If you search the internet in order to determine how many hours of dedication are required to study for the CFP® exam, you will likely encounter bewilderment rather than clarity. Time estimates range from 200 hours of study to well over 1,000 hours. There are countless stories about candidates studying for a year and a half and failing, as well as an equal number of candidates who passed after only a few months of studying.
So, what is the correct amount of time? It really depends on your background (more on this soon), your ability to retain information, and effectively focusing your areas of study. In this post, I will explain the 4-month (16-week) schedule I used* to prepare for the exam and the profile of the person it is likely to work for. Many candidates might argue that this schedule is too compressed, but I disagree. I strongly feel that spreading the material out over a longer period of time may actually do a disservice to the CFP® candidate (more on this later). First, here is the schedule:
Week 1: Coursework – Course 1, General Principles, Professional Conduct, & Regulation
Week 2: Coursework – Course 2, Risk Management, Insurance, & Employee Benefits
Week 3: Coursework – Course 3, Investment Planning
Week 4: Coursework – Course 4, Tax Planning
Week 5: Coursework – Course 5, Retirement Savings & Income Planning
Week 6: Coursework – Course 6, Estate Planning
Week 7: Coursework – Capstone Course + Practice CFP exam for benchmarking
Week 8: Study and Drill – General Principles, Professional Conduct, & Regulation
Week 9: Study and Drill – Risk Management, Insurance, & Employee Benefits
Week 10: Study and Drill – Investment Planning
Week 11: Study and Drill – Tax Planning
Week 12: Study and Drill – Retirement Savings & Income Planning
Week 13: Study and Drill – Estate Planning
Week 14: Practice CFP exam for benchmarking + review missed topics, Optional Live Review
Week 15: Drill and review
Week 16: Drill and review
The first 7 weeks cover the CFP® Board’s education requirement. This is a speed run through the program and is best achieved through a self-study type program like Kaplan’s Essential Package. Choosing a live course or one with a set schedule will not work in this compressed timeframe. Each of the first 6 weeks of this schedule has you reading the course materials and taking the final exam in one week.
The coursework covers a ton of material, which causes many candidates to drag out the education element. The problem with dragging out the coursework over several months is, because of the volume of information, the candidate is likely to completely forget everything learned in previous modules. Personally, I have issues with reading retention in high-volume, dull subjects. Therefore, I was happy to speed through the courses to get a high-level view of the material and then dive back in later to learn the nuanced details.
To reiterate: I firmly believe that compressing the time spent on coursework to get an overview of the information, followed immediately by intense study, is more beneficial than completing the program over a longer time period. This is because it is too easy to forget the information over time due to the volume.
The schedule has the candidate doing their capstone course in week 7. Depending on the course provider, the capstone course will likely have some downtime as you await feedback from your instructor. Use this downtime to go head and complete a mock CFP® exam to benchmark yourself. Expect a terrible result… it is normal at this stage. The idea of this is to see which subject categories are your strongest and weakest.
From this point, the schedule calls for one full week of study for each subject area. Based on your strengths, this may be modified to shorten the study time of stronger topics, while lengthening the study time for more difficult topics. It is also important to pay attention to the weighting of the exam (available at CFP.net). You will want to spend more time on heavily weighted areas, especially if you are weak in them.
How to study:
Everyone studies differently and it is important that you play to your strengths. However, there are some traits that I have noticed on the CFP.net Candidate Board among those who passed and those who have failed.
Drill, drill, drill.
If I were forced to only use one method of study, it would be to utilize an online question bank. Online question banks are available through most education providers. They are incredibly valuable and get you accustomed to the way questions are asked on the test. Not being tricked by the wording of the questions is half the battle. Many people on the CFP.net Candidate Board who passed the exam mentioned heavy use of the question banks. The questions are obviously different on the exam, but after drilling through hundreds of quizzes, I found each question on the exam felt familiar.
When doing topic reviews, I would create quizzes varying from 20 to 35 questions in length that only contained questions from that topic. I would then drill through them until I could consistently score above 80%. If I missed a question, I would review that topic in the book and then write down the fact I missed. I recycled my “missed questions” in future quizzes, and if I missed the question twice, I would create a flash card for it. Every 2 or 3 quizzes, I would circle back and review my written down facts. Each day I would review my flashcards. Speaking of notes and flashcards…
Don’t waste time reproducing notes and flashcards.
There is so much information covered in the CFP® coursework that it is already presented in an abbreviated fashion in course review books. If you take notes or create flashcards for all of the important information, you will essentially be completely re-creating the review books. Although writing is a great way to commit information to memory, the information here is too vast. You will be wasting dozens of precious hours writing notes and flashcards that could be spent doing practice quizzes. I’ve noticed that many candidates who failed the exam have posted about their thousands of flashcards.
Do I need more or less study time? Will this schedule work for me?
I feel strongly about the benefits of compressing the coursework and study time together. However, the reality is that some people will need more and some will need less study time than what is shown here on this schedule. Ask yourself the following questions to get an idea if you will need more or less time to study.
Are you a good test taker?
If you have performed well on major exams in the past, this study schedule will likely work for you.
Is it easy for you to retain large volumes of information?
Most of the difficulty factor of this exam is attributed to the huge amounts of information. If you are great at retaining information, you shouldn’t have an issue and may require less time.
What kind of college or university did you attend?
This question isn’t entirely indicative of exam performance. However, if you went to a competitive school, you are accustomed to being in a pressure cooker of intense learning and probably won’t have trouble. If you didn’t, don’t worry. Use the other questions as indicators of the amount of studying you will require.
Do you have a business/finance degree?
I know quite a few CFP® professionals with liberal arts degrees, but if you have a degree in business and finance, you are already familiar with a lot of terminology and concepts that are on the exam. This will help expedite the studying process.
Do you have financial planning or other industry experience?
Much like the previous question, your level of familiarity with the subject will dictate the amount of time you needed to study. If you have already taken FINRA exams, other certification exams, or insurance licensing exams, you will be familiar with some of the material. If you are making a career change or are right out of school, you will need additional study time to get up to speed on the topics.
Remember, you have the option to postpone your exam (check CFP.net for cost and deadline)! Don’t force yourself into an exam because you feel like you have committed to a study schedule. It is far cheaper and less stressful to reschedule to the next testing window. Good luck!
* This is the schedule I used, however, it was interrupted due to Hurricane Irma hitting Florida. I completed the first two months of the schedule, postponed the exam, and completed the last two months leading up to my exam.