You're Not A True CFA Until You've