Decision Point: Deciding When to Sit for the CFA Exam - Kaplan Schweser

Published By: Kaplan Schweser
Published: November 1, 2016

The CFA® charter is a remarkable catalyst for advancement in a financial analysis career. If you’re in college and considering entering the CFA Program, you’ve likely wondered if you should begin preparing for Level I while you’re still in college. There’s no right or wrong answer to which CFA career path is right for you. The decision is personal and should be made based on your current lifestyle, availability, and confidence level.

There are certainly some advantages and disadvantages to both options that apply almost universally, regardless of your unique circumstances. We’ve outlined a few of them below to help you weigh your options and determine where the CFA charter fits best in your career path.

Starting the CFA® Program in College


You might have more time now.
This isn’t true for all college students. But as a general rule, believe it or not, you have more free time now than you will when you graduate. Networking and job hunting take a lot of time. So does a new job. Assuming your credit load allows it, and you aren’t spending all of your free time working at a part time job, starting the CFA® Program as a college student might afford you more time to focus on your studies.

It can help you find a job.
Not many students choose to start preparing for the CFA exam while in college. But as a student, you are surrounded by a network of professors who likely have industry connections. At the very least, your initiative will make you stand out among your peers, and might encourage them to make introductions for you. You may have an open door to opportunities that no longer exist once you finish college.

You can save money.
It can be more affordable to prepare for the CFA exam as a student. A number of companies offer CFA exam prep discounts to help college students lessen the financial burden of preparing for the exam. CFA Institute also offers scholarships to provide financial support to students who are unable to afford the full price of enrollment and exam registration.

Considering the CFA charter? Download this free Before You Decide to Sit for the CFA Exam eBook.


More studying: Say goodbye to the college lifestyle.
You’ll be piling more studying on top of the studying you’re already doing. And the CFA exam isn’t easy. Most candidates report spending an average of 300 hours preparing for each level. Assuming you can insert CFA exam prep into your existing schedule might be a mistake. You will probably need to make significant sacrifices in your extracurricular activities and social life to give yourself a real chance to pass.

It will limit your time for networking and job search.
Employment is the ultimate goal, right? Networking is a critical activity in the process of trying to secure employment. It might be difficult to find time to network and search for jobs while you’re engaged in preparation for Level I of the CFA exam. You’re simply operating with limited time. You can’t do it all, so something has to give.

You still need to meet the work experience requirement.
CFA Institute requires that you complete four years of relevant work experience prior to earning the CFA charter. If you start the CFA Program in your final year of college and pass all three levels of the exam concurrently, you will likely still need to complete the work requirement before actually earning your charter. So you may not actually earn it any sooner by starting in college.

Starting the CFA® Program After Graduation


Your can focus your studies on the exam.
Studying isn’t fun. Studying for the CFA® exam on top of studying for a full credit load of courses is even less fun. You may not have as much free time after you graduate, but you can focus all the free time you do have on CFA exam prep. There’s something to be said for minimizing the distraction of studying for multiple things at once.

Some employers allow you to study on the clock.
It’s true! Employers value the CFA charter. Some value it so much they actually pay you to study. Of course, this isn’t true of all employers, but it can be a great advantage if you secure employment with a company that supports employees with study time.

You will likely be among peers preparing for Level I.
The “after employment” CFA career path is a popular one. As a result, waiting to prepare for the Level I exam until you’ve secured a job will increase the likelihood that you’re among peers doing the same. This could give you the opportunity to form a study group with your coworkers. If you’re the kind of person who thrives in a competitive environment, preparing among peers might be just the motivation you need.


It can be a distraction while you’re trying to find a job.
Unless you can somehow afford to take three years off from work while you prepare for the CFA exam, you’re going to need to work while you study. If you don’t have a position waiting for you when you graduate, job hunting can be a serious time commitment. Getting Level I out of the way before you graduate can afford you a window of time to find a job before moving to Level II.

Life only gets busier after graduation.
Oftentimes, the things we put off until later never get done. It’s because the assumption that you’ll have more time later is usually a myth. If you’re planning to wait to prepare for Level I until you’ve secured employment, you’re probably thinking it will be easier when you don’t need to study for your classes as well. That might be true, but the demands of “real life” could include 40- to 60-hour work weeks, bills, family life, and many other commitments you might be forgetting.

You might be putting off career advancement.
If you wait until you’ve been employed a few years to begin preparing for Level I of the CFA exam, you may be delaying your advancement. One reason people choose to begin preparing for the exam earlier is that it puts them on a faster track to the job they ultimately want. If you decide to wait, you may stall in your advancement and put a few additional years of separation between you and your ultimate job.

Now it’s up to you. If you read through this article and still feel confident in your ability to overcome the challenges in light of the opportunities, perhaps you are a good candidate for pairing CFA exam prep along with your university studies. If the challenge seems a bit overwhelming, maybe you’d be best advised to wait. But either way, your CFA career path is yours to choose.