I sat for the CFA Level 2 exam on June 3rd. Since that time, I have been pretty much sitting on my hands awaiting my results...For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the credential and its exams, 'CFA' is an acronym for Chartered Financial Analyst, a highly-regarded professional designation in the investments industry that is awarded by a global institute bearing the same name.
These exams are notoriously difficult to pass and, since they are administered in paper form with answers submitted via a bubble sheet, it takes 8 whole weeks for exam results to be processed and delivered electronically to candidates.
Thus, my current predicament. I am anxiously awaiting my results alongside the more than 189,000 candidates from more than 91 countries who also registered to sit for a CFA exam on June 3rd.
Since I am less than 24 hours away from receiving my results (CFAI will email official results tomorrow morning), I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to compose an overview of the CFA Program and reflect on my personal experiences in the Program to date. I can think of at least 2 good reasons for doing this:
5 Key Features of the CFA Program
Rachel Bryant, CFA does a phenomenal job providing an overview of the CFA Program in her book, "Direct Path to the CFA Charter".
I have personally read this book and and would recommend it to anyone who is either navigating the CFA Program currently or simply trying to decide if they should register for the Level I exam. The remainder of this section (in italics) is an abbreviated excerpt from Ms. Bryant's book, wherein she outlines what she considers the 5 Main Features of the CFA Program:
In short, the CFA Program is a graduate-level, self-study course that teaches investment management concepts. Candidates in the Program hope to pass three CFA exams and become a CFA charterholder, which is a highly respected credential in the financial industry...The CFA Program sports five main features. While there is more to it than these five points, they are the base on which you’ll build a winning strategy:
Source: Bryant CFA, Rachel (2014-01-03). Direct Path to the CFA Charter: Savvy, Proven Strategies for Passing Your Chartered Financial Analyst Exams. Intellitwist, LLC. Buy on Amazon
My Experience in the CFA Program
My current candidacy in the CFA Program can be traced back to an interest in investing I've held since elementary school. Over time, this interest evolved into a very serious passion and, a few years ago, it motivated me to take the biggest risk of my life: As a 3rd year medical student, I chose to walk away from a budding career in medicine to pursue a future in the investments industry.
The important thing is this: To be ready at any moment to sacrifice what you are for what you could become."
The decision was not one I made hastily, but it was one that I made definitively. The best description I can provide for how it felt to make such a choice is the quote above.
Level I - Choosing a 3rd Party Provider
Prior to my registering for the 2015 Level I exam I had limited formal education that aligned with the CFA Program's curriculum. My undergraduate studies had earned me a B.A. in Biology, which served me well in medical school but would be of little use in my pursuit of the CFA designation.
However, my keen interest in the world of investing had at least motivated me to earn a Minor in Economics, which would prove valuable in a content area renowned for its complexity. In fact, my strongest letter of recommendation for medical school actually came from my favorite Economics professor...In hindsight, a clear indication of where my true interests were...
My lack of a formal education in the field was a central concern for me and something I knew I needed to rectify prior to registering for the Level I exam since the Program is designated as self-study. So, I researched programs and resources online that could help guide my study. I had grown accustomed to standardized exams throughout my career in medicine. I became very familiar with 3rd party providers during my time studying for the MCAT and USMLE Step 1, so resources like Kaplan Schweser and Elan Guides (now Wiley Efficient Learning) both seemed like natural choices for me.
However, late in my second year of medical school I had also researched online master's degrees in finance. This is how I first came across Creighton University's Masters in Investment Management and Financial Analysis (MIMFA) Program. Now, as I prepared to take on level I, the Creighton Program was appealing to me for a couple of key reasons:
In the end, the choice was easy for me: I enrolled in the MIMFA Program and, over the course of 2 semesters (Fall and Winter), I completed 5 courses: Ethics & Professional Standards, Quantitative Methods, Fixed Income & Derivatives, Financial Statement Analysis and Capital Markets. Collectively, these content areas totaled nearly 65% of the Level I exam content. I studied hard and managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA throughout all my classes!
Level I - Self-Study
But this was not enough- I was also responsible for reviewing the remaining content areas on my own. Collectively, they would make up 35% of the exam (Economics, Corporate Finance, Equity Investments, Alternative Investments, and Portfolio Management & Wealth Planning). In other words, these areas had the potential to make or break me on exam day.
Level I - Exam Day
After hundreds of hours of studying, I sat for the Level I exam in June, 2015. The entire exam day experience was like nothing I had encountered before, which was especially shocking to me considering my extensive experience with standardized test-taking. Whereas all of my testing in medicine had been administered electronically, I found myself reverting back to a setting more familiar with high school: A proctor announced over the loudspeaker, "You may begin" hundreds of candidates began filling out a bubble sheet with a #2 pencil. The effect was all the more dramatic due to the fact that all 3 levels were administered on the same day in a massive event center ballroom in downtown St. Paul. More than 6 hours later I walked out of the ballroom not knowing for sure how things had gone, but content with my efforts in regard to preparation.
