Today, I’m answering a question I get all the time from fellow finance professionals:
How do you study for (and pass!) the CFP exam?
Let’s kick things off by talking about my personal CFP® certification timeline. I started a self-paced, online CFP® education program in August of 2016. From August through October, I made getting through the coursework my full-time job. For 12 to 14 hours a day, I was going through the lessons online, reading the text books, and taking the quizzes, midterms, and finals for each of the course modules.
In November 2016, I stopped working on CFP® coursework to cram for the CFA Level I Exam. I passed that in early December, then finished the last CFP® education module and started the capstone course on January 1st of 2017. I turned my final project in on January 15th, passed with flying colors, then gave myself a couple of weeks to chill before diving headfirst into studying for the March exam.
With just over one full month to study for the exam, I had to design my study strategy very carefully. So here are my top tips for studying for and taking the CFP® exam to help you pass on the first try too.
#1 - Choose your prep materials wisely
Spending more money on expensive prep packages does not mean you’ll pass. A good study prep package should offer succinct reviews of major concepts as well as material and exercises that help you learn how to apply those topics. That’s what the CFP Board is testing you on: how to apply the knowledge you learned in your courses to each client’s unique situation.
I used prep materials offered by Keir Success, which is now part of Dalton. They were incredible! The package I bought included phenomenal review volumes and multiple application exercises that really saved my butt on exam day. And they were half the cost of other review packages.
#2 - Focus on how to read the questions
What is the CFP Board asking of you?
That’s what you should always ask yourself when approaching a question. The CFP® exam tries to trick you with wording. Always put yourself in the CFP Board’s shoes and read between the lines.
Think to yourself:
What do they want?
What is the core concept they’re testing here?
How can I best answer this to prove my knowledge and command of the curriculum?
If you do that, you’ll be good to go.
#3 - Take your own notes
A lot of people spend hundreds of extra dollars on beautifully designed study guides and color-coded flashcards. Honestly, that’s a waste of money for most people, and a really ineffective study crutch.
Instead, create your own study guides as you review the content. One for each course: financial planning, taxes, insurance, investing, retirement, and estate planning.
My custom study guides took me a while to create, but they were crucial to my study success. I remember things better when I write them down and organize them myself, so this extra detail and time spent paid off for me big time.
I also recommend making your own flashcards and carrying them with you everywhere you go. Ten minutes of idle time here and there - on the subway, in line at the grocery store - really adds up!
#4 - Use a quiz bank to focus on your weak areas only
This is probably going to be a little painful at first… We all like to practice questions that we know the answer to.
But you and I both know that’s not going to help you! You’re already good at those concepts. You need to practice questions that you get wrong over and over again so that, eventually, they become second nature.
#5 - Don’t read the entire case study
I may get some flack for recommending this, but unless they’ve changed the exam format significantly since 2017, it should still hold true...
I noticed that the answers and information I needed to answer the CFP® case study questions were usually written in pretty obvious, consistent locations within each case study text. That meant (for me at least) that reading the entire case study was a waste of time.
See if the same is true for you! Read numerous case studies to get an idea of where they hide information, and take note of any little tricks they pull. For example, sometimes they’ll give you one number, then change it two sentences later.
On exam day, save yourself time by only looking for the information you need. They’re hoping to distract you with numbers and details that aren’t relevant to the questions asked. Don’t fall for that trap!
#6 - Take a mock as a true exam simulation
That means only when you feel you’re truly ready, maybe a couple of weeks or just a week before the exam.
This is what I’ve always done for any standardized testing, CFP® exam and CFA exams included. People think I’m nuts! But to me, taking a mock exam three months before game day when I know for a fact that I haven’t learned everything yet is a waste of time (not to mention a blow to my ego).
Instead, wait to take a practice exam until closer to exam day. Then narrow your last minute study focus to just the questions and concepts you get wrong on the mock exam.
#7 - Scope out your testing location
A week before your CFP® exam, scope out your testing center. Make sure you know where it is and how to get there. If you can walk inside, do it! See if it’s a little on the cold or hot side so you dress appropriately.
Also make sure to put new batteries in your calculator and take care of any other admin tasks - print your ticket, put it with your ID… all that jazz.
#8 - Stay near the EXAM the night before
By “near”, I mean ideally within walking distance of the testing facility. I’ve heard horror stories of people getting stuck in traffic the morning of the exam, leaving them with only one option: jump out of the car and run to the exam center. Seriously.
Arrive at your hotel or Airbnb in the early afternoon. Spend your remaining hours focusing on the few topics that you still feel a little unsure about, and trust that you’ve internalized the rest.
Remember, it’s no use continuing to practice questions you consistently get right! Use your Exam Eve productively and try to score yourself some extra points the next day.
On the day of your exam, brain dump any formulas, acronyms, income limits, etc on the scratch paper immediately once you start the exam. On multiple choice questions, read the question at least twice, then get to work. Don’t assume the first answer you get is the right one! Run through the calculations twice. The exam writers add trick answers as solutions to confuse you.
For example, one of the choices will almost surely be the answer you’d get if you forgot a common step or use the wrong number in your calculation. And on case studies: Don’t read the whole thing. Just pull out the info and numbers you need to answer the question. In my experience, the rest of the material was totally useless.
WHAT I WOULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY
That’s how I was able to pass the CFP® exam on the first try with just one month of studying. But there are some things I wish I would have done differently to make that process a little easier on myself.
For example, I wish I would have invested in some sort of live, last minute review (and watched it earlier than the night before the exam). That way I could have asked an instructor questions about a couple of topics that I was struggling with.
And, I think this probably goes without saying, but I would have started studying much earlier if I could have!
While I was able to study full time for this exam like it was my job, I know that most people don’t have that kind of luxury. So do yourself a favor, start earlier than you think you need to, create a solid study plan, and stick to it.
Now that you know my story, I want to know yours!
When are you taking the exam? How are you feeling about it?
Drop a comment below to share your certification story.
And if you know anyone else who is also studying for the exam, please share this post with them! It may just be what pushes them into the passing range.