Alex Langhorn, head of Business Support, Bespoke Training Solutions, provides answers to the top ten FAQs asked by candidates about the CII Advanced Exams.
Thinking about dipping a toe into an advanced exam? It’s something we’re getting a lot of enquiries about at the moment, which is no great surprise considering the next round of exam sittings will be upon us in early 2024 and ideally, preparation should start sooner rather than later.
What we don’t yet know (at the date of writing this article) is when the exam sittings will be, as the CII have not yet released this info. This shouldn’t be a reason for not starting to prep though. With this in mind, we thought it would be helpful to share some of the more commonly asked questions that we get around the advanced papers, so here our top ten:
1. I’ve completed the level 4 Diploma, should I think about taking the Advanced Exams?
As a provider of both level 4 and level 6 exam support, BTS are privileged to walk alongside many candidates as they achieve the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) Diploma in Regulated Financial Planning. The level 4 Diploma meets the FCA’s qualification requirements for retail investment advisers and is a huge achievement in itself.
For some, this is the ultimate goal, but for others, the Advanced Exams are a natural progression after achieving the coveted DipPFS designation.
Whilst not a requirement, a level 6 qualification is becoming more common, and not just amongst senior advisers / paraplanners. Newly qualified individuals can look at the Advanced Exams as a way to set themselves apart from the crowd, demonstrating their advanced technical knowledge and specialist planning capabilities.
For those that aspire to achieve Chartered status, the Advanced Exams are essential. Members with over five years’ sector experience can apply to the CII for Chartered status on completion of the level 6 Advanced Diploma.
The question of whether you ‘should’ think about taking the Advanced Exams is a personal one. They are by no means an easy undertaking. They require a structured study plan and many hours of commitment to achieve a pass, so timing and relevance are essential considerations before embarking on the level 6 journey. The key question to ask yourself is, are the Advanced Exams relevant to me right now?
2. How do the AF exams compare to the R0 exams?
The clue is in the name. Advanced exams are exactly that. They are designed to develop in depth financial planning skills and specialist technical knowledge.
The AF exams are all level 6 qualifications. The R0 exams are level 4 qualifications (aside from R05 which is a level 3 unit). For anyone who has taken an R0 exam, you will be familiar with the multiple-choice style of exam used for R01 through to R05. By contrast, the AF exams are written papers with either short or long answer questions depending on the unit. The AF papers test the application of specialist knowledge to complex case study scenarios. Candidates’ technical knowledge needs to be sharp, but that alone isn’t enough. Learning to apply your knowledge to new scenarios, and construct a clear and complete answer, all under the pressure of the timed exam, make these challenging papers, which is reflected in the pass rates.
Another difference worth noting is the availability of exam sittings. Whilst R01 to R05 can be sat as and when a candidate is ready, the AF exams only have two set sittings per exam, per year. This means you need a clear study plan to work towards a set exam date. Last minute cramming will not work!
3. Which AF exam should I do first?
Choices, choices! Unlike the R0 exams (where you must do all six), when you get to the AF exams you have a choice of units to sit. If you are aiming to achieve the Advanced Diploma in Financial Planning, you need to achieve 290 credits. 120 of these must be at level 6 (from the AF and J0 exams), and 40 at level 4 or above. If you already have the Regulated Diploma in Financial Planning or the Diploma in Financial Planning, these credits carry over.
When it comes to which AF exam to sit first, as with the R0 exams, there isn’t a set order. BTS have two recommended strategies:
- If you have recently sat your R06 exam and have strong technical knowledge from R01 – R05, sitting the AF5 first can be sensible. The CII recommends the AF5 is attempted after achieving at least three other level 6 units first, as advanced technical knowledge across taxation, trusts, pensions and investments is usually required. Whilst we agree with this to a degree, we have also seen great success in the AF5 exam when taken closely after the R06, due to the similarities in exam technique.
- Another approach is to choose a unit the matches your strengths / is relevant to your day-to-day work. Getting through these exams requires concentrated study, dedication, and up-to-date technical knowledge, so choosing a unit that interests you and is relevant to your work can help make the journey more comfortable.
4. Is it possible to sit two exams in the same period?
Yes, if you have the capacity to study two units at the same time, it is possible to sit two exams in the same period. Factor in that the recommended study hours for AF exams tend to be in the region of 150 hours, with the right combination of units it is possible to maximise your study time and kill two birds at one time. What we are talking about here is the possibility to sit an AF paper at the same time as the corresponding J0 paper on the same technical area. See the answer to the next question for an example of this in practise…
5. Do you recommend sitting AF1 and J02 at the same time?
This is a really common question, and a good one too! This is an example of how it is possible to optimise your invested study time to maximise credits. The AF1 Personal Tax and Trust Planning exam and the J02 Trusts exam have obvious syllabus overlap. Together they give you 50 credits towards the Advanced Diploma; 30 at level 6 and 20 at level 4.
