Exam Day Experience

Well I’m cooling my gray cells in upstate NY now, but I thought I better log in and give a quick retrospective of what exam day was like before I forget!

Day Before Test Day: 3:00 PM
Load up car with backpack of 6 volumes and test-taking gear and depart for city where exam is held, 2 hours away. Unzip outside pocket periodically to insure admission ticket is in fact still there like it was 15 minutes ago. Wife drives while I study.

5:00 PM
GPS takes us directly to test location first. The CFA Institute had recommended driving by the day before so that you don’t end up lost on exam day. There are supposed to be signs directing candidates where to go but I don’t see any up yet. Ghost town…

Ground Zero

6:00 PM
Arrive at hotel a few miles from test site. Unpack sandwiches from ice chest and have quick dinner in room with wife before settling in for the last bit of studying. No wine with dinner… 🙁

7:00 PM
Break out the 6 volumes and continue the same ol’ infinite loop of working problems. Interlace this with review of missed questions from free online sample exam.

10:00 PM
Can’t believe how quickly the last 3 hours have gone by! Wife went to sleep long ago. Decide I’ve done enough and pack it in, brush teeth, get in bed.

11:00 PM
Still awake. Not nervous or worried, just can’t seem to fall to sleep. Try some deep breathing…

Test Day: 12:23 AM
Still awake. Though maybe I’d drifted off for few minutes? Why can’t I sleep? Maybe I should have had some vino after all…

2:00 AM
AND MORE RAIN IN THE NORTHEAST! – SORRY NEW YORK! – WITH THIS STALLED AREA OF LOW PRESSURE.. Inexplicably the hotel TV turns on by itself with volume at full blast. Stumble and trip my way to the set to turn it off but can’t find any buttons. Locate remote back on nightstand where I started and silence the Weather Channel’s irrepressible Jim Cantore. Wife mumbles something.

2:10 AM
The good news – the TV had woken me so I definitely had fallen asleep. Bad news – up again, blinking at ceiling, wondering if room next door has remote on same infrared code. Awake for some time expecting TV to turn back on at any moment. In “ready to pounce” mode…

4:18 AM
Awake spontaneously feeling like I had LOTS of wine last night. Tired, dehydrated. Lie in bed awake from then on…

5:45 AM
Wife begins to stir.

5:46 AM
Incredibly, she remembers nothing about TV turning on in middle of the night…

6:30 AM
Breakfast in hotel restaurant. Quite good. Decide to stop at 2 cups of coffee – enough to be awake but not jittery. Switch to water.

7:40 AM
En route to exam test center, which is a relatively new local high school. Wife throws me an ice cold sugar-free Red Bull. Have I told you how much I love her? Feeling good despite lack of sleep.

7:55 AM
Wife drops me off at main entrance. Still see no CFA signs?! I know we’re not allowed to bring cellphones into the exam room so I’ve left mine at the hotel. Since I have no way of calling in case of emergency, I tell her to wait outside 10 minutes in highly visible location in case I run out screaming “OH MY GOD!! ADMISSION TICKET!!! I FORGOT MY ADMISSION TICKET ON THE BACK SEAT!!!”

8:00 AM
Go into lobby. Lots of sleepy-looking young people. Ah well, maybe most candidates are still in college. Get in line.

8:03 AM
Woman comes up to me and says “CFA?”. I nod and she tells me to step out of line and follow her. I was in the wrong place after all and all the kids ahead of me really are in high school.

8:05 AM
Check in. Calculators are examined and compared by security (no guns) to black and white mug shots of the 12C and BAII+. Admission ticket and passport are checked and I’m sent off to find a numbered classroom.

8:10 AM
Decide to make detour to bathroom before entering classroom. The CFAI website explicitly states that you can’t bring bags into the exam room. This didn’t sound like a problem at first but I overdid it a little on the survival gear and am cradling: admission ticket, pack of pencils, two pencil sharpeners, passport, driver’s license, calculator #1, calculator #2, extra batteries, earplugs. No surface looks large or clean enough to temporarily stow gear. Ridiculously stuff pockets with everything in order to be able to use bathroom.

