Having trouble buckling down to study for your next career-building examination?

Many financial advisors find that the most difficult aspect of studying for a designation is simply getting organized, says Brian Gordon, a Toronto-based professor of finance and founder of Exam Success, a program that provides investment sales training and financial industry exam preparation.

“[Advisors] are telling me that they’re putting in the hours and putting in the work,” he says. “But it’s not effective, so they need a game plan.”

Gordon provides three steps to setting up an effective study system: 

1. Find the right study environment
Your home and your office may be comfortable choices, but that doesn’t mean they are the best settings for productive studying. And you should also avoid coffee shops.

“There are more distractions and it’s harder to launch into study mode,” Gordon says.

Your best bet, Gordon says, is your local library. You’ll be more motivated to study when you see others doing the same thing, according to Gordon.

2. Set a schedule
Some designations have exam schedules that are more stringent than others. For example, the certified financial planner (CFP) exam is held only twice a year. Others, such as the chartered investment manager (CIM) designation, occur more frequently.

Either way, you should set your own target date to complete your studying and take the examination. However, don’t try to squeeze your preparation into too short a period.

“You have to set aside enough time to cover the material at a pace at which you can absorb it naturally, learn it and retain it,” Gordon says.

Allotted time marks the difference between advisors who are pursuing the designation to further build their business and provide more expertise to clients, Gordon says, and those who are simply looking for extra letters on their business card.

Two to three months is an appropriate time for most designations, according to Gordon. Give yourself longer —four to six months — if you’re studying for the CFP or one of the chartered financial analyst exams.

3. Develop a consistent study routine
Once you know the amount of time you’ve given yourself to complete the study process, you need to determine a pace at which you will cover the material during set periods. The simplest way to figure this out is divide the pages in your course book by the number of days and plan on covering a specific allotment most days of the week.

In fact, effective studying requires that you tackle the books during the week and not solely on weekends, when you’re less concerned with day-to-day business matters. Aim to incorporate three to four study periods of at least an hour into your week, Gordon recommends.

If you feel you are too busy to fit those study hours into your day, try getting up an hour earlier to review the course material. During these early-morning hours, your home will probably be quiet, with minimal distractions.

Also, if you are too tired at the end of the day to pick up your books, you will at least know you already completed some studying earlier, Gordon says.

This is the first part of a two-part series on studying for exams.

Tomorrow: Tips for success.