The CFA Difference
Preparing for the CFA® certification process involved devoting a year and a half of my free time to pursuing a single goal with very narrow margins for success at each stage across three exams. Although I completed the process with the fastest timing possible—namely, December for Level I and June for Levels II and III—the compressed schedule took a toll on my health and my social life. In the end, that was nobody’s fault but my own. I went in to the CFA Program mindful of the difficulty of passing each stage and, accordingly, planned to dedicate a considerable amount of time to each level.
Needless to say, although I ultimately earned my charter, at many points along the way I was tempted to ask myself whether it was worth it at all. Looking back, despite the intensity of the self-study program, I think it was. When I think about the things that motivated me to pursue the certification in the first place, completing the process met the criteria for success I had formulated early on, even if I was not fully aware of them in strictly defined terms.
If I had to do it again (god forbid), I’d find a way to organize my schedule to allow a bit more time to focus on other aspects of day-to-day life that might seem like distractions but which, as a whole, reinforce one’s ability to work hard. But most importantly, I’d also take the time to reflect on exactly why I was committing to something for such a long period of time. In my case, I was fortunate to have the outcome meet my expectations for success. The biggest lesson I took out of the CFA Program was that this might not be true at other points in my life, so it’s worth understanding what you want to take out of a project versus the realistic possibility for that project to deliver it.
The desire to advance my career obviously formed a part of my motivation to start the CFA Program in the first place. Conceptually, it made sense for someone with my profile. My educational background was in engineering, and although I started out in the corporate sector, I felt that if I ever wanted to focus my career in financial services, the CFA designation would be a useful signal of my seriousness, in addition to being relevant training in and of itself.
That much proved to be true in droves. The CFA curriculum doesn’t get hung up on academic minutiae, but nonetheless provides extraordinary depth of coverage in every subject tested at the exam. The way I made sense of the curriculum was that Level I represented the “bar” of a T in terms of breadth of coverage versus depth in any given field. Level II basically extended the bar downward to form a square with depth of coverage in every subject. Finally, Level III extended the bar even further to form a rectangle of sorts. Okay, so the T-shape analogy is a terrible way to describe the CFA Program. Still, if you’re looking for a program that will challenge your knowledge in almost every conceivable practical field of financial services, the CFA Program will provide that handily.
More importantly, I was looking for a new challenge to test me. When I began, I was six months into a career in corporate finance and I had already started itching for something new to test me outside of work. It had to feel like a worthwhile use of my free time, something more important than idling on weekdays at the pub. And it had to be something difficult so I could find the inner motivation to want to overcome a challenge. I spoke to two people from my school, several years senior to me, who had earned their charters and they urged me to consider very carefully whether I was going to think the CFA Program was worth it. This was practically all the motivation I needed in terms of identifying a challenge with a fearsome reputation that I wanted to conquer.
This really shouldn’t be motivation enough for anyone with their head screwed on the right way, but for better or worse, I’m wired that way and the fierce desire to conquer the CFA Program fed me through the next 18 months. Along the way, I fortuitously discovered that it was exactly the right choice for me.
Pursuing the CFA Program can often feel very lonely, particularly after endless nights and weekends studying alone. If you find solace in spending time on your own, you might not mind. Extroverted people like me will suffer quite a bit. However, despite the apparent solitude, I think about my CFA experience in human terms. I made new friends with similar interests and often similar mindsets by going to mock exams organized by local CFA chapters. I looped in existing friends to prepare for the exams with me and forged stronger bonds through studying together. I received encouragement from supportive bosses at work, energized by their desire to see me succeed. And I learned how to face down opposition from other, less supportive bosses at work, who saw the advancement of my career as a threat to their own.
On top of this rewarding human experience, the CFA Program gave me the time, excuse, and berth to absorb enormous amounts of information in very compressed time frames on subjects I remain deeply passionate about.
I would advise prospective candidates to really take advantage of the time they have before committing to the program to reflect on what they hope to take out of it. Take advantage of not having to answer to anyone other than yourself to spare the canned interview-response platitudes and really ask yourself what you’re hoping to get out of it. Speak to current candidates and charterholders, read up on the curriculum, and use the plenty of free resources available on the internet and at your local chapter to fully understand what you’re getting into.
I was lucky to have found that the CFA Program gave me everything I was looking for in an extracurricular study program. I hope you’re able to get the same from your own search without having to leave it up to luck like me.
About the Author
Adrian Cachinero Vasiljevic, CFA, is a Spanish-Serbian finance analyst. He has a degree in Electrical Engineering from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne and obtained his CFA charter in 2016. His career in corporate finance has exposed him to various facets of the consumer goods industry, including commercial finance in emerging markets, mergers and acquisitions, and supply chain finance. He is currently a member of the Swiss CFA Society and a volunteer on its candidate support committee.