8:15 AM
Arrive at classroom. Admission ticket is re-inspected along with passport and calculator case. Get assigned to desk #6. Only every other desk is being assigned a candidate. Decide this is because Cheating Threat Level must be at either orange (high) or red (severe). Sitting in desk is not as comfortable as it could be as wallet is bulging with extra folded up copy of admission ticket “just in case”.

8:20 AM
Look around at desks of neighbors. Many simply brought two mechanical pencils instead of my pack of wooden ones along with the cumbersome sharpeners. Never thought of that. Keep waiting for guffaws from other test-takers at my HP 12C, like showing up at a break with 14-ft. gun when all the locals are riding 5-ft. potato chips. But no one seems to notice. Everyone very serious and reserved – not talking to or even looking at anyone else.

8:35 AM
My body is telling me that the 1 bathroom break might not have been enough. Think about stepping out again but as test-time is nearing my amygdala has awoken and decided to take over calculations:
Doors close in 10 minutes…
Bathroom takes 30 seconds to walk to..
30 seconds to go…
30 seconds to walk back…

8:42 AM
One relaxed candidate with a Martha’s Vineyard t-shirt gets up to go to bathroom… Envy the nerve.

8:44 AM
Candidate arrives back. Is challenged by young proctor to show ID like she’s never seen him before. Reacts with a snort and a point “it’s over there, on my desk”. Proctor fronts a bit and appears iffy but ultimately decides this really is the same guy who left 2 minutes ago, and relents.

8:45 AM
Door closes, proctor begins reading instructions and we bubble in our name, candidate #, etc. We also bubble in acceptance to something about not revealing anything about the test, so I regret I can’t blog much about the test itself.

8:55 AM
Knock on door. Whispers in hall. Someone saying something about leaving ID at restaurant. She’s ultimately allowed in with many caveats and disclaimers from proctors that they’re not sure whether her test will even be graded.

Part I: 9:00 AM
Morning exam begins. There are maybe 12 of us in the room. Mostly us young white guys aged 26-36 but one African-American woman, one European-American woman, one Asian woman, and one guy from India.

10:00 AM
Silence mostly prevails here, but sometimes the proctors talk amongst themselves in too-loud whispers. And one candidate appears to be under the impression that the harder he hits his calculator keys, the greater the possibility of a correct answer. ..tap-tap-tap-tap… tap! (loud sigh) …TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP … TAP!!! YES! (loud whisper). I don’t find the earplugs necessary – it’s easy enough to just plug your ears with your fingers when it gets noisy.

10:45 AM
More whispers. Look up and girl who forgot ID is talking with proctors. She hands them her exam, gets up and leaves in a rush. Gosh, I think, they let her sit there and take the test for almost 2 hours before deciding they wouldn’t let her write the exam after all without ID! Tough luck.

11:00 AM
I’m done with Part I an hour early! At least I’ve answered all the questions. I have an hour to review so I use it doing just that. Going back to a few of the questions that seemed hard and spending extra time checking my work. I wouldn’t say I got 100% but I’ve very surprised at how easy the morning test has seemed.

End of Morning Section: 12:00 PM
“STOP! PUT DOWN YOUR PENCILS. IF YOU ARE STILL WRITING YOU ARE IN VIOLATION OF THE CFA INSTITUTE’S CODE OF…” We all file out while the proctors tell us that even though it says be back by 1:00 PM, feel free to take an extra 15 or 20 minutes since the test doesn’t begin till 2:00.

12:05 PM
Walk outside where wife is waiting with a sandwich from a nearby grocery store. She’s also has had a look around and managed to find a wonderful picnic area in a new park only minutes away overlooking a small body of water and produces another icy Red Bull.

Chomp… Read…

12:30 PM
Finish sandwich. Begin reading a bit about deferred tax credits and liabilities in Financial Statement Analysis Volume but it just doesn’t feel right. Decide relaxing the brain is better, even though the hardest part of the morning test was waiting 3 hours to go to the bathroom.

