6 things I learned from taking the 6-hour CFP test — twice

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  • Passing a six-hour, 170-question exam is a requirement to obtain the Certified Financial Planner certification.
  • I've taken the CFP exam twice, and the testing experience is unlike anything I'd been through before.
  • Here's what you should know if you're preparing to take the exam, including details about the testing center and how you receive your results.
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The CFP certification exam is no walk in the park, but it's conquerable if you're well-prepared.

I finally passed in September 2020, six months after my first attempt and about a year and a half after beginning the rigorous college-level coursework. The Certified Financial Planner certification is one of the most comprehensive professional licenses in finance and the exam is definitely a reflection of that, testing 72 topics over 170 questions.

The exam is offered three times a year during eight-day testing windows. According to the CFP Board's official statistics, 60% to 70% of first-time takers pass during each exam cycle. The pass rate is even lower among repeat test takers. 

By now, I'm very familiar with the testing environment. I understand the fear of uncertainty and the general anxiety around taking such a potentially life-changing test. Here are six things it will be helpful to know before taking the exam.

1. You'll take the exam in a room with other people

The CFP exam is given at over 200 Prometric testing centers across the United States. When you register and pay for the exam, you'll be redirected to Prometric's platform to choose a location and date/time for your exam. 

These testing centers administer hundreds of different types of professional exams in any given year, so it's likely there will be other people sitting for a completely different exam than you.

On test day, after you complete the check-in process, a proctor will walk you to your assigned cubicle-like desk which comes with a set of over-the-ear headphones you can use to drown out background noise. They come in handy since people shuffle in and out of the testing room on staggered schedules. 

The desks are social-distance friendly, but you're still required to wear a face mask at all times. 

2. You only get one scheduled break

The exam runs six hours total, plus a 40-minute break. That means once you finish the first, three-hour section and submit your answers, a timer will show up on your screen and begin counting down your remaining time. You can leave the testing room to eat lunch, use the restroom, etc.

The CFP Board also recently instituted two "unscheduled" breaks within each three-hour section of the exam. Halfway through the first half of the exam (around question 42) and halfway through the second half (also around question 42, since they're numbered separately), you'll be asked to submit your answers for review in order to proceed to the next section of questions. During that time, you can take a break if you'd like, but the clock will keep ticking. 

3. You can't wear jewelry or bring water

The testing centers are strict about what you can bring into the testing room. You're basically allowed the clothes on your back, your calculator, and the pen or pencil and scratch paper a proctor will provide. 

You're not allowed to wear jewelry, except engagement and wedding rings, or bring water or snacks into the testing room. Everything you bring to the testing site can be stored in a locker in the lobby. The proctors will ask you to turn your pockets inside out and lift up your sleeves and pant legs to ensure you're not smuggling anything in.

4. You find out your results immediately

The CFP exam is pass or fail. There's very little downtime between submitting your final section for scoring and seeing your results. You'll be asked to answer a short survey about your CFP certification experience before clicking a button that shows your results: either "PASS" or "FAIL."

If you're like me you'll have an inclination to react emotionally either way, but keep it together as best you can to respect the other test takers. 

5. You only get a subject-area breakdown if you fail

Immediately after receiving your results, you'll get an email. If you failed the exam, the email will include a breakdown that lists all eight subject areas and whether you scored low or high in each one. It's not exactly elaborate feedback — there's no cumulative percentage of correctly answered questions — but it's helpful in determining which areas need more attention in later study. You can retake the exam up to three times in a two-year period, and up to five times total.

If you pass, you get a simple "Congratulations!" email with information about next steps. You never find out how you scored in each section.

6. No prep course can tell you exactly what's tested

The CFP Board is relatively tight-lipped about what it will test during each exam cycle. It follows the same basic framework every time, promising to cover 72 topic areas, but that's all we know. The CFP Board determines a cut, or passing, score, but that isn't publicized before or after the exam is given.

There are various exam prep courses offered for purchase by independent companies that provide students with review books, group lectures, and practice questions, but none of the programs or professors can guarantee how topics will be tested. That's the nature of this beast.

My advice? Take as many mock exams as you can get your hands on (the CFP Board offers one itself that matches the exact format of the real exam) and don't cram. The more time you have to master the concepts, the better shot you'll have.

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