How passing one of the industry's hardest exams made me feel very uncomfortable

I am proud to announce that I have successfully completed the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification! Hurray, for me!

The board offers a very formal announcement template to send out, but I think it is more my nature just to say, ‘hey good news

I'm a CFP® professional now’. That’s enough fanfare.

Yes, it's an important accomplishment in the industry, but the principles of the certification are values I’ve incorporated in my practice ever since I began in the industry. So, when I began the process I wasn't expecting to grow much as an adviser, as I had the assumption I was already well versed on much of the material and already followed the ethical requirements of the certification. What I learned is that the process of becoming certified is that the process is an exploration of your mental and intellectual toughness.

First, for those who don't know what the designation is; the designation is offered by the Certified Financial Planner board to those who pass the education and ethical requirements needed to act as a certified member in the financial industry. Second, for those who don't know what is required to become certified; the process includes a series of steps which involve continuing education, ethics statements, a background check and the most intense exam I have ever taken in my professional career. Now that I am certified I can't say that I am suddenly a better financial adviser (although I certainly picked up new information on various planning topics), but I developed a greater empathy for clients and a greater understanding of myself.

The entire process of getting certified from start to finish took me about three years. The actual exam preparation from start to finish was about four months. My experience with the exam is the topic for this month’s ‘For Your Consideration’.

The exam is made up of 170 questions over two three-hour testing periods. The exam covers six areas of fundamental financial planning (standards and procedures, insurance, investments, retirement planning, taxes and estate planning). The questions are multiple choice, but what makes the test grueling is that the questions are not simply ‘which of the following is the correct answer’, but rather ‘all of the following are correct answers, but which one is the best answer for the situation being described’. Each question is essentially a riddle where the exam taker is given a real world financial planning scenario and allowed 130 seconds per question to develop a solution. Normally, I would allow myself a week to solve financial planning problems in a real-world situation. But for the exam, I had only 130 seconds, 170 times in a row.

So even before going into the exam, I knew that I was going to be asked questions in such a way that I couldn't just memorize material. I had to understand the many ways to apply the material to specific situations. But I also don’t want to downplay the fact that I had to memorize a lot of material!

All exam takers must be realistic and accept that there is no way they are going to get a perfect score. The material is just too broad. The difficulty of the test is legendary in the industry and it has an uncomfortably low historic pass rate of 60%. Because of the nature of the exam, and knowing that you just didn't have the time to memorize all of the information that would be on the test, a candidate just had to hope they had prepared enough, with no guarantee of passing despite all studying efforts.

As an A-type, and a highly analytical person, I was very uncomfortable going into an exam, knowing I had to accept that some of my success was going to be owed too pure luck. To boot, when you pass they don't tell you how well you did, just that you passed. It's very possible I passed by one question or 30. I will never know. While taking the exam there were series of questions that I was very confident I got correct. Then there would be another group of questions which I just wasn't sure. There was no point during the exam when I was certain I had passed or certain I had failed.

Because it was a computer-based exam, I received my score immediately. A feeling of sheer panic came over me as I clicked ‘submit’. After four months of studying and seven hours of fatigue inducing question answering, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had passed. Actually, I was relieved. Because after spending 4 months of four to eight hours a day studying for this exam, which is purposely made to be difficult to pass, I did not want to repeat the process. I did not like the feeling of not being in completely control of my success and I did not like being at the mercy of the board’s filtering process, as important as their vetting requirements may be. I did not like the feeling of having to submit to somebody else's process and accept that I was not in control enough to guarantee my success but rather solely a contributor to the process, with the ability to only increase my odds.

In addition to learning new aspects of planning, the process allowed me to understand the importance helping people gain control of their financial situation instead of just being a contributor to their success. While the process of passing the exam may not change how I operate my practice, it did provide me with some insight on the value of properly presenting financial planning to clients. It needs to be my mission to not only educate clients and prospective clients, but to aggressively focus on helping them take the reins on the implementation of strategies to guarantee that no aspect of the process is confusing or intimidating.

Uncertainty is scary, and empowerment is invigorating. And while many variables of finance are unpredictable, it is still possible to have control over how outcomes affect us. My continued, and now strengthened pledge, is to make sure people know how to take that control so that our hours of preparation do not go unrewarded.

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