The right credentials can make all the difference. That’s doubly true if you’re a financial advisor, but wading through the potential certifications can be a challenge.

With more than 100 titles available — some with little or no third-party backing — choosing wisely is important. Some can add value and increase your earning ability; others will cost you money and add nothing to your resume.

So how do you know which to consider? Read on for our tips about which initials you need beside your name and which to forget about. (For more, see: The Alphabet Soup of Financial Certifications.)

How Long Does it Take to Get?

Most people search for the easiest way to earn something. If you’re interested in furthering your financial career, however, choosing the easiest path is a dead end. The most impressive qualifications are the ones that are the hardest and most time-consuming to obtain. They will also do the most to set you apart from your competition and attract potential clients.

The top ones include Certified Financial Planner, Personal Finance Specialist and Chartered Financial Analyst. Some advisors even get a Certified Public Accountant license, which also has a reputation of being difficult to receive.


The requirements for the Certified Financial Planner license are multi-faceted. You must have between two to three years of experience as a planner. You must also work at an organization that’s verified to supply financial planning.

The CFP exam lasts six hours and is only offered three times a year. Currently, the pass rate is around 60%. There’s also an ethics requirement that interested parties must pass and you must provide proof of a bachelor’s degree. (For more, see: Career Advice: Financial Planner vs. Stockbroker.)


Personal Financial Specialists learn how to provide complete financial planning services. The PFS exam is designed for CPAs who also want to add financial planning to their repertoire of skills.

You must already be a CPA to take the PFS exam. Not only will you have the tax background of a CPA, but you’ll also have the financial planning knowledge of a PFS. The five-hour exam is offered twice a year. However, if you have a CFP or ChFC designation, you can skip the exam and receive your PFS designation through other means.


Those interested in passing the Chartered Financial Analyst exam spend about 900 hours studying — equal to more than a month straight. The average person who completes all three sections of the CFA takes four years to do so. To complete the certification, you must also have four years of work experience (only certain jobs qualify) and follow the various ethics code that the position requires.


The CPA has recently lowered some of its requirements, allowing people to take the exam in separate sections. But that doesn’t mean its standards have dropped completely. The exam still takes a total of 14 hours to complete, with a pass rate of about 50%. Most people take more than one year to earn the designation.

The Bottom Line

One thing you should consider when deciding which certifications to get is what kind of work you want to do. Talk to people doing similar work about what certifications you should get. Before you devote years of your life to studying for an exam, you should get the inside scoop on whether the extra work was worth it. Even though some clients may not be able to tell the difference between an advisor who’s done the extra work and one whose qualifications are suspect, it’s worth the struggle. Putting in the time and effort will make you a better planner. (For more, see: What Kind of Insurance do RIAs Need?)