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5 lessons from failing the CFP exam

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This isn’t a post I wanted to write.

I was planning on just the opposite — a scrappy how-to guide on nailing the CFP exam on my first try as a career changer. I visualized the “preliminary pass” notification on my computer screen. I imagined a wave of relief while strutting through the test center doors. Then, I would text friends and family the good news from the parking lot. But passing the CFP exam didn’t happen for me.

There’s no doubt about it — failing the CFP exam makes you feel inadequate and undeserving. But you shouldn’t quit. Whether it's your first or last try, avoiding my mistakes may help you earn the coveted passing score.

1. Don’t attempt it alone: The weeks leading up to the exam are rough. Your partner or family will try to be supportive. But they won’t understand why you cry after a practice test. They may not get why you are mumbling formulas or swearing at the financial calculator. Accountability groups do.
Whether you join a Facebook group or are active in other online forums, support from other test takers is crucial. My journey would have been 10 times harder without it. I should have relied on them more from the beginning. Agonizing over a difficult problem on your own isn’t necessary. Plenty of folks are eager to help, so don’t hesitate to ask.

2. Don’t neglect your stronger areas: After our prep course’s live review, everyone felt overwhelmed. But with only five weeks until the exam, we had to focus on weak spots. This meant less time for investing and taxes — my two strongest areas.

When you fail the CFP exam, they email you a preliminary score report. High is good, medium is passing and low is failing. I was shocked when I opened my report.

● Education planning: medium
● Estate planning: medium
● General principles: medium
● Investment planning: low
● Professional conduct & regulation: medium
● Tax planning: low
● Retirement savings and income planning: medium
● Risk management and insurance planning: medium

Lesson learned? Don’t take your strengths for granted. You need to be rock solid in all areas to pass.

3. Treat self-care as part of your study plan: There is no way around it — studying for the CFP exam takes at least 200 to 400 hours. It’s grueling, rigorous and requires many sacrifices to complete.

It may be tempting to skip a workout or fuel study sessions with junk food, but those things will only make it harder. Your body needs sleep, nutritious food, water and exercise to perform at its best. Give yourself the best chance of passing by treating your body right. I skipped exercising several days and paid for it with unnecessary added stress.

4. Other people’s practice test scores don’t matter: Protect your energy in the weeks leading up to the exam.
Facebook groups and forums will be full of folks trying to predict their odds of passing. It’s normal to wonder if you are on track. But don’t allow it to derail your personal study plan.

5. There is no shame in failing on the first attempt: The dark side of social media is glaring after failing the CFP exam. The chorus of celebratory posts doesn't match the statistics. Among first-time test takers, the pass rate is 69% — meaning the other 31% fail. Once you also include those who repeat the test, nearly 1,000 folks are slapped with failing scores every cycle.

That means about 1,000 people will face colleagues, family and friends to break the bad news. Their social media accounts may fall eerily silent on the afternoon of the exam.

Allow me to break the silence to say you are not alone.

What feels like a catastrophe is a minor setback. This isn’t the time for embarrassment, a confidence downgrade or backing down. Only a fraction of financial advisors have earned the CFP mark. You and I will be among them. But first, we will need to crush the next CFP exam.

I’m cracking my books back open about 12 weeks before the July exam. During this period, I’ll aim to study for three to four hours a day, which equals another 250 to 340 hours of studying.

After going through it once, I can say with confidence, I am no longer afraid of failing.

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