Like many financial advisers, I have for some time, harboured an ambition to become a Chartered Financial Planner. I even went as far as ordering the CII AF3 (Pension Planning) workbook, more than once but never really got down to any meaningful study. There always seemed to be a valid reason to start some other time.

Then in April 2016 I decided I should attempt the CII R08 (Award in Pension Update) exam, I knew it would be a useful exam to help confirm my understanding of the changes following the recent pension freedoms. So, I ordered the CII workbook and booked the exam.

Up to this point I had relied on workbooks alone to get me through exams but on the 17th May 2016 I enrolled on the R08 course with Expert Pensions, completed the course and passed the exam June 2016.  Watching John explain a concept and support each explanation with a step by step diagram really helped me visualise the issue and more importantly, remember it.

This was the kick start I needed, I had followed the course, the combination of essential study notes, videos and quizzes had really helped me, and I knew that if I could get this structured support with my Advanced Diploma (AF)exams, I had a real chance of attaining Chartered.  It suddenly appeared more achievable than it ever had before.

In July 2016 I contacted John Reynolds and explained I was preparing for my journey towards Chartered and wanted to attempt AF3.  He advised me to sit the CII R04 (Pensions and Retirement Planning) exam to give me the grounding I needed for AF3.  I followed his advice and passed the exam in October 2016.

With these two pension exams under my belt, I started my preparation for the April 2017 sitting of the AF3 exam by enrolling on the Expert Pensions AF3 Structured Study Plan in December 2016. I knew that if I was going to give myself the best possible chance of developing my knowledge and ultimately passing the exam, I would need to be disciplined and commit to the course.

This was much easier than it sounds because the course itself was very structured, I began the course in January 2017 and the syllabus was broken down into 12 weeks leading up to the exam in April. Each week covered a particular area of pension planning, supported with essential study notes and bite size videos  relating to the subject matter.

At the end of each week there was a quiz, this helped me to confirm my understanding of the subject and once passed I was able to download a certificate confirming I had 4 hours of structured CPD. The last task of each week was to complete an exam style question with a model answer available the following week that I could use to check against my answers, and this helped me to identify any areas I needed to revisit and understand better. I also had the opportunity, along with my fellow students on the course, to ask questions during a live webinar the following Friday. This was the format every week, covering every subject area in the AF3 exam syllabus, which combined with the forum access to John and my fellow students, this gave me  continuous support throughout each stage of the process.

As well as following this structured study plan, I also chose to enrol on the AF3 workshop in Milton Keynes.

This was the real turning point for me, the workshop was delivered by John and not surprisingly was very focused and structured. This was ‘doing the doing’ as he puts it, an opportunity to practice answering questions but not in my own time, in the time I would be allowed in the exam.

This didn’t go well for me, I was struggling to get my answers down in good time and I had to practice.  Had I not had this experience on the workshop, I have no doubt I would have failed AF3.  Not necessarily because I didn’t understand the subject, but because I couldn’t get an effective answer, harvesting as many of the marks available as possible, in the time allotted to answer the question.  This was a valuable lesson for me.

During the course John had discussed with us all the concept of ‘double bubble’. The knowledge developed in preparing for AF3 could be used to attempt other pension exams, without necessarily doing additional study. This could be a useful was of gathering extra credits for Chartered. So I decided to apply for the CII J05 (Pension Income Options) exam as well.

The exams were hard, but I found that the structured preparation over the previous 12 weeks meant I almost went into ‘auto pilot’ during the exams. I approached each question as I had practiced again and again and again.  Statement, analysis, evaluate : I know I didn’t have all the answers, but I was able to approach the exams with a plan and a technique for harvesting as many marks as I could. I didn’t stop writing for the whole three hours of the exam. Pass or fail, I felt well prepared and knew I had given it my best shot.

I was fortunate enough to pass J05 in April 2017 and a week later AF3 which demonstrated to me the structured learning was working for me and this initial success encouraged me to continue my journey to Chartered.

The CII had recently launched AF7, a new exam that focused on defined benefit pension transfers and whilst this is not a core area of advice for me, I wanted to give it a try, so enrolled on the Expert Pensions AF7 structured study course and booked the exam sitting for October 2017.

The course had the same format as AF3, John had many times told us there is no ‘secret sauce’ involved in passing these exams, you just need to commit to the structured study plan. I had proved to myself that sticking to the timetable and completing the tasks on schedule, along with the quizzes and exam style questions, definitely helped me to prepare and the results confirmed ‘so far so good’.

