How to Pick the Best CFP Program to Study

When Abby Morton wanted to switch from a career in corporate finance to one in personal finance, she decided to get her certified financial planner designation. She went to Utah Valley University for help getting started with a CFP program. Since the university used Dalton Education, that’s the provider she chose, too.

“The professors were super responsive and helpful, and I felt motivated to get it all done quickly,” says Morton, who’s now a certified financial planner. She completed all the coursework in seven months.

From there, she moved into Dalton’s CFP study exam prep program, which included several books to read on her own, practice tests and a 36-hour live class.

“Being in a room with the actual instructor where I could ask questions live and really ensure I understood the concepts was a game changer for me,” she says. But, unfortunately, it was not enough of a game changer. Morton didn’t pass the CFP exam on her first attempt.

“I had done everything Dalton told me to do and did not pass,” she says.

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Morton’s experience isn’t unique: One-third of exam takers failed on their first attempt in 2019, according to the CFP Board.

Knowing that statistic is small consolation if you find yourself among those numbers, especially after having put time and money into a CFP program. The cost for these programs can run upward of $7,000 and take one year or more to complete.

Choosing the best CFP program for you can be the determining factor as to which side of the CFP pass rate statistic you fall on. Here are some steps to select the best CFP program:

— Choose the best CFP program to study.

— The best CFP program may be two programs.

— Understand CFP program costs.

— Don’t rush the CFP program process.

Read on for more information on choosing the best in-person or online CFP program.

[Read: CFA vs. CFP: What They Are and How They Differ]

Choosing the Best CFP Program to Study

There are more than 300 registered CFP programs applicants can use to meet the coursework requirement for the CFP certification. While all these programs cover the same material, the CFP Board does not endorse any one program, which leaves it to applicants to choose the best CFP program for themselves.

When choosing among CFP programs, there are many factors to consider. The first factor is your study habits and learning style. CFP programs fall into two categories: online and in-person (when COVID-19 allows). Online CFP programs can be self-paced and allow for more flexible study schedules, while in-person courses offer more structure and support with a dedicated professor.

“Are you a self-study person and need that flexibility, or are you someone who needs the classroom accountability and structure?” asks Jamie Hopkins, a certified financial planner and finance professor of practice at the Creighton University Heider College of Business. While some online CFP programs, such as Kaplan and The American College of Financial Services programs, offer live instruction, “they are built around a self-study model, whereas most traditional university programs are built around the faculty and classroom first.”

After teaching and building materials for numerous CFP programs, including online and traditional university courses, Hopkins finds the distance programs to be more focused on tying the material back to the exam, while traditional college and university programs want to provide “a deeper thought-level experience.”

“A traditional college program will also tend to work with younger students, and distance programs have been built for people career changing or already in the business,” he says.

You should also consider if you want to earn a degree from your studies or if a certificate is enough, says Roger Ma, financial planner at lifelaidout and author of “Work Your Money, Not Your Life.” If you want a degree in financial planning, you may need to opt for a traditional classroom setting, as most self-study programs only provide certificates.

[READ: MBA or CFA: Which Is Better for Financial Advisors?]

The Best CFP Program May Be Two Programs

CFP Ronnie Colvin of Reno, Nevada, found two study programs better than one. “Some are better than others for certain things, and you end up buying two different programs,” he says. He combined the Kaplan Premium Review online course with a Ken Zahn intensive, five-day in-person course taught by Ken Zahn himself.

“The Kaplan course had lots of practice tests and questions I used to drill on, but the live Zahn course helped me integrate it all and let me ask clarifying questions to help my understanding,” Colvin says. It proved a winning combination for him: He passed the test on the first try.

“Personally, I like the in-person (aspect). It helped me immensely,” he says.

For Morton, two programs proved key. After using the Brett Danko Educational Center and some exam prep questions from Kaplan, she passed on her second attempt.

“I wasn’t used to one way of the questions and concepts being discussed,” she says. “Because I switched providers, I was able to learn topics that I didn’t understand the first time around because they were presented in a different way.”

CFP Program Costs: Time Plus Money

When pursuing a financial certification, you can’t ignore the time and cost required by the program. “Self-paced online programs are typically less expensive, and you may be able to complete them quicker if you’re diligent — but you may never complete them if you’re not good at managing your time,” Ma says.

One way to keep costs down is simply to ask. “If you contact these programs, they’ll (sometimes) throw in about a 10% discount or so, even if there isn’t an active promo going on,” he says. He used this strategy for both his CFP program and his certification for divorce-related financial planning.

Don’t Rush the CFP Program Process

Your industry experience — or lack thereof — may also factor into the decision of which CFP study program is best. For instance, someone new to the advising industry may want to start by taking one class at a time, so they can more fully absorb the material, even though it may mean they need two years to complete all the classes, says Jennifer Li, a certified financial planner and financial planning manager at EP Wealth Advisors. On the other hand, she says, experienced financial professionals may prefer a curriculum that they can complete in a shorter time frame.

She advises against taking the CFP Accelerated Path, formerly called Challenge Status, however, which allows certain credential holders such as certified public accountants and chartered financial analysts to take a single capstone course to satisfy the education requirement. “You may not get as much out of the courses to really have the knowledge necessary to give actual personal financial planning advice,” she says.

Another consideration is how easy the CFP study program provider makes it to pursue other designations, Hopkins says. “This is about looking forward, not just about what is here today.” A main reason he supports The American College programs is because they make it easy to progress toward another education program and designation after finishing one program.

“For instance, if you are considering taking the CFP program, The American College has the chartered financial consultant, or ChFC, which covers all of the education requirements but can get you a designation without sitting for the CFP exam or having a four-year college degree,” he says. “Not every company approves of the use of the CFP, so the ChFC is sometimes a viable alternative.”

Before enrolling, Li recommends connecting with someone who has gone through the coursework at your chosen provider to get their feedback.

No matter which CFP program you use, obtaining your CFP certification will be challenging. But it can also come with great rewards. As a CFP, Li says, you get the opportunity to make an impact on people’s financial lives for the better — including your own.

“Even if you do not decide to pursue the CFP certification, the information you learn will be invaluable towards your own personal financial situation,” she says.

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