Bloomberg's Tom Keene Explains The Sheer Brutality Of Wall Street's Hardest Exam

Tom Keene

On Saturday more than 145,000 people in finance will sit for the Chartered Financial Analyst Exam (CFA). They are likely terrified.

The three level test is known for its incredibly wide range of material, months and months of necessary study, and well, failure — only 20% of test takers pass all three exams on their first go.

To help you understand (or cope with) this brutality, Business Insider reached out to Bloomberg Surveillance host Tom Keene — he’s a CFA charterholder himself.

And since he’s also known for getting to the distinction of any debate, we asked him to break down what makes the CFA so bone crushingly challenging.

“The CFA is what I call a British exam, which is very difficult for Americans to understand,” he said. “It’s an overwhelming body of knowledge… You can’t memorize it, you can’t guess which parts will be on the exam, it’s just absolutely overwhelming.”

Then Keene put it even more succinctly.

“You’re not trying to get an A+, you’re trying to get a quality C.”

For that C, candidates are willing to go through an arduous process. Keene explained that the typical path is to start studying in September to take the Level I exam in December. Around November, you pump up your studying, but you flunk the test.

That’s when you get outside help. You go to a prep class like Schweser or Stalla and you do work toward the June test (where candidates can take Levels I-III).

Around March 15, total panic sets in. You study 24 hours a day from March 15 to May 1st.

“And then your brain goes dead,” Keene said. “You try to keep studying but you can’t retain anything… Your brain is just dead.”

But at least you’re not nervous. Keene said that test takers are so certain they’ll flunk on test day that there’s no room for nerves. Study aside, that feeling alone gives test takers a sense of humility — it’s a rite of passage.

“There’s a famous question from the year I took the CFA on indirect and direct cash flow,” Keene recounted. “At the last minute I flipped the maths and got it right… As I was going down the escalator after the test, I heard a guy talking about how hard the question was. He was a partner at PwC [Pricewaterhouse Cooper].”

By now, you’re likely intimidated. You should be. Remember, though, that a ton of people fail the exam.

It’s not a big deal.

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