How this academic dimwit became a Fellow

I didn’t do too well at school. Looking back at my GCSE results, the best that could be said for them is they were ‘below average’. I scraped by with grades good enough to get me a place at the local sixth form college, where I picked three A Levels to study.

I worked reasonably hard during the first year at college, raising the prospect for a few months that I might be able to attend University to study Sociology, my favourite of the three A Level subjects. Once I reached my 17th birthday, passed my driving test and had a little more freedom, my second year of sixth form was punctuated with infrequent attendance, falling grades and an eventual failure to get anything like a decent set of results in my final exams.

With the dream of University no longer within reach (other than one of those desperate ones which always advertises places around clearing time), I needed a plan B. Entering the world of employment at the tender age of 18, with a questionable academic history and no real practical skills was not an appealing prospect. It sounded too much like hard work.

Plan B came along in the form of a local technical college, offering a Higher National Diploma in Business and Finance. With a shift from the academic to the applied, my performance dramatically improved. All of a sudden I was getting ‘distinctions’ for my work, actually understanding the subject matter and getting a real sense of satisfaction from my time in the classroom.

As the two year course came to an end, I got wind of an opportunity to do something previously unthinkable; attending a real-life University to top-up the Diploma and bag an honours degree. Better still, it would only take twelve months, building on the credits earned to date at the local college. So off I went to a University with a reasonable pedigree, knuckled down for a year (and got very drunk most nights of the week), and came away with a respectable 2:1 degree.

My engagement in the world of learning had slipped during that year at University. It was back to the mostly academic, with stuffy lectures delivered by mostly stuffy professors. With the exception of a day trip to London to visit the Bank of England and Canary Wharf, the world of business and finance had become quite dull and theoretical.

Entering the world of retail financial services shortly after my 21st birthday, with the confidence acquired from earning a degree and graduating with lots of proper students, I was encouraged by my first and second employers to continue the learning journey, quickly knocking off the Financial Planning Certificate in a few months before moving onto the Advanced Financial Planning Certificate.

This was back to the practical again, away from the purely academic that always muddles my brain and into real life territory, learning material I could apply to my everyday job, or at least use to disguise my complete lack of experience in a highly technical profession. AFPC papers were chalked up with relative ease; G60, G30 and G10 (pensions, business financial planning and taxation, in old money) before reaching the stumbling block of G20 (investments) and its brain muddling calculations.

Within the space of seven years I passed enough exams to call myself a Chartered Financial Planner; something this D grade student never believed was possible at the time I was failing exams in Sociology, History and English Literature. For a time, I was content with having reached that heady height. Chartered Financial Planner has the word Chartered in the title. So does Chartered Accountant or Chartered Surveyor. In terms of professional accolades, I had gone far beyond previous expectations.

And then late last year I decided I wanted to specialise in an area of Financial Planning that required a specific qualification – care fees planning. The learning material for CF8 looked quite straightforward, so I signed up for the exam and got on with it, passing the multiple choice questions comfortably in a little over 20 minutes. Obtaining SOLLA accreditation required the ER1 qualification in equity release so, despite no practical experience of these products, I read the study material and passed that exam as well.

Getting my updated learning statement after two exam passes in short order made me realise I was within touching distance of something I previously considered impossible; Fellowship of the Personal Finance Society. 14 years of exams (including a 7 year rest) has seen me rack up enough credits to need only 30 more for Fellowship.

So I reviewed all of the options, picked something that looked interesting and was applicable to my work (the Certificate in Discretionary Investment Management, a combination of J10 plus R01) and knuckled down for some more study. J10 was back to the mathematics and formulas, which proved my downfall in an earlier attempt to pass G20 and resulted in me buying the IMC study manual but never getting quite so far as entering the exam. But I persevered and passed, leaving me with only one exam, R01, in order to achieve the holy grail of Fellowship.

In an exam centre yesterday afternoon near Brighton, I answered 100 multiple choice questions about financial services regulation and ethics, and clicked the finish button, literally crossing my fingers as the computer whirred and decided on my result. The pass brought a satisfactory end to four exams in five months, hopefully another lengthy break from my professional studies, and a reminder that if this simpleton with a failed academic track record can reach Fellowship, anyone can.

As I get older and get better at achieving the things I want to achieve, I’m becoming convinced that success is quite simple. It only requires three steps. You decide what you want to achieve, you find out what you need to do to achieve it, and you do it. Miss one of these steps and the whole success thing becomes rather elusive. Follow them precisely and success becomes as easy as 1-2-3.

I know a lot of advisers find passing exams very difficult. I’m one of them and pass them regardless of this hurdle. As with all things in life, you get the results you deserve. If you find it hard to study, you have to study harder or find a way to study smarter. If you dislike exams for having no practical application, you have to find their practical application and bring the subject to life.

I’ve absolutely no doubt that Chartered will be the minimum qualification standard for financial advisers within the course of the next decade. It is already, unofficially at least, with the better quality clients and many professional connections demanding Chartered or CFP before working with a financial adviser. As a point of competitive advantage, it can’t hurt to distinguish yourself from the Diploma touting crowd.

The forward-thinking adviser is doing him or herself a real favour by finding a way to get on with these exams today, rather than waiting for the regulator to insist on it. Even those of us who struggled at school and college have found the will to obtain professional qualifications. If I can do it, anybody can.