In October 2019, I started the CFP® certification process and finished last month. I wanted to walk through my experience in case it’s useful for others.
CFP® certification is a four-step process. It involves the “4 E’s”: education, exam, experience, and ethics. The bulk of this post will cover the first two. For more in-depth info, I recommend the CFP Board site.
The education requirement includes a bachelor’s degree and completing the certification coursework. The coursework is seven courses in total: financial planning, insurance planning, income tax, retirement needs, investments, estate planning, and a comprehensive case analysis. With the right credentials, you can bypass the first six and only take the last course. I wasn’t so lucky.
The CFP Board makes it easy to search for colleges that offer the courses. I originally went with an in-person classroom format. The main reason is that I’ve been out of “school mode” for quite a while and thought it would be a better learning environment. I took the introductory course through Northwestern University.
A scheduling conflict with the second course forced me to switch things up. I went with The American College and its online self-study format. It turned out better than expected, so I stuck with it for the last six courses.
The American College’s self-study courses were simple. It was prerecorded instructor videos and a textbook. The courses were graded based on a 100 question multiple-choice test. You could go at your own pace, mostly, which was about seven to eight weeks per course for me.
I’ll note that the American College updated its courses in the middle of 2021. The update improved the course material, added a weekly live webinar with the instructor, and put each course on a ten-week schedule.
Grading also changed slightly but the multiple-choice test made up the bulk of the grade. If you went through the course material, it was impossible to not satisfy the other requirements. I preferred the original self-study format because I could get through the courses faster but the schedule offered structure and a good excuse to slow down.
In its entirety, the coursework took me from October 2019 to mid-July 2021 to finish. So 22 months. However, Covid shutdowns in March 2020 dragged that out an additional three months. Shutdowns forced the college to find an alternative way to test for each course which left students in limbo while the college came up with a solution.
Pre-Covid, tests for each course were done at nearby proctored testing facilities. The Post-Covid solution was proctored online testing (a webcam was required). Being able to take the test for each course at home was beyond convenient.
After finishing the education requirements, I had a two-week break before studying for the CFP® exam. I took the exam the first week of November 2021. Roughly three months (250 hours) of studying is recommended. So studying began in August. Simply put, you’re dedicating three months of your life — all your spare time — to studying for one exam.
A number of review courses exist to help you study specifically for the CFP® exam. I used the Dalton Review (I also had access to Kaplan study guides thanks to a kind reader). The cost of the exam was $825 (early entry fee) and I wasn’t going to pay that again if I failed. I have no idea if Dalton is better or worse than the other review courses out there but it was worth the cost.
The benefit of a review course is it’s specifically designed for passing the exam. Part of it is reviewing the materials so you can apply what you learn to the questions on the exam but it’s also about learning how to answer the questions. If you understand how the exam questions might be posed, you stand a better chance of passing.
Another benefit is the review course covers anything that may be tested but was not covered in your original coursework. Changes to tax laws are a good example.
The Dalton Review breaks down exactly what to do each day for basically three months straight. It’s a mix of reading the study guides, live webinars, pre-recorded videos, loads of practice questions, and practice exams. I would have been overwhelmed by all of it without a plan telling me exactly what to focus on each day.
My study schedule started out about two hours per day, five days a week. That gradually increased each month. I was up to about six hours per day over the last few weeks. I spent most of that additional time on the areas I was the least proficient in.
Early on, the bulk of the studying was reading and taking notes. By the end, the bulk of the studying was practice questions and flashcards. The practice questions were key for me. I was doing 100 questions per day over the last month.
I also took advantage of practice exams. When you pay for the CFP® exam at the CFP Board site, you get one free practice exam included. If you finish the practice exam by a specified date (the CFP Board sends a ton of email reminders), they give you a second practice exam. I went through both CFP Board practice exams plus two practice exams included with the review course.
I used the practice exams to mentally prepare for the real exam since they’re delivered almost exactly the same way. The questions were helpful but getting used to the structure and time limits of the real exam was the main benefit.
The CFP® exam was offered online or in a proctored testing center. I chose to take the exam in a testing center just to avoid any distractions. The testing facility required wearing a mask at the time. So I used two of the practice tests to get used to sitting for six hours with a mask on.
The actual CFP® exam is set up similarly. It’s two 3-hour sections (85 questions each), with a 40-minute break in between. Each section has an optional break (I think it was 10-minutes) in the middle of it too. So essentially, it’s four sections with breaks in between.
One word of warning though: once you start a new section on the exam, you can’t go back to the previous section. Review any questions you’re not certain about before starting the next section because you can’t go back. Also, be aware of your time if you’re reviewing previous questions. Time management is important.
One final note, the 40-minute break is a chance to grab lunch, hit the restroom, and relax. I recommend packing a light lunch with whatever energy snacks and caffeine you need. The testing center I went to had lockable lockers to store anything extra you might bring along.
I hesitate to offer any advice on studying since everyone learns differently. All I’ll say is the repetition of flashcards and practice questions was a huge help. I’ll add that the practice questions and practice exams can be discouraging at times. The questions Dalton offered were purposely written to be more difficult than the exam. But the software Dalton uses tracks how you do on each question which makes it easier to review the ones you got wrong.
Upon finishing the CFP® exam, you immediately get a preliminary pass/fail result. The official results are sent about a month after you take the test.
Most people going through this process will fulfill their experience requirements working at a financial advisory firm. However, my experience was different.
I’ve spent the last eleven years writing about financial topics. Luckily, that counts as indirect experience. Of course, I knew none of this at the time. I learned about it after reading a random article by a finance journalist who described how their writing qualified due to changes to the experience requirements that were made several years ago. So I asked a few questions.
In both situations, experience is reported at the CFP Board site and signed off on by a supervisor or a qualified attestor in my case. The point is you need someone who can verify the work. Thankfully, I knew someone who volunteered to verify my work.
I’m guessing my situation is somewhat unique but if you’re a finance journalist/blogger regularly, your time writing may qualify as experience. It’s worth asking about it.
The ethics requirement amounts to answering questions about, agreeing to certain conduct standards, and a background check. It was a painless process. Once that’s approved, you pay your initial fees and you’re set.
The entire CFP® certification process was long, grueling, frustratingly difficult at times but well worth it.