Panicking About Your CFA Preparation? Here’s How to Cure Peak Panic When It Hits

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By Cynthia Harrington, CFA | Sage Spring Associates

Veronica walked into our (virtual) coaching office the other day, sure she hadn’t done enough and there were only 100 days left and she was freaking out.  

Well that isn’t a state of mind that supports passing the CFA exam in June. So we got her through her “peak panic”. We came up with a label for this condition that afflicts so many candidates – and we know when it hits because our email lights up. 

What is ‘Peak Panic’?

Peak Panic – a seasonal affliction that hits CFA candidates in mid-point through the CFA exams. Onset characterized by waking up in a cold sweat realizing that there are only three months to go. The real cause of Peak Panic is looking back at what you’ve already done. 

Veronica’s mind was racing with doubts. She was panicking because only 3 months to go but she was looking backward at what she had already one. Did she do enough? Does she remember anything from the early studies? Does she understand anything?

“Should I go back and evaluate, or keep pressing forward? There’s just not enough time left.”

How to Cure Peak Panic

You should know that Peak Panic cures itself. However, if you seize the moment as an opportunity, you’ll have a greater chance of passing the upcoming exam. 

What you do at each juncture will predict whether you pass in June. With Peak Panic you can select from three plans of action: 

  • Do nothing – it will pass.

Seize the Opportunity:

  • Assess and recalibrate – Have you implemented your plan so far – if not, reschedule future study to make up time; Are you getting 60% on chapter quizzes – if not, focus carefully on what not mastered yet; Are you getting answers from experts on what you don’t understand – if not, find your expert and dig in. 
  • Add needed resources – study materials, mentor, coaching.

How A CFA Candidate Experiences Peak Panic

Veronica started her prep in November, hopeful that this would be her last Level III attempt and determined not to fail one more time. She was on third try, with a solid career in risk management for an asset management company and PhD in mathematics. In addition to the assessment, we provided her with the Emotional Arc. Seeing the past present and future diminishes the panic. 

All of us charterholders start out the journey with all great faith that this time the hours will go smoothly and there’s all the time in the world. We study and put in the hours in the first months, diligently taking notes and attending classes, doing the work. 

She worked diligently through December, over the holidays, January, February, and then March hit. 

She was looking back and finding every reason why she hadn’t prepared enough and there wasn’t enough time to catch up. All of the pressure to succeed hit and she began to feel the high cost of another failure. Not the cash outlay; the cost is relatively modest at about $1,000 for exam and materials. She was feeling the pressure of anticipating having to do this 300-hour sprint again, away family and friends, hobbies and responsibilities. 

Then a few months before the actual exam, reality hits. The fear of failure ramps up self-doubt and bad habits. Mental and physical health habits decline, especially as exam day approaches.

The Solution: The Exam Prep Emotional Arc

Our antidote to this is the exam prep emotional arc. When doubt hits, when Peak Panic sets in, the visual of where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going seems to add some certainty to the moment. Here’s the emotional arc that we created for her, and how she can predict her future depending on how she responds to the Peak Panic.

Your journey will feel more like a random walk and not quite so linear. But your walk will likely loop back to these major milestones. 

​The entire emotional arc of the CFA exam is like prepping for a play (or training for a marathon or a mountain climb), with months of rehearsals (study), dress rehearsals (mocks), and then the performance. 

The emotions of the play prep track the emotions of CFA exam prep:

  • At the beginning, you audition for and are chosen for the part (hope, excitement), then you learn your lines and comes the day when you get “off book” and you’re speaking the lines and learning the blocking or placement on the stage (worry, concern for being able to perform). 
  • Then you start wearing the costume and getting specific directions on inflection and body movement (growing confidence and mastery). 
  • Finally comes the night of dress rehearsal, with the live audience bringing the last piece of the production (fear that some unexpected disaster will befall, excited to be testing out what has been in prep for so long). After the debrief of dress rehearsal and costume and acting tweaks, the cast rests, the crew wraps up final details for opening night. You are complete with the preparation. 
Exam Day: Opening night and exam day, starts its own emotional arc, different and separate from prep. This is the performance, the writing of the exam, the running of the race, the climbing of the mountain. Your task on exam day is to perform as though it were opening night. 

For this performance, opening night, running of the marathon, and CFA exam day, you must be on stage, present, rested, nourished, and ready to be at your absolute best. You start with hope and expectation of the morning, deal with disappointment and discouragement as some things don’t go well and elation and satisfaction for the questions you know and your timing of the answers. Just like the play, you will get applause at the end from friends and family, from classmates and instructors. You have to wait until August for the reviews, but opening night is over and you don’t have to do that again. 

We like the analogy of the play because during a play the main character is learning and growing. That’s you. You are a different person as you go through the exam prep and then the final event. When you see the steps in the emotional track of your journey, you see how much you are growing into an investment professional and the “edge” that gains you over non chartered colleagues.
About Sagespring Associates LLC: We developed the Candidate Success Package© so more candidates receive You Passed when results arrive in the mail. The package is an assessment with comparison against the norm of investment professionals, paired with a coaching session that lets you talk through concerns and relieves doubts. Founded by Cynthia Harrington, CFA, former fund manager and award winning journalist, the CSP has a high success rate and an even higher satisfaction rate. Prepping for the CFA© exam does not have to be painful. ​​

For complimentary copy of the eBook “Passing the Hardest in the World: The CFA© Exam” and a $75 discount voucher for the CSP©, click here.

Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan


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