1:15 PM
Hanging with the other candidates back outside the test classroom. Unlike morning, everyone’s chatty and cheery now – talking about how easy they found the morning exam. I decide from the accent that the guy I thought was Indian is actually Persian. He’s a new graduate with a master’s in mathematics and looking to enhance the resume for job searching. Everyone else works at some financial firm and most seem to not have a choice in whether or not to earn the CFA, but their employers are at least picking up the tab.

1:25 PM
More candidate chatter inside the classroom. Up until this point, I’ve been under the impression that there was no curve for the test and 70% was the pass/fail point. Now I’m being told that there are various ways they decide who passes and who fails. There is controversy between candidates over whether those who registered but didn’t show up get graded as 0% and therefore lower the pass/fail point. Some candidates have taken a week’s vacation prior to the exam in order to study as much as possible. Lots of talk about how they (the test-makers) are really gonna sock it to us this afternoon because the morning test was just too easy.

1:40 PM
We’re all seated again and it’s like a totally different classroom from morning – people telling jokes and one guy elaborating on how drunk he’s going to get tonight. Other proctors wander in to chat with ours and comment that they’ve never seen such a large percentage of registered candidates not show up. Suspicions that many registered under duress from their employers, but have since lost those jobs in the slowing economy and no longer feel pressure to sit. One class was supposed to have 22 test-takers, but only ended up with 5. Another two classes were combined because both had about 50% absenteeism. Those candidates who believe these will be zeros that lower the curve are very happy to hear this. To others, this seems too good to be true.

1:42 PM
Wait a minute! The girl who forgot her ID is back for Part II in the afternoon. Turns out she was not thrown out of the first half of the exam but in fact finished early and burned the break high-tailing it to wherever-and-back she needed to go to retrieve her driver’s license.

Part II: 2:00 PM
Same instructions have been read and the second half is beginning. People wishing each other luck.

2:49 PM
Same guy is tapping calculator keys louder than ever. But now that I got to know him and like him, it no longer bothers me and I find it welcome comic relief.

3:45 PM
She did it again! Same previously ID-less girl who finished early in the morning section has handed in her test and left again with over an hour to spare. Either she’s brilliant or the ID fiasco so discombobulated her concentration during the morning part that she sees little point in checking her work and just wants to be done.

4:20 PM
I’ve now answered all questions for Part II but it’s been brutal. I spend the next 40 minutes checking my work but it’s mostly to no avail. I could leave early but was always taught in school to spend all remaining time checking my work so I do so.

5:00 PM
“STOP! PUT DOWN YOUR PENCILS. IF YOU ARE STILL WRITING YOU ARE IN VIOLATION OF THE CFA INSTITUTE’S CODE OF…” No one’s speaking but I make a gesture like I’m drinking a beer to the guy who was so verbal about getting drunk. He responds with multiple handed left-right, left-right downing of shots. He’s going to be in a lot of pain tomorrow morning…

5:05 PM
Wife says everyone coming out was shaking their heads and saying that there was no way that they passed. We start the 2 hour drive back home.

7:00 PM
Arrive home. Wife produces more-expensive-than-normal bottle of Rioja she’d been hiding for me. With a glass in hand, I check the blog comments and add my two cents. What a great bunch of people I’ve shared this process with, whom I’ve never even met – from so many different countries.

A final note about two surprises regarding the exam. One, I never expected to have so much time left over after making the first pass through all the questions. I thought I’d be calculating furiously right up until stop time.

And second, while I definitely encountered my share of problems I had trouble answering, it most certainly was not due to insufficient material in the study guides. I think I knew how to work every exam problem at some point during my study cycle. I just couldn’t retain all of it with the number of hours I put in.

End of July is when we find out the results. But I’ll probably re-start Level I preparation in about a week just to get a head-start in case I’m sitting again in December. Enjoy the break everyone!

Update: I finally passed all the CFA exams and wrote an eBook about the program. If you’re interested, click here.