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.