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Becoming a certified Chartered Financial Analyst is a grueling and competitive process, but not as tough as winning the right to grade CFA exams.

For the past 12 days, 541 CFA charter-holders have been holed up in a Charlottesville, Va. high school, grading almost 23,000 completed CFA exams. The group works for two weeks, roughly seven hours a day -- no more, no less, in order to finish on time and still remain sharp. In off hours, they play golf, sip wine at nearby vineyards, tour Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate and belt out bad pop songs at an annual karaoke night. They are paid a few hundred dollars a day and plied with a steady supply of food, coffee and alcohol.

"It has some aspects of summer camp,"said Tom Robinson, managing director of education at the CFA Institute, the Charlottesville-based nonprofit that administers the test.

For an aspiring financial analyst, the extended fete is a supercharged networking session, a chance to rub shoulders with business's most dedicated -- if not most successful -- professionals. Of the almost 106,000 CFA members, one quarter are portfolio managers and 8% are chief executives, according to the CFA Institute.

For accomplished finance professionals, the retreat provides a good way to stay sharp and brush up on new material.

Joe Biernat, 57, has been wanting to grade tests since he became a CFA in 1982. He was always too busy running European Credit Management, a firm that invested for institutional clients. Biernat made the trip to Virginia for the first time last year after Wells Fargo bought his business.

"It's an amazing group," Biernat said. "And it's very easy to get to know people. At the end of the day, you've gotten through 200 to 250 exams and you're cross-eyed, so it's just good camaraderie."

Although most of the graders were chartered by the institute years ago, for many, the invite to Charlottesville is the ultimate honor in the arduous CFA process, a three-test curriculum that demands about 900 hours of study, on average, and takes at least 18 months to complete.

John Richardson started grading CFA exams in 1986, along with 76 other volunteers. He has made the trip to Charlottesville every year since, including in 2000 when a record 978 graders descended on the sultry city.

"I really feel like I'm getting on a plane and going to see family," Richardson said in a phone interview last week as he waited to take off from a Phoenix airport.

This year, the assembled finance pros were broken up into 41 classrooms, with each team focused on a single question in the Level III exam -- the only one of the three tests that has a component that is not graded by computer.

As one might expect, the graders are a diligent crowd. Each question has an answer key, which the assemblage of volunteers spends a day or two discussing and being tested on. And each of the grading rooms is manned by a "captain" and "assistant captain" -- veterans of the process who secretly grade a number of the tests before passing them out in order to double-check the performance of less-experienced volunteers.

After all the test are graded, roughly half of the team goes home; the remaining skeleton crew re-grades about half of the tests to ensure accuracy.

Though the work is painstaking, securing an invite to grade is more challenging than passing the test. Last year, 46% of candidates passed the Level III test, a record low. However, only 15% of those who volunteered to grade the tests were accepted. Almost 3,000 aspiring graders were turned down this year, according to Robinson.

"We try and get a mix," Robinson said. "We want to have people of different specializations and we want to make sure we're getting that generalist perspective."

This year, 41% of the graders came from outside of the U.S. The UK sent 20, another 11 came from Australia and 10 made the trip from Hong Kong. A greater share of graders are flying in from Asia, an area that now boasts more CFA candidates than any other, 41% of all prospects.

Last week, after a long day of reading exams, the team of volunteers gathered at a big barn in rural Virginia for a barbeque and country music concert.

"I played horseshoes with a very small Chinese woman who had never played horseshoes before," Biernat said. "It was her and a German man -- quite the cultural mix."

http://www.fins.com/Finance/Articles/SB13099042151...CFA-Summer

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Comments (11)

  • whatwhatwhat's picture

    omg results in next week. almost forgot that i wasted the whole first half of the year on that

  • whatwhatwhat's picture
  • In reply to whatwhatwhat
    rothyman's picture

    whatwhatwhat:
    omg results in next week. almost forgot that i wasted the whole first half of the year on that

    Ha.. wow me too. Now I only hope if I fail I don't forget EVERYTHING when I have to retake it.

  • In reply to rothyman
    whatwhatwhat's picture

    rothyman:
    whatwhatwhat:
    omg results in next week. almost forgot that i wasted the whole first half of the year on that

    Ha.. wow me too. Now I only hope if I fail I don't forget EVERYTHING when I have to retake it.


    If I don't end up passing I don't even know if I'm going to bother with it anymore. Kinda off-topic but since I'm going to be graduating this fall and the job search is not looking very optimistic, I'm really debating the usefulness of persuing the charter any further; especially since I'm probably going to have to settle for something that's not really relevant. Even if I end up passing and landing an ER position or something, I doubt I'll have time to take level 2 in June with starting a new job and more than likely a new city. Ugh...
  • In reply to whatwhatwhat
    rothyman's picture

    whatwhatwhat:
    rothyman:
    whatwhatwhat:
    omg results in next week. almost forgot that i wasted the whole first half of the year on that

    Ha.. wow me too. Now I only hope if I fail I don't forget EVERYTHING when I have to retake it.


    If I don't end up passing I don't even know if I'm going to bother with it anymore. Kinda off-topic but since I'm going to be graduating this fall and the job search is not looking very optimistic, I'm really debating the usefulness of persuing the charter any further; especially since I'm probably going to have to settle for something that's not really relevant. Even if I end up passing and landing an ER position or something, I doubt I'll have time to take level 2 in June with starting a new job and more than likely a new city. Ugh...

    Sorry bro but you're depressing me talking like that.

    The job search is always optimistic. If it isn't, you're never going to find a job

    So if you fail Lvl 1 you're just going to quit? That shows a lot about your character. Don't quit on that shit, take it again. I don't care about all those 'natural' smarties who passed it on their first try.. I have more pride than to take the easy way out and avoid failure again. Passing lvl 1 will get you respect in interviews, trust me. It may not land you the job, but it will make up for any other lacking effort.

    Not enough time to study for level 2? Dude give me a break.. my roommate who is about to be a CFA charterholder come next week worked as an analyst 12hrs/day for the past 2.5 years and passed all 3 levels in that time. And he partied harder than anyone I've ever seen.

    If you're not cut out for fixing your failures or dedicating a great amount of time to your profession then you might want to rethink your future in this industry..

  • whatwhatwhat's picture

    Nah dude it's not like that. It's just that while I'm more interested in ER, I fully realize that given my academic background and current network that I'm going to have to take whatever job that's available and that the charter is not going to be relevant for most of them. I'm just being completely realistic about my current situation and trying to approach it as positively as possible. I'll admit that my statement about level 2 was more of a cop out and that I would probably end up grinding out it anyway. While I appreciate the lecture, it has nothing to do with failure or anything but just recognizing that I have a limited amount of time before I graduate and that I need to maximize the usage of that time.

  • In reply to whatwhatwhat
    oreos's picture

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