The Certified Financial Planner designation is widely considered to be the definitive mark of competence among investors and financial professionals. Individuals pursuing the CFP designation stand to gain professional competence from the curriculum, while the prestige that comes with holding the designation can increase an individual’s personal business, as well. (This is especially true for those wishing to provide financial advice at an hourly rate.) 

At its most basic level, the CFP designation helps financial professionals better understand their clients’ overall financial situations. Whether you aspire to be a stockbroker, an insurance agent, a tax professional, or a mortgage loan officer, you may be able to further your career by attaining the CFP designation. But those who intend to pursue a CFP designation should know what they’re getting themselves into. In this article, we’re going to break down the CFP exam to help you decide if this is the right next step in your career.

What to Expect from the CFP Exam

The CFP examination includes questions on five areas of finance: investment, tax, retirement, estate planning, and insurance, the latter of which includes sections on education planning, ethics, and the financial planning process.

The test is approximately 7 hours long, broken up into two three-hour sessions with a 40-minute break in between. In that time, individuals must answer 170 multiple choice questions, including several short and extensive case studies. Case studies allow a student to showcase their knowledge of course material and apply it to real-world scenarios.

The CFP examination is administered three times each year in March, July, and November. Although students are allowed, and encouraged, to take the CFP exam multiple times, the odds of a student passing the test are highest for their first exam and diminish with each subsequent exam that they take. In 2017, the CFP Board reported that the overall pass rate was 64%, while the pass rate for first-time exam takers was 69%.

It should be noted, however, that pass rates are not an exact reflection of your chances of passing the exam. The figures reported by the CFP Board are influenced by students who do not pass the exam their first time and attempt to retake it without additional preparation. Students who do not pass the exam their first time around should not be discouraged to put in the additional legwork and try again.

How to Study

Although the CFP examination is only 7 hours long, it takes an average of 1,000 hours of studying just to get there. Students who have passed other insurance or FINRA-administered securities exams may feel that their preparation for those tests will help them shave off some of those 1,000 hours, but, tragically, that’s not always the case. While there is some overlap in the material on both types of tests, the CFP exam requires that students apply their knowledge of that material differently.

Here are a few tips to help you maximize the effectiveness of your studying.

1. Do not focus on memorizing concepts. Licensing exams quiz candidates on short- and long-term fact recall, but the CFP exam demands much more of students. In order to pass the CFP exam, candidates must not only know the curriculum, but they must also be able to synthesize and apply it to real-world financial planning scenarios. In fact, the way that you might think to study for licensing exams can actually be counterproductive when it comes to the CFP exam. While there is a great deal of memorization required for both certifications, individuals who do not practice recall and application will be unprepared for the CFP exam.

2. Learn the CFP board’s reasoning. Many first-time test takers will be surprised by the way the CFP Board grades exam answers. The CFP board has a specific rationale that it uses when creating correct responses to test questions. In order to have the best chances of passing the exam, students should understand and apply this rationale as closely as possible.

3. Aim to achieve the best grade possible. It probably goes without saying, but candidates taking the CFP exam should work towards the highest score possible. Licensing tests are scored and given a percentage grade, whereby students need to achieve a minimum percentage in order to pass. But with the CFP, candidates do not receive grades. Instead, they receive a notice by mail letting them know if they passed or failed the examination. 

4. Enroll in a review course. You may also consider enrolling in one of the many review courses offered in preparation for the CFP exam. The instructors who teach review courses often provide students with inside tips on reasoning through the case studies and may indicate how much weight will be given to each section on the exam. Given the breadth of material in the CFP curriculum, some topics will either not be tested on or will be assigned very few questions. By understanding how likely a topic is to be featured on the exam, individuals can more effectively structure their studying.

How to Succeed on Test Day

When it comes to multiple choice testing, words of advice are a dime a dozen, but these strategies are priceless. Here are our top recommendations for students hoping to increase their chances of passing the CFP examination.

1. Answer every question. Ensure that you answer every question, even if you have to guess. You have a 25% chance of guessing an answer correctly, but a 0% chance of getting that answer if you skip the question. Candidates on the CFP examination are not penalized for guessing, so you should respond to every question. If you can safely eliminate one or even two of the possible answers, your chances of selecting a correct answer increase significantly.

2. Stick to your gut. Your first response to a multiple choice question is typically the most accurate.

3. Study up on taxes. When it comes to the CFP curriculum, students tend to agree that the tax section is the most difficult to learn and apply. It may be worthwhile to spend extra time studying up on your taxes before beginning the CFP curriculum. One useful way to do this is to study and take the IRS Enrolled Agent exam, as the majority of the material from that test is also present on the CFP exam.

To Cram or Not to Cram

Some students take up to five years to complete the curriculum of coursework that is required to take the CFP Board Exam. Others take five months. While the amount of time required to study for the CFP Board Exam will differ for each student, all candidates face the same set of questions when test day comes. Exam prep manuals often caution students against cramming for tests, but many candidates pass the CFP exam each year by doing just that. Before deciding to study last-minute, consider how much you have already prepared and how well you perform when it comes to short-term recall.

Practical Advice

As with any test, students should get a good night’s sleep beforehand, eat breakfast, wear comfortable clothes, and be prepared for the intensely bright lights and uncomfortable chairs that come with any testing environment. While the breadth of the material covered in the CFP curriculum may be intimidating at first, virtually any student who takes the time to study is capable of passing — if not their first try, then the next time around.

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