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Fitting Test Prep into Adulthood: Three Tips to obtaining Professional Certifications

About 5 years ago, as an institutional investment professional, I made the forward-looking career choice to pursue a Chartered Financial Analyst Certification (CFA). The majority of my group colleagues and investment connections already possessed the prestigious industry designation, but in the back of mind I felt that I belonged. However, gone were the bachelorhood days when I had the time and flexibility to come and go on a whim. At the time, I was husband to my wife of 10 years, and father to an amazing 7-year-old boy. It was typical of me to devote 50 plus hours a week as an investment member of a corporate pension plan, and pulling my laptop out on the weekends was not out of the norm.

Each of the 3 levels of the CFA exam was offered globally roughly once a year, with the exception of the Level I exam (offered every June and December). The main question at this critical career decision point came to be “How am I going to pass all three levels in succession, which has a daunting conditional probability of approximately 9.2% of success, and keep everything intact amidst all of my life’s constraints?” In retrospect, I can offer 3 simple tips that helped me complete the CFA journey and play the "long game". These guidelines can be implemented whether your career goal is to obtain the CFA, CPA, MBA, JD or RN designations.

Strive for Balance

My short-term goal was to clear each level of the CFA each year. Simply put, this meant that I had a whole year ahead of time to plan my path to success. Every year, I would work backwards from the June exam date and create a customized, yet adjustable, daily study schedule in Excel. This schedule highlighted family obligations, seasonal holidays, family birthdays, board meetings, and even little league games. Then, I would plan out a daily schedule, incorporating family responsibilities, work commitments and CFA review. The weekends were a bit easier to fit in 4-6 hours of study time. On a typical weekday, I would set my alarm at 4:45 AM to get on the Monday-Friday schedule* below:

5 AM-5:45 AM – Orange Theory workout

6:30 AM - Catch the early train to work, using this time to go over CFA readings and formulas

7:45 AM -Arrive at my work desk well before the trading day, sipping coffee and eating a breakfast bar

Noon- Lunch at my desk, multi-tasking with work responsibilities & passively listening to CFA videos with my air pods

5:30 PM -Racing to catch the express train home, again using this time to go over CFA readings and formulas

7 PM- 8:15 PM - Dinner with the family, math & reading homework, and bedtime prep with my son

8:30 PM- 10:45 PM – Complete/review CFA notes, practice problems, and more readings

*My time allocation would be re-calibrated on an ad hoc basis for any family doctor/dental appointments, travel team baseball and soccer practices and any elementary school recitals. Family time was still the #1 priority in my life as you can never get this time back once it's gone.

One may ask “Where does the balance factor in?” …. Obtaining any professional certification as a full-time employee, spouse or parent is very challenging and will test your will constantly. I won’t sugarcoat it. Focus on what drives YOU. For me, it was my family and giving them options in life by obtaining a designation that no one can take away. To be honest, you may find yourself just working hard enough not to get fired or barely staying half-awake during school holiday performances. If the end goal is to accommodate a greater good, then the difficult journey is worth it. So, stay the course and play the "long game".

Get your Key Stakeholders in Life on Board

With aspirations for professional development at this stage of your life, you will need to manage the expectations of the key stakeholders in your life. Not aligning interests with your significant other or family members will add to the stresses of reaching your professional goals and exponentially lower your probability of success over time. Your life’s decisions have a downstream impact on the lives of those you care about. I could not have passed all three levels of the CFA in succession without my wife being on board. To be honest, it was not all peaches and cream. But ultimately, we accomplished success together. Teamwork makes the dream work!

Don’t Neglect Yourself

Throughout any professional certification journey, don’t forget about yourself when it comes to “The How”. Don’t ignore your physical and mental well-being. Eat healthy (don’t stress eat), get enough sleep and stay active to reduce stress. Always make time to spend with family and schedule some fun activities everyone can enjoy. Also, reach out for help if you need it; a educational coach or tutor might be the partner you need to keep you motivated and focused.

You know yourself best and what makes you happy. Remember, this is a marathon, and not a sprint to the finish line. #PlaytheLongGame!

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