I was fortunate to pass AF7 in October 2017 and then turned my attention to investments and the CII AF4 (Investment Planning) exam and booked the exam for April 2018.  Again I turned to Expert Pensions and enrolled on the course. This time the course was run by Michael Pashley who, like John is as passionate about his subject as he is about sharing his expertise with his students. The process was the same structured process I had become used to with AF3 and AF7, the course broken into weekly bite size topics and a workshop with Michael and all the benefits this brings.

Michael also discussed ‘double bubble’ and explained the CII J10 (Discretionary Investment Management)exam was based around much of the subject matter I would cover in the AF4 syllabus. He also recommended the Private Client Investment and Management (PCIAM), a level 6 exam offered by the Chartered Institute of Securities and Investments (CISI). This exam is a more generalised planning exam and requires some additional study, however it does cover much of the content in the AF4 syllabus. An added bonus is that PCIAM is recognised by the CII as a level 6 exam and provides 30 credits towards Chartered status with the CII.

So, I sat AF4 in April 2018 and then enrolled on the Expert Pensions PCIAM course with this exam booked for June 2018. The PCIAM course had same format as all of my previous courses and I religiously stuck to the timetable. The workshop format was a little different this time, Michael ran a virtual workshop. This allowed me to set aside 3 days of structured learning and application with access to Michael and my fellow students via the virtual link. The format was essentially the same as our previous workshops except I was able to sit in my kitchen rather than in a classroom in Milton Keynes.

I was fortunate enough to pass J10 and AF4 in April 2018 and PCIAM in June 2018. The only thing standing between me and Chartered was CII AF5 (Financial Planning Process).

I made a conscious decision to leave this exam to last because it is essentially the practical application of much of the knowledge gained through the other AF exams. I enrolled on the Expert Pensions AF5 structured study course and I stuck to the now familiar study plan. The coursework offered plenty of reading on generic planning subjects that have appeared in previous exams, along with exam style questions and model answers.

Once the fact find had been issued to candidates by the CII, Expert Pensions within days had provided us with analysis of the fact find with some examples of questions that could potentially be asked. This for me was essential because it made me look at the fact find in more detail and helped me identify issues that I may have missed when I was reviewing the fact find myself. The forum, was also a great place to speak with my tutor and fellow students about the fact find, we all had the opportunity to share ideas.

I enrolled on the AF5 workshop, this gave me full day of practical support and the opportunity to bounce off the tutor and my fellow students. This valuable interaction with a tutor and fellow students cannot be underestimated, I firmly believe that the workshops, whether face to face or virtual were instrumental in giving me that extra boost I needed to approach the exams with the right mindset and technique.

I was fortunate enough to pass AF5 and achieve my goal of becoming a Chartered Financial Planner in December 2018.

As a direct result of the ‘double bubble’ advice provided by John and Michael, I had also gathered enough CII credits to be elected a Fellow of the Personal Finance Society, I was so chuffed!

We all learn in different ways and we all have time constraints with work, family and friends to consider. I found that to get the most from the support Expert Pensions provide, I needed to set aside a minimum of two hours a day in the 12 weeks of the course to work through the study notes, watch the videos and access the forum. I completed the weekly quiz on a Friday and left 4 to 5 hours each Saturday morning to complete the exam style question. I also enrolled on every workshop for every exam and this structured approach undoubtedly helped me achieve my goal of becoming a Chartered Financial Planner.

So, for anyone considering starting or continuing their journey to Chartered Financial Planner, my advice is to contact John, Michael or any of the team at Expert Pensions. Every member of the team is invested in helping each and every student achieve their goal. John and Michael with their technical expertise but also Caroline, Gayle and Linda, who have the uncanny knack of making you feel you are the only student at Expert Pensions. They will help you structure your study and set you on the right path.

My journey with Expert Pensions continues, I have enrolled on the CII AF1 (Taxation and Trusts) course and have also joined the Expert Pensions CPD programme. So now I have gained the knowledge, my friends at Expert Pensions will help me continue to maintain it.

My route to Chartered has been an experience I’ll never forget, I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting so many wonderful people who I now have the good fortune to call friends.  Anyone considering starting or continuing their own journey, remember you don’t have to do this alone, the Expert Pensions team can’t carry the bags for you, but they are there to help and support you every step of the way, so my advice is to go for it!