Since announcing that I passed the CFP exam, I have received requests for advice on passing the exam. So, I'll do my best, but everyone's experience may differ. Here you go Zook.
First, let me explain how I went about the process. I began the process without a sense of urgency. The company that I was working for neither paid for the classes, nor was very supportive about it. They were strict money managers, and financial planning was viewed as an elaborate ruse to get people to buy life insurance. Ignorant, I know. But they are very old school.
So, watching my budget, I went with the online only classes through the College for Financial Planning. It was cheaper than any actual classroom version. Besides, the "at your own pace" sounded attractive. Initially, I went at it pretty diligently. I had some friends who were studying at the same time, so we formed a small group to keep each other on track. However, as they began to drop off, that support dissolved.
From the time that I enrolled, to the time that I took the test, it was almost two years. In my opinion, too long. See, I thought that my prior experience in financial services would allow my to walk through the coursework in the self study mode. It turns out that there is a tremendous amount of detail that is covered, and knowing what to study is probably the most important thing of all.
After finally completing the coursework, I enrolled in a CFP Exam Review course. There are courses offered by a host of companies, some with classroom, some without. Here, in Los Angeles, there are two ladies, Linda Hewitt and Nancy LeClair, who teach classes at UCLA extension, and UCI extension. They are a two weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday deal. It's not cheap, something like $1,200, but man it's worth it.
They take all that you have studied, and say, "okay, don't worry about all that, here's what you need to know, and here's how you should approach the test." They have been teaching CFP classes for years, so they know what to expect, and they know how to prepare you. This was the most important thing that I did.
So, what I would have done differently.
I would not have done self study. As I sat in Nancy and Linda's review class, there were people in there who took 3+ years to get through the self study and were hoping that two weekends was going to save their collective butt. You get to know pretty quickly who is well prepared and who is not. The folks who did self study were the least prepared (myself included), and the longer it took you to get through the self study, the less prepared you were.
If I were to do it again, I would enroll in live classroom study from the beginning. Nancy and Linda (I don't mean this to be a commercial for them, but they're that good) have an accelerated program for those with financial services experience, like myself. They hammer through each class in one month, and after five months you are done. During the review class, the students who had taken their live, accelerated class clearly appeared to be the best prepared. I was playing catch up, and they were truly doing "review."
But everyone is different. If I were to give one piece of advice, it would be to take a live class, and don't stretch it out too long. Take it seriously. One guy I know went to the library every evening after work for 2-3 hours. He passed.
Try to go to a library at a local college or university. I find that the local public libraries tend to be noisier. But definitely opt for the library over Starbucks or other commercial space.
Find out where your exam will be held, and if possible go there to study. In Los Angeles, the exam is held at USC, my alma mater. Fight on! So, on Saturdays, I went to the library to study. I went to the commons to buy lunch or snacks. I bought coffee there, tried bringing it on my own, or stopping by Starbucks on my way there. I tried Red Bull, Rock Star, and all the other energy drinks to see how it affected me.
There should be no surprises when you sit for the exam. Other than off the wall questions, which there will be. You should know how cold it gets in the building, where the bathrooms are, whether or not the local coffee shop is open or any good. You should have two calculators, and extra batteries. Have plenty of extra pencils. Dress comfortably, but appropriately. When you do your practice exam try going in sweats, jeans, slacks, suits, everything else. For some sweats are comfortable, for others too relaxed. Maybe being in a suit makes you feel serious and professional, and as a result more focused. Not me, but I'm just saying.
In the end, you will have no idea whether or not you are prepared. After the exam, you will have no idea whether or not you passed. But a healthy bit of fear and anxiety over the process will go a long way. Those who approach it arrogantly, "I know this stuff, I've been dealing with it my whole career" will fail. In the review class, there was an estate planning attorney, a CPA and several stockbrokers, all there for the second (or third) time.
Do the work, and you will pass. Don't respect the test and it will defeat you.