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The average CFA candidate studies 307 hours for his or her exam, but despite the sacrifice, only 43 per cent of candidates passed their exam in June, 2013. (Ed Sweetman/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The average CFA candidate studies 307 hours for his or her exam, but despite the sacrifice, only 43 per cent of candidates passed their exam in June, 2013. (Ed Sweetman/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Thousands of candidates, one notoriously difficult CFA exam Add to ...

When Mehran Shahriar walked into a vast exam centre in the Toronto area last month to write his Chartered Financial Analyst exam, he was intimidated.

The 24-year-old investment representative for TD Waterhouse prepared for the first level of the three level CFA exams more than anything else in his life, but looking around the room made him doubt himself.

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“The most intimidating part is seeing thousands and thousands of people that you’re competing against,” he said.

“In the world of finance it’s a dog-eat-dog world,” Mr. Shahriar said, adding that getting the CFA will go a long way to help him get the career path he wants.

On Tuesday morning at 9:00 a.m., Mr. Shahriar and 100,000 CFA candidates around the world will check their email and learn how they did on their June exams. A passing grade means a lot to would-be charterholders such as Mr. Shahriar.

Securing the globally-recognized designation can be a significant career boost, and according to the CFA Institute, the amount of people who try to get the designation grows by 9 per cent a year. As Mr. Shahriar put it, in the investment world, “this is the designation you want more than anything else.”

But the certification is as difficult to obtain as it is desired. According to a 2013 survey administered by the CFA Institute, the average candidate studied 307 hours for his or her exam.

Most who write the exam are either students or work demanding jobs in the industry, and time is limited. As a result there are no after-work pub nights, they miss out on birthday parties and spend less time with their family. Despite the intense effort, only 43 per cent of candidates passed their exam in June, 2013.

The time investment people spend on the exam speaks to its difficulty, and the competition that comes along with it.

With questions on a variety of subjects, including derivatives, ethics and financial reporting, the depth and breadth of the material is daunting. It’s a far cry from 1963’s inaugural 90-minute four-question CFA test on which one question was to name three financial ratios and what industry they might use them for.

Now the exam is a six-hour slog, and the questions are designed to trick the less prepared students. Many candidates pay thousands of dollars in preparatory courses and mock tests to learn how to avoid common traps.

Despite or because of the challenging material, the designation has soared in popularity. Over the past 20 years, the number of CFA candidates in a given year has increased tenfold.

While it used to be a designation that mid-career investment professionals would pursue, it is now popular among those entering the field; according to the CFA Institute, one third of people who write the CFA level one exam are now students, up from one quarter just three years ago.

It’s a trend that has caught the eye of older CFA charterholders, including Gary Smith, a professor at the Alberta School of Business.

“Nowadays, I’m seeing more and more students coming to me and asking about the charter,” he said.

Prof. Smith says it reflects the evolving way young professionals try to distinguish themselves to employers.

“I always like to see them pursue it, because if a job candidate shows they have completed level one, it shows they give a damn.”

It’s an assessment that Pierre Lavallée, the chief talent officer at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, agrees with. He looks at thousands of résumés a year, and while he says the CFA isn’t a necessity, it certainly helps prospective employees and employees seeking a promotion stand out.

“It has always been a tough designation to obtain. It requires a lot of hard work and self-motivation,” he said. “It requires a fair bit of fire in the belly.”

When Mr. Shahriar learns his result on Tuesday morning, he plans to sneak off to the washroom to see how he did in private. Odds are that some of his colleagues won’t be successful, and so if he passes he plans to keep the news private. But he said he would be thrilled.

“It would change my world.”

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this article incorrectly referred to 150,000 candidates viewing their results on Tuesday. In fact, it is about 100,000 because only two levels of CFA candidates will see their results Tuesday. The rest will get their results in August.

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