How to Get a Head Start on Your Financial Career

In the 1970s, financial planners essentially had three career choices: they could become stockbrokers, insurance agents, or work as an auditor at a large accounting firm. Their paths were set, and the expectations were simple. Much has changed since then.

There are many more choices available, but this also means that students are expected to know more and do more than ever before in a fiercely competitive environment. Preparing for a career in financial planning requires a great deal more training in areas that were traditionally relegated to other professions, such as accounting and psychology.

In this article, we'll explore actions that recent and soon-to-be graduates can take to decide where they want their financial planning career to go and then get a leg-up on the competition.

Key Takeaways

  • A career in financial planning requires skills in traditional areas like math and accounting, but also less traditional fields like psychology.
  • In addition to majoring in finance, students can intern, or work a part-time job at a bank, or at an accounting firm helping to prepare tax returns.
  • Joining trade groups like the Financial Planning Association is a good way to network and find jobs.
  • After graduation, considerations should include what kind of firm you want to work for; whether you want to work for a big corporation or a small business, and what kinds of clients you hope to engage.

Prepare Before You Graduate

Perhaps the first and most obvious course of action is to simply choose an appropriate major. These include business, economics, finance, or accounting. Personal financial-planning programs are being offered at more universities, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

These programs can be especially helpful because they also often touch upon a number of topics that other programs fail to cover. These topics include consumer rights, the dynamics of finance within the family, and the psychology of retirement.

Traditional financial-planning curricula will only cover material that is directly relevant to the Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) Board exam, such as investments, insurance, and taxes.

Therefore, choosing financial planning as a major will provide students with a much broader base of knowledge from which to begin their careers. Understanding the psychology of finance and investing will be an invaluable aid when dealing with clients and is in fact a skill that all financial planners must master to some extent.

Extracurricular Activities

Of course, choosing the correct major is only one step that students can take to further their careers before graduation. There are a number of other options available to students that will look good on a resume to prospective employers. Below are some examples:

  • Preparing Income Tax Returns: This is a good, practical skill that can greatly benefit students in a number of ways. In addition to providing solid, hands-on experience with customers in the financial industry, it will also teach students basic tax information that will be tested on the CFP® Board exam.
  • Working at a Bank: Student planners often find that working at a bank provides multiple career benefits. It's a job that easily fits around an academic schedule. The pay is better than many other after-school jobs. It looks good on a resume, gives practical work experience, and shows that you are a responsible person.
  • Sitting for the Enrolled Agent Exam: This exam is administered by the IRS. The test covers virtually all of the tax material found in the CFP® Board exam. Passing this test and earning this designation will be an impressive credential to present to prospective employers in any field of financial practice. You'll also gain a tremendous advantage over CFP® applicants that have had no previous tax training.
  • Internships: Working as an intern at a financial planning firm will provide obvious benefits for any student; however, while any internship can be beneficial, working at a smaller company will likely provide more hands-on experience with clients and the financial planning process than a larger firm, where interns are often relegated to administrative support or marketing roles.


The national median compensation of a financial planner in 2020 (the latest data available), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Finding a Job

Graduates have a number of tools at their disposal that can greatly increase their exposure to the financial community. Obviously, a graduate who completed an internship at a local company has a substantial advantage over an unknown competitor in the job-selection process.

For those who do not have this luxury, the Internet can be an indispensable resource. Websites such as continually list all available postings from many companies.

Financial planning jobs are expected to grow 5% between 2020 and 2030, according to the latest findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is less than the average growth rate for all occupations.

Those who prefer to take a face-to-face approach and network themselves (and even those who don't) would be wise to join the local chapter of a financial planning organization, such as the Financial Planning Association or the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.

These groups offer many resources to both rookie and veteran planners and are well worth the cost of membership. Their websites often contain job postings, too.

After Graduation

Knowing what job is the best fit for you can be a challenge. Here are some more items to consider when choosing your career path:

  • There are a number of different business models being used in the financial planning industry today. Stockbrokers and insurance agents generally work on commission, while Registered Investment Advisors tend to charge either an hourly fee or a percentage of assets under management as compensation.
  • The size of the company matters. Large companies will provide such amenities as office space, business cards, and letterhead; however, larger companies may also have stiff production quotas, lower payouts on commissions, and a highly regulated environment. 
  • In turn, small financial companies offer a more relaxed atmosphere and a more comprehensive array of products and services. Working at a smaller firm can also provide a much broader range of experience for new representatives, who may have the freedom to implement a well-rounded financial plan for a client. This plan could include such things as mortgage planning and income tax preparation. It's doubtful you would have this kind of responsibility at a large company.
  • Training and support differ from company to company. Some financial firms will provide their employees with all the necessary education and training that they need in order to pass the requisite exams, as well as thorough sales and product training. Many new advisors will benefit from the training programs offered by large companies. Even if you ultimately lose out to the competition at a large firm, you will still have marketable skills that are attractive to small firms that can't provide the kind of training and licensing you've received.
  • Finally, regulations from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority require sponsorship by a broker/dealer or another member firm in order for you to sit for any securities licensing exam.

What Is the Difference Between a Financial Advisor and a Financial Planner?

Financial advisors primarily focus on managing a client's money, such as making investments. The general outlook of a financial advisor is short term. A financial planner, on the other hand, has a much longer outlook for a client, which involves creating a financial plan for a client and assisting in multiple areas, such as investing, tax planning, retirement planning, estate planning, and college savings.

How Do Financial Planners Make Money?

Financial planners make money by charging their clients commissions and fees. Each financial planner will have a different pay structure. This could involve commissions on financial products sold to clients as well as charging clients annual fees for services rendered. A financial planner may also charge a fee based on the entire value of assets that they manage for a client. Fees can be annual, per transaction, or any other variant a financial planner decides.

Do Financial Planners Make a Lot of Money?

In 2020, financial planners made a median salary of $89,330. Financial planners can make a lot of money depending on how much business they do, how much they charge, and the location they are doing business in. In general, financial planning can be a lucrative career.

The Bottom Line

College students have many options that they can choose from to improve their marketability before graduation. Once you're out in the real world, remember that the initial key to success in the financial planning business is persistence. Some graduates will find their place in the field immediately, while others may have to try a few different working environments to find the one that best suits them.

Article Sources
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  1. CFP Board. "CFP Exam: What's You'll Be Tested On."

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Enrolled Agents - Frequently Asked Questions."

  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Personal Financial Advisors."

  4. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. "Enroll for a FINRA Exam."