Should You Consider CFA Exams During College / University?

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By Alex Thacker

One of the requirements of enrolling for the CFA exams is that candidates need to be at least in their final year of their bachelor’s degree when registering for Level 1.

As of 2019, a significant and fast growing portion of CFA candidates are full-time university students, nearly doubling to 23% in 2019 (12% in 2018).

Is this a wise move? I think it depends, as studying for the CFA exams does entail some personal sacrifices either way.

​Here are 10 factors you should consider before deciding whether studying for the CFA exams during college/university would make sense for you.

#1. CFA exams are yet another thing to study for (and it isn’t a small add-on).

Although balancing work and CFA studies can be really time-constraining, candidates can find it mentally easier than juggling their university and CFA studies. 

When working and studying for the CFA exams, the differing natures mean that you can mentally ‘take a break’ when you switch from one to the other. Candidates may also find that work knowledge and experience can help in their CFA studies. As a university student, you may find it exhausting to trawl through a seemingly endless barrage of study notes, whether it’s for your degree or CFA charter.

Oh, and I know you have heard this before, but CFA exams are a lot harder than you think, and not like college/university. And Level 2 and Level 3 are significantly harder.

#2. ​Your degree in finance doesn’t necessarily help.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking your degree in finance will significantly give you a leg up and enable you to study a lot less time and still pass. Results actually can state the opposite.

I will reluctantly say you might be able to cut 50 hours off of the “300 hours” which is needed for the average passing candidate, if you’ve got a solid grounding in finance in your degree. However, the volume of material you’ll have to remember for the exam, Ethics, and the time pressure will make this a very challenging experience. If you do take this on, take it very seriously.

#3. ​You’ll still need 4 years of relevant work experience.

Starting early on the CFA exams doesn’t award you the CFA charter straightaway. You’ll still need to qualify 4 years’ worth of relevant work experience – something you’re unlikely to have as a fresh graduate. So do keep in mind that although you’ll pass your CFA exams earlier, you’re likely to still have to wait for a few more years to get that sweet CFA charter.

#4. ​You might end up missing out on ‘the university experience’.

​Ah, the wistful memories university brings up.

Besides earning your degree, your university years are something that you won’t be able to experience again. Whether you’d like to dedicate a significant portion of that time to the CFA program is something only you can decide for yourself.

​But I think that postponing your CFA ambitions because you want to truly experience university is a completely valid reason. So if you’re thinking along similar lines, remember that that is not a ‘soft’ reason, and is perfectly justifiable.

#5. ​”Level 1 candidate” status means nothing. You’ll have to pass, and you should try and pass all 3 levels.

Do remember that stating “CFA Level 1 candidate” on your resume only showcases that you have the knowledge to fill out an application form and there is no guarantee you will pass.

As research on 300 Hours shows, the salary benefits of the CFA qualification are there, but only kicks into gear mostly after you’ve passed CFA Level 2 and above.

#6. Your time as a college student may be better spent in job-hunting.

The first thing to think about (and I know you’re sick of college and probably wish you could graduate tomorrow) is that you are about to give away your last months of freedom and friends in a world of much less responsibility that you will never have the opportunity to get back.

The next thing to know if you are using this is a tactic to help land a job, is honestly those 300 hours needed to pass this exam would probably yield better results if you spent them networking, calling alumni, cold emailing senior people at an employer you would like to work for or attending your local CFA society events.

To put it simply, your job as a college student is to secure a graduate job.

​And the most direct way to do that is applying for jobs, networking and interviewing, rather than spending it studying for another qualification that doesn’t guarantee a job.

#7. ​You can get to it while you have the time (really).

Time for some positives!

Students, you may not believe it, but you’re most like to to have the most time to study for the CFA exams as a full-time student.

Although university life is far from a walk in the park, the average CFA candidate finds it easiest to allocate time for CFA study while in university.

​Commitments tend to increase after university – whether it’s a full time job, a young and growing family or both. The CFA exams do require a lot of time commitment, so it might be advantageous to get to it while you have time, and/or have a graduate job lined up already.

#8. ​There are good support structures in universities.

The support structure for learning is never better than when you’re in university. Many universities are now aware of the CFA program: CFA-partnered universities now include the MBA courses in Cambridge University, Oxford University, INSEAD and London Business School. Many other finance courses are also CFA-partnered – you can find the full list here.

Even if your university or course isn’t CFA-affiliated, the university infrastructure itself greatly supports a CFA candidate in their learning. Need more reference? A wealth of reference books in the university library await. Need discussion partners? Get your buddies who are acing those finance courses. Really need some guidance? Lecturers are readily available to help out. Need good places to study? Libraries, university campus grounds, cafes abound.

If you find that your course workloads aren’t too heavy, and that you’ve got a grad job lined up, it may be worthwhile to start your CFA studies whilst at university. 

#9. ​Your brain peaks in the right places during your early 20s.

Biologically, you’re likely to be best placed to take on the CFA exams as a young adult.

Research performed by psychologists Joshua Hartshorne and Laura Germine, who tested 21,926 people aged 10 to 71, has shown that although different functions of the human brain peak at different ages, brain functions key to CFA exams (such as logical and numerical thinking, working memory) peak in your early twenties. Brain-wise, the odds will be in your favour.

So, that indicates that the ‘best time’ to take the CFA exams can range from last year of college/university to first few years on the job. In fact, some charterholders feel that CFA exams are best started after 1-2 years of finance work experience to maximize career impact

#10. Taking the CFA exams is a serious undertaking. But worth it.

That said, most of the disadvantages of deciding to undertake the CFA exams are related to the effort and time involved.

​If you’re ready to work hard, the CFA charter is definitely worth it, and you won’t regret it (although you might a little, during the process!)

Did you decide to study for CFA exams whilst at college? Or still undecided? Any how, share your thoughts by leaving your comment below!

Meanwhile, you may find these related articles helpful:

Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan


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