Whilst the AF1 is technically more advanced that the J02, it builds on the same knowledge base. Just like the R03 Personal Taxation unit, the J02 Trusts unit provides a strong foundation of relevant knowledge.
It’s important to reiterate at this point that the AF exams are a whole other level of depth. J02 and R03 knowledge alone is not enough, but it’s a good starting point.
6. Why is AF4 a handwritten exam?!
It’s a valid question – AF4 is the ONLY exam that is handwritten. You can blame the sheer amount of formulae within this unit and the basic word processor used for written papers – the two just don’t align.
If you’re working toward AF4, from here on in, write everything by hand! You’re going to need to train yourself in the art of handwriting, how long you’re able to do it for (it’s a three-hour exam!) and ensuring it is legible.
The other thing; there’s little choice in where you can take this exam. No remote sittings are allowed due to it being a hand written exam, this one is test centres only.
7. Is there any help available for AF8 (the assignment-based unit)?
AF8 is a really tricky unit to support because of the rules around plagiarism, so if you’re looking for something that will tell you exactly how to design all three assignments, there are no such materials out there.
BTS currently offers an e-Learning programme which consists of four modules – an introduction and then a module covering each of the three assignments. Each module is jammed packed full of hints and tips that we have learned from candidates going through this unit.
The intro module steers on what the unit is like, general rules to follow, links to great research sites and tools that candidates can used to produce suggested asset allocation graphs and cash flow modelling outputs.
BTS is also in the midst of revamping the support that we have available, based on real candidate experiences. We’d love to hear from you if you have recently been working toward AF8. We know we are limited in what we can offer but we are always looking to improve what we have.
8. What is the best way to prepare for an AF exam?
Candidates new to advanced exams should be prepared. They are definitely a step up from that of the level four diploma exams, as already discussed. It’s also why the recommended amount of study hours jumps up to 150 hours in some cases.
Our best advice is to plan with purpose. Having a clear strategy of how you’re going to tackle a unit is key to success and documenting such things can really help. It’s great to have an idea in your mind about how much study you’ll do each week but actually writing this out is almost like drafting a contract (a flexible one!) with yourself and you are therefore much more likely to stick to it.
Ensure you have enough time to work through all the resources that you have available. Get plenty of practise at exam standard questions. You can access at least two or three of the last sittings from each of the individual unit pages on the CII website, be sure to sit each of them. Use past papers to uncover knowledge gaps and also to work on your exam technique, knowledge is key but the way you apply it within the exam is just as important.
9. What study support is available?
Support in terms of materials and/or training will vary depending on the unit, so the best thing you can do is research your options as and when you take on a new unit.
As an example (and as we have already noted in our top ten questions) the support available for AF8 is quite limited because of plagiarism rules but in comparison, there’s tons of support available for the other AFs through study guides, e-Learning and workshops.
Study materials are a huge part of support but of course there are other elements of support that we need too – such as community. Studying alone, more so when the exam intensity increases, is not fun! BTS have our very own community within our forums on the Careers Zone, so do check those out.
10. What’s the hardest AF exam?
An easy thing to do would be to look at the CII pass rates. For 2022, AF1 came in the lowest with a national pass rate of just 42%. It’s easy to see why some candidates might look at this and avoid it like the plague, more so when comparing to other units that have higher pass rates.
It’s not just about looking at pass rates though. There’s so much we don’t know about the candidates that form this data. How did they plan their studies? What was their approach? What materials did they have? What support did they utilise?
Pass rates are purely an indicator, a guide of what a candidate might be up against. Ultimately though, it’s a very personal journey and it will come down to all of the questions we have just raised. The advanced exams are hard, they’re intended to be. So, it’s about getting the planning and preparations right, in order to set ourselves up for success – no matter what unit we are taking on.
We hope you’ve found our top ten questions useful. Of course, there are many more questions that we get asked and we welcome you to ask your own. So if there’s something that’s not been covered here, just get in touch, we are always happy to chat things through and help get you on the right path.
Bespoke Training Solutions have been supporting regulated exams for 20 years this year! Known as ‘the exam experts’ within the industry, BTS provide support for the CII regulated exams by way of study guides, e-learning resources, and workshops for the full R0 suite and many AF units.
Visit https://www.bespoketrainingsolutions.com and check out the brand-new Careers Zone for study plans, answers to exam FAQs and lots more to support your journey.