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I passed all three CFA exams in two years. They left me broken.

The CFA messed with my mind and left me lonely and addicted to cigarettes

I have passed all three levels of the CFA exams and am 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 was a roller-coaster ride to Charterholder status, a ride through loneliness, addiction, insecurity and a fluctuating career.

I enrolled on a distance learning course taking the CFA programme, assuming that this would allow me time to focus on my own business (I work in financial services marketing). How wrong I was.

500+ hours of studying for Level I

I took lessons to understand CFA Level I. 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 only scored 50% in my first sample exam. It was scary; I couldn't sleep as a result.

I re-read my books and took more sample exams. In the last one, which I sat seven days before the real exam, I scored 70%.

In the three days before the exam, anxiety took over. And with the anxiety came smoking cigarettes - smoking a lot of cigarettes.

Exam day was the worst. I woke up at 5am and sauntered over the exam centre.. 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. I therefore sat the second exam on a diet of cigarettes and anxiety.

Peak cigarettes for Level II 

I passed CFA Level I and opted to go straight into Level II. I was unaware that it was the hardest level of all and that 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.

I started smoking more and then more. Where once I smoked two cigarettes a day, now I was smoking eight, and then ten, and then more again. Had it not been for all the cigarettes I don't think I'd have cleared level II.  Yes, they're bad for your health - but they're also very good for stress. And I was stressed: as before, I was scoring less than 50% on sample tests.

Rather than giving up, I decided to smoke more. Because I was studying at home, I could smoke as much as I wanted. And I did.

I started reading Kaplan again, whilst smoking cigarettes. My focus was far better. I improved very slowly and steadily and I passed the exam - but it left me a wreck. I had severe headaches and dreamed of financial concepts for months. I was also serious addicted to nicotine. It didn't help that all my friends flunked level II, so there was no one to celebrate with. One friend - who failed - refused to speak to me for months.

Still smoking for Level III 

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 always get marked down for it. I kept smoking.

I passed. The CFA Charter is a qualification for obsessive masochists and I am one.

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.
  • Bulk-buy Marlboro Lights.

The author is an anonymous CFA Charterholder 

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AUTHORAnonymous Insider Comment
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  • so
    someone speci
    16 May 2022

    Cannot agree more... CFA suicide is real #cfasuicide

  • Un
    Unknown
    2 August 2017

    The amount of study time is subjective to your prior knowledge. I have known candidates to pass with minimal effort (300 hours to pass. Again, it depends on your background and what you want to to get out of it. But most importantly, is it relevant for you? It seems like it wasn't.

  • WT
    WTF
    21 July 2017

    This article actually infuriated me. I've passed Level I and am awaiting results for Level II.

    1) You're a grown up so act like one.
    2) No one feels sorry for you.
    3) Quit being a pussy.
    4) If all you've done is "ran your own marketing company" getting your charter was a complete waste of time.
    5) I'm calling bullshit on the 500 hours of studying per test.

  • Ke
    Kenzo
    4 January 2016

    I'm also curious how one can build up so much stress on an exam that appears to be a complete irrelevance for them. It's one thing working on the buyside where the CFA qualification is fast becoming a pre-requisite and getting stressed out about the exams given the weight of expectation. It's an entirely different scenario where the qualification is not necessary and one only appears to be doing it to gain three letters after their name.

  • re
    redorbluepill
    19 September 2015

    Very interesting read and it kind of let me re-live part of my exam experiences.

    Something doesn't really make sense here... the author claims he/she is a charterholder, but also states no experience in financial services. I guess the author just passed the three levels, but is actually no charterholder, because you also need to prove at least 48 month work experience in the investment decision-making process.

    But still, congratulations on passing! Great achievement!
    However, you should probably study the ethics part again and re-evaluate if you can or should claim to be a charterholder. ;)

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