Level I - Results
A long 8 weeks later, I received my results via email: I had passed! It was a fantastic feeling and one that I felt I had truly earned from hundreds of hours of studying and many quiet nights at my desk.
Level II - Navigating a New Career
Fueled by the endorphins flowing through my bloodstream, I registered for Level II almost immediately after receiving my Level I results (CFAI opens registration within a day or two of sending out results). I was elated by the results and was looking forward to diving into the Level II content and continuing my courses in the Creighton Program.
However, there were some new developments that would affect how I approached tackling Level II: I had recently started a new job in investor relations and the work would have me traveling a lot over the coming year. Although I welcomed the opportunity to gain much-needed industry experience, I also knew the demands of the role would mean much less dedicated study time for Level II.
Despite this added wrinkle and still buoyed by my Level I results, I approached my Level II candidacy with a great deal of optimism. So much, in fact, that I adopted nearly the same strategy for Level II as I had used in Level I. In hindsight, this was a mistake.
The year that followed had me working nearly around the clock while still juggling the demands of my studies. I managed to maintain a 3.87 GPA in the Creighton Program, earning A's in all of my Level II coursework with the exception of Fixed Income & Derivatives, where I received a B. Despite this course, I was still recognized as being in the top 20% of students at the Heider College of Business and was invited to join the Creighton Chapter of Beta Gamma Sigma, an international honor society serving business programs with the AACSB accreditation.
Level II - Exam Day
A few weeks later, on June 4, 2016, I sat for the Level II exam. I went into the exam not feeling as confident as I had for Level I. I knew I hadn't managed to dedicate as much time to studying as I'd like and felt weak in a significant number of content areas not covered by my Creighton coursework. I walked out of the exam center relieved that the experience was over and not at all optimistic about my chances.
Level II - Crushing Results...but still Relieved?
Eight short weeks later I learned my fate: I did not pass. I was certainly crushed by the results but also not shocked. What was especially odd about how I reacted is that a small part of me was relieved! How is that possible? Well, I knew I was weak in certain areas and, had I passed, I would have moved on to Level III no feeling 100% about the foundation under which I would continue to build my pantheon of investment knowledge.
I am not saying that failing Level II wasn't a tough pill to swallow- it was wretched. Still, the better part of me saw this as an opportunity that it was: a chance to dive back into the Level II material and give it the attention it deserved. I certainly desired the CFA designation, but I also wanted to earn it. So, I registered again to sit for the Level II exam in 2017 and set down the path of developing a better strategy.
Level II Retake - Developing a Gameplan
After receiving my results last July, I spent several weeks simply reflecting on next best steps. One of the first things I did was reach out to my professor in the Creighton Program. I was only 2 course away from completing the program, but did not want to move onto Level III content until I had cleared Level II (even though this is allowed). One of the 2 courses was an elective, so I chose to enroll in a Level II Capital Markets class for the Fall and hold of on taking my last class in the program, Portfolio management, until after I had sat again for Level II.
I enjoyed the Capital Markets course, studied hard, and earned an A in the class, bumping my cumulative GPA up to 3.89. With that course behind me, I put the Creighton coursework on the back burner and dedicated December through June exclusively to self-directed review of the Level II curriculum books.
Level II Retake - 3 Key Changes
I was able to identify 5 key lessons from my first attempt at Level II and outlined associated changes I needed to make this time around if I expected to improve my odds. In doing so, I focused on an acronym I had picked up when preparing for standardized exams in medical school called the TEAMS Approach, which stood for Time, Effort, Attitude, Motivation, Sources.
Level II Retake - Patiently Waiting on Results
I would like to close with some words of advice that I've found valuable as I mentally prepare for the potential outcomes I could encounter tomorrow when I receive my exam results. The quote below comes from Scott Adams autobiography. The name likely sounds familiar: Scott is the creator of the well-known comic strip Dilbert. Scott's story is both entertaining and insightful and is summed up well when he describes his life as, "...one person's unlikely success within the context of scores of embarrassing failures."
I am currently about halfway through the book and have enjoyed it immensely. Without a doubt, Scott has an interesting story to tell and I would encourage everyone to buy the book. Obviously I am hoping for good news tomorrow and am making every mental effort to visualize a positive outcome. That said, should my results prove less than desirable, I will certainly adopt another one of Scott's methods:
Over the years I have cultivated a unique relationship with failure. I invite it. I survive it. I appreciate it. And then I mug the shit out of it. Failure always brings something with it. I don't let it leave until I extract that value."
Regardless of the results I receive tomorrow, composing this post has proven to be a worthwhile exercise personally and I hope you have also derived some value by reading it. At the very least, I hope I have pointed some of you in the right direction for additional resources...Wish me luck!!!