couple of months to start functioning properly, it was much easier. I got a private coach seven months in advance.

CFA Level III is easy compared to the others, but it has a subjective paper. I hate written exams, my handwriting is terrible and I always get marked down for it. I kept smoking.

I passed. The CFA Charter is a qualification for obsessive masochists and I am one.

These are my tips:

  • Learn speed-reading
  • Put aside at least 500 hours to study. Less than that is not acceptable
  • Get a coach. It helps a lot.
  • Practice exams are important. I took every exam that was available.
  • Bulk-buy Marlboro Lights.

The author is an anonymous CFA Charterholder 

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