Today’s article was submitted by Bryan Ruiz. Bryan is a planner in residence at Kahler Financial Group and active member of the Financial Planning Association! After failing and passing the CFP® exam, he shares his reflections on his struggle, his process, and lessons learned.
Call this a guide for those who have failed the CFP® Exam if you want – but I think it’s useful for anyone sitting for the exam the first time may find a nugget of advice in here somewhere. This is what I wish someone had written when I was struggling to pass the exam because I know how it feels: lonely, ashamed, embarrassed, regretful – want me to go on? You’re happy to see others in your study group pass. Kind of. Secretly, you’re actually a little jealous and you wish you were able to sell your study materials already. I burned mine when I passed.
I’m not the smartest person in a room, but if I could pass, I’m convinced that anyone can pass this exam. I know more about this exam than most, if only because I took it four times. My intent isn’t to scare you with that.
No, my intent is to empower you to avoid making the same mistakes I made. I’ve experienced just about every emotion imaginable with this exam, and I will be fulfilled if someone – even just one person – can avoid my experience. I don’t wish that tumultuous slog upon a fellow Candidate for CFP® Certification, because studying for this thing even once is enough for a lifetime.
This is what worked for me. There are three overarching principles: processing negative emotions, increase true confidence through incremental improvement with deliberate practice, and take care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally.
At this point, you have enough technical skills to pass the exam. I didn’t believe that after my first attempt, but I do now. I lacked that confidence in my technical know-how, and I suspect you do too. Oh, but I didn’t have enough time to study. Perhaps, but suppose you did put in the right amount of time, you know how to use your calculator, the tax information, the formulas, or even the tiniest retirement plan rules. That’s not the hard part, right? Right. It’s all of those subjective questions that are difficult to answer.
How I Processed Negative Emotions
If we can talk about how our friends or loved ones have emotional baggage, who’s to say we don’t have our own? I didn’t realize that I had decades of academic emotional baggage going into this exam, and it took a lot of introspection to process it. I’ve failed plenty of exams in my day, but none hurt as much as this one because this was, in my opinion, the one that mattered most for my career. And the more I wanted it, the more it hurt when I failed.
- Don’t “should” yourself. Nonviolent Communication teaches us that should is a violent word “so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that many of us would have trouble imagining how to live without it…most of the time when we use this word with ourselves, we resist learning, because should implies that there is no choice.”
- Avoid studying again without processing how you currently feel. You only need three months to study for the exam, and there are four months between exam dates. I suggest taking a month off to truly process your emotions following the exam. This is an ideal time to stop shoulding yourself. It can be done through journaling, talking to someone, meditation, therapy–whatever it takes. Ever noticed how hard it is to listen to someone when you’re mad? Imagine studying when angry, bitter, or cynical.
- Process your current negative emotional state into a positive state. Nonviolent Communication also teaches us that “we are compassionate with ourselves when we are able to embrace all parts of ourselves and recognize the needs and values expressed by each part.” Being compassionate with yourself allows you to choose to study again, not because you should but because you want to. This also relates to the beginner’s mindset.
- Note in broad terms what gave you trouble on the exam while it’s still fresh.
Increasing True Confidence Through Incremental Improvement with Deliberate Practice
The first time I took the exam, everything felt so foreign to me – I actually thought I was taking the wrong exam. I convinced myself that the reason I didn’t pass was because I hadn’t studied hard enough.. The truth is: I wasn’t prepared for the exam itself.
Guess what? Everyone is nervous about the exam, yet people pass. Everyone studies hard, yet some people don’t pass.
People pass because they are prepared to handle what could be on the exam, and that preparation comes from lots of practice. This is another way of saying get comfortable with discomfort. I almost passed the third time I sat, and almost passing was enough motivation to rejuvenate me and reassess my attitude towards the exam. It was no longer my elusive white whale. It was tangible and within my reach. It was now a challenge I didn’t fear.
All I needed to do was improve 5-10% on each category, and that not only sounds doable, it’s downright motivating! (Incidentally, Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No.2, third and fourth movements, is playing on the radio as I typed this. Check it out!)
- Aim to improve 5-10% on every practice exam. Unfortunately you don’t know if your lows were high lows or low lows. The diagnostic is cryptic in that sense. I was told by a Dalton teacher that many people are within 10 correct questions of passing, and 5% of the exam is 8.5 questions.
- Fifty minutes of concentrated, focused practice is more useful than two hours of idle messing around pretending to be productive. This means turning off the phone, avoiding the internet, not answering emails, etc. I’ll emphasize again that you know enough to pass. You just need to practice more.
- Simulate the test environment as much as possible when working through practice questions. This means no browser tabs, no phone, just your screens of formulas, scrap paper, pencil, calculator, and earplugs in if you plan on using them for the exam. Warning: earplugs can get itchy after an hour or two if you aren’t used to them! (By the way, I’ve seen a lot of people misuse earplugs to their fullest potential. Proper earplug insertion: roll one up lengthwise, reach over your head to your opposite-side ear and use your fingertips to pull the outer edge of your ear up a little, insert, and let expand before doing the other side. It shouldn’t hurt, but they’ll be way in there if they were rolled well. It’s just right if all you hear is your breathing.) This also gets you used to working through questions on a screen rather than on paper, and there is a difference.
- Work through 200 questions a day: 100 in the morning when your mind is fresh and 100 at night when your mind is tired to help simulate the stress of the exam in a very real way.
- And review the answers, right or wrong. Sometimes you get a question right for the wrong reason. The exam has consistent reasoning, and the more you’re exposed to it, the easier it is to notice.
- Study everything, not just what you were good or bad at. Guess who had a low diagnostic with taxes and insurance the second time they took the exam? Yep, the guy with degrees in accounting and risk management. It’s comforting to go over what you already know. Every musician knows this. True growth comes from doing what makes you uncomfortable even though it’s grueling (every musician also knows this).
- Prepare with a beginner’s mindset. I am my worst critic when it comes to making mistakes. However, treating a missed question with genuine curiosity and willingness to learn instead of anger or shame helped me understand why I struggled with that question. Each missed question is an opportunity to learn, not a mark of inadequacy.
- Avoid memorizing more and hoping it’s a substitute for practice. I tried this, and it doesn’t work, not for this exam. Also, it’s time to find new practice questions if you find yourself memorizing the question without understanding it.
- Think…like the CFP® Board. This is an academic exam. Several questions will ask for what you would do next and your answer in real life is none of the above. Welcome to the CFP® exam. I suggest not fighting the exam and instead see what is being asked from an academic perspective. You’ll end up less frustrated.
Take Care of Yourself Mentally, Physically, and Emotionally
It’s really easy to forgo sleep and neglect your body during this time, but this is the time to be kindest to your body.
- Sleep well, exercise, and eat nutritious food. These provide real, lasting energy. Exercise doesn’t have to be intense, either. A ten minute walk after 100 questions before reviewing your answers is refreshing. There’s also evidence that exercise helps improve brain function in addition to reducing stress levels.
- Play an instrument. Seriously. Playing an instrument makes you smarter. I started learning how to play the cello at age 31, and I’m convinced it helped me pass the exam. Just like with exercise, ten minutes of focused practice stimulates the brain in a different way. Bonus if you take your 100 question quiz, practice, and go for a walk before reviewing the answers.
- Make sure your life is calm bordering on boring. Switching jobs, starting a business, getting married, having kids, getting divorced, moving, a medical issue–all of these big, yet common things that happen in life derail your deep and present concentration.
- Power pose. If you’re not familiar with Amy Cuddy’s work on presence and power posing, it’s fascinating stuff. Basically, body language is psychosomatic. Open, big poses (think Superman) lead to improved moods and increased confidence while contracted, withdrawn poses (think Gollum) lead to the opposite. It would be weird to see Superman with his hands on his hips acting meek, wouldn’t it? Listen to that Sibelius piece while power posing and tell me you don’t feel ready to take on the world.
- Find a support/study group if that’s your study style. It helps keep you on track and accountable. Better yet, teach a section you struggle with. The pressure of sounding competent is motivating, and it helps keep you in the beginner’s mindset. This is also your forum for encouraging others and receiving encouragement.
- Laugh every day. Laughter is a great way to relieve stress. The best thing to do the night before the exam is to eat something you’re used to eating, watch your favorite whatever that makes you laugh, and go to bed early.
Exam Day Hints
Power pose before you start and during the exam. Power pose just before going through your questions marked for later. There’s a chance you just might go with your first choice, and your instincts at this point have been honed over hours of deliberate practice. Trust this developed instinct unless you can prove through practiced reasoning you were wrong.
- Bring a balanced lunch with complex carbs. Food is energy. Garbage in, garbage out. I like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on no sugar added whole wheat, a few dates, and white tea. The brain uses a lot of energy, especially glucose. The complex carbohydrates from the bread and dates provide lasting glucose reserves while the jelly gives an immediate burst of fructose. The fat and protein in the peanuts are not only satiating, but provide lasting energy beyond the carbohydrates. The low levels of caffeine in the tea give enough of a lift but not enough to leave you jittery.
- Try to see this as a challenge instead of a threat. You’re ready if you want to show the exam who’s boss more than worry over minute details the night before. Yes, you’ll be nervous at some points during the exam, but stress can heighten your focus and concentration if you allow it. I suspect the best athletes already know this.
- Do a trial run 24 hours in advance from your front door to the handle of Prometrics’ door. This give you a sense of the time needed to get there and doesn’t leave your GPS to chance. Addresses can change. Parking situations can change. This unnecessary stress can be avoided.
Special Note for Repeat Retakers
I urge you to change something this time, be it a preparation program or approach. One thing is for sure: whatever you did in the past hasn’t worked so far. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me” applies here.
I knew after my second attempt that I had to change something because memorizing more, my long-time crutch, wasn’t working. My approach went from memorizing to practicing, which was uncomfortable, but I knew that that was the right approach when I almost passed on my third attempt. Sometimes growth isn’t easy, and this is a time to grow.
I won’t endorse a preparation program over another because effectiveness ultimately depends on the user, but I used Dalton twice then Ken Zahn twice. Dalton passes plenty of people, but I found their focus to be more on teaching the information instead of teaching candidates how to pass and I found the “pass the exam” focus of Zahn’s program more useful to me.
My Last Note
I’m not special. I’m not a genius, and I have the GPA to prove that I’m no stranger to bad results on exams. I’m very human. I make mistakes all the time. But something I’ve learned throughout my short blip of a lifetime on Earth is the power of grit. This experience had some unintended consequences I suspect you may experience when (not if) you pass. It builds character, shows your commitment to a calling, and you’ll retain more information than you realize. Who knows–you just might become a resource for those struggling to pass the exam some day. Remember that you aren’t alone, and that if I can pass, you can pass.
References and Further Reading
- Symphony Number 2, Jean Sibelius. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQxqoW52r-4
- “The Simple Reason Exercise Enhances Your Brain,” Time. http://time.com/4752846/exercise-brain-health/
- “Stress and Exercise,” American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/exercise.aspx
- “The Benefits of Playing Music Help Your Brain More Than Any Other Activity,” Inc.com https://www.inc.com/john-rampton/the-benefits-of-playing-music-help-your-brain-more.html
- “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are,” Ted.com https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
- “Stress Relief From Laughter? It’s No Joke,” Mayo Clinic https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456
- “Sugar and the Brain,” Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/sugar-and-brain
- “How You Can Benefit From All Your Stress,” Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-science-success/201303/how-you-can-benefit-all-your-stress
- “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Ted.com https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance
- “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve,” Ted.com https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve
- Presence, by Dr. Amy Cuddy
- Grit, by Dr. Angela Duckworth
- Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck
- Peaks and Valleys, by Dr. Spencer Johnson
- Nonviolent Communication, by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg