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

CFA exams

I have just passed all three levels of the CFA exams and am now 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 has been a roller-coaster ride to charterholder status, a ride through loneliness, addiction, insecurity and a fluctuating career.

I’ve always had problems with anxiety – something I was unable to tell me parents – and had problems deciding on what I wanted to do with my career. I wanted to start my own business, but both my parents and career counselors refused to let me drop of university to do this. So, I enrolled on an easier course that would allow me time to run my own marketing business.

It was tough; while my friends were out partying, I was at home banging my head against a computer screen. In the third year, I enrolled on a distance learning course taking the CFA programme, assuming that this would allow me time to focus on my business. How wrong I was.

Getting through level one

I took lessons to understand CFA Level I. I went to a knowledge academy. 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 realized my inadequate knowledge when I took sample exams. Calculating the result gave me shivers. I scored only 50% in my first sample exam. It was scary. I was not able to sleep for a couple of nights.

I re-read my books and also started taking more exams. Slowly and gradually, I improved. At last, in the institute mock, which I sat seven days before the exam, I scored 70%.

In the three days before the exam, anxiety took over. I smoked the highest a huge number cigarettes during that period. It was a very tough time. It was also my birthday and I was away from home alone in a hotel. I constantly read my books for the next two days without being able to sleep. I was nervous, scared and alone.

Exam day was the worst. I woke up at 5am and sauntered over the exam centre were there were more than 5,000 candidates sitting the exam together. 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. The result was that I sat the second exam on a diet of cigarettes and anxiety. I felt dizzy and sick by the time I boarded the train home.

CFA Level II was the hardest 

Two months later, the results came through and I was lucky enough to pass – all my hard work had paid off. What I didn’t know, however, was that CFA Level II was the hardest of all and 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.

It was a tough time. The content was very new and very comprehensive. I put days and nights into preparing for the exam. Meanwhile, my business was ruined. I couldn’t focus on both; I simply didn’t have that much energy.

My smoking had started increasing. It was eight-10 cigarettes a day up from two cigarettes. I think the only reason that I cleared CFA level II was because of cigarettes. Not recommended, it is harmful to health but the only way I could deal with the stress.

The whole process of preparing for Level II was terrifying. I barely had time to read the CFA text books, and only managed to complete them a few months before the exam. It was a gamble – I knew all the concepts well, but that was pretty much all I new. In the sample papers, I was scoring below 50%.

I decided not to lose hope and to increase my cigarette consumption. As I was alone at home, I could smoke as much as I wanted. It was a mistake to smoke so many cigs.

I started reading Kaplan again. This time with much more focus. I improved very slowly and steadily. It was a close call. We all have the stress before an important exam, but I have problem with anxiety. My stress was three times higher than normal people. Those days still haunt me in my memories.

I gave my exam and was happy, but I wasn’t in anyway certain what will happen after exam CFA level II. It pulled the soul out of my body. I was not able to read for next two months. I had severe headaches and used to dream of various financial concepts. I was also having tough time smoking. Smoking is really bad habit and I tried to stop. It was harsh.

I passed CFA Level II, but it was not a happy experience. For a start all my friends flunked, so there was no one to celebrate with. I had to force two friends to go out partying with me. One friend refused to speak to me because he failed and still isn’t – I have no idea why and it’s a big loss.

Things started falling apart in my personal life – my mum had a stroke, my grandfather was hospitalized for heart surgery. I was constantly on edge and had no down time and certainly no time to study.

The final hurdle 

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 feel I always get marked down for it.

But recently my results came out – I passed and am on cloud nine. I have no financial services experience and my marketing business is still down, but I’ve got through one of the hardest exams in the world in two years.

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.

The author is an anonymous marketing professional who is now taking some time out.

Comments (8)

  1. let me get this straight.. you busted your ass for a qualification that is of zero relevance to the work your doing or want to do?
    why not just complete your degree by taking a little extra time. that would have been easier and less destructive for you personally.

  2. I graduated with a finance degree, studied Level I in only 3 days and passed. Thought I would breeze through Level II but I was utterly wrong. That was my first time I ever failed an exam in my life. I took the effort to study hard in 5 months studying about 10 to 15 hours a week and finally passed. Totally agree Level II is the toughest. Studied Level III using similar amount of time and finally passed it. Overall I don’t feel it being as tough as what the author described, although most of the time I would doze off at my desk studying after work.

  3. I come from a background of zero finance/accounting and historically very poor at Math (I had to look up YouTube videos on algebra again!). When I was 20 and going through Uni, I clearly remember doing a Cost/Management Accounting course…yelling “F*** This!!!”, slamming my textbook shut, and switching to Computer Science major the next day.

    Fast-forward a few years when I started Level 1. I agree Level 1 is probably 1/3 covered if you just finished an undergrad. Crazy basic statistics, Micro/Macro, basic accounting etc. Easy…if you put in the time.

    Level II…deadly, the mock exams beat me down. I had no idea what was going to be asked on the exam, it’s all new stuff, doctorate level concepts, and is the largest by reading volume. When I left the exam, I was pretty sure I failed, I was bummed. But I ended up killing it, >70% on all topics except 50-70% on Portfolio Management. Phhh PM. Lame.

    Now I am on Level III getting an early start since this is the last hurdle for consecutive passes. Only 9 months left. So far the readings are way easier (half-way through 3/6 books) , and I do a lot of my own investing so is quite relevant. (I believe I display ALL of the behavioral biases…every single one). I have a major interest and it seems to be the most useful in understanding (as opposed to esoteric concepts in Level II).

    The key is, there are no concepts in the CFA Curriculum that is individually difficult, but when taken as a whole, and needing to remember all of it on the same day and in the way that CFA Institute is going to test you, it is very intimidating. Most people I know that failed DID NOT PUT ENOUGH TIME IN AND DID NOT STUDY HARD ENOUGH.

  4. One question for the author: why are you taking the CFA exams? Just for the 3 letters after your name?

  5. Very interesting read and it kind of let me re-live part of my exam experiences.

    Something doesn’t really make sense here… the author claims he/she is a charterholder, but also states no experience in financial services. I guess the author just passed the three levels, but is actually no charterholder, because you also need to prove at least 48 month work experience in the investment decision-making process.

    But still, congratulations on passing! Great achievement!
    However, you should probably study the ethics part again and re-evaluate if you can or should claim to be a charterholder. ;)

  6. I’m also curious how one can build up so much stress on an exam that appears to be a complete irrelevance for them. It’s one thing working on the buyside where the CFA qualification is fast becoming a pre-requisite and getting stressed out about the exams given the weight of expectation. It’s an entirely different scenario where the qualification is not necessary and one only appears to be doing it to gain three letters after their name.

  7. This article actually infuriated me. I’ve passed Level I and am awaiting results for Level II.

    1) You’re a grown up so act like one.
    2) No one feels sorry for you.
    3) Quit being a pussy.
    4) If all you’ve done is “ran your own marketing company” getting your charter was a complete waste of time.
    5) I’m calling bullshit on the 500 hours of studying per test.

  8. The amount of study time is subjective to your prior knowledge. I have known candidates to pass with minimal effort (300 hours to pass. Again, it depends on your background and what you want to to get out of it. But most importantly, is it relevant for you? It seems like it wasn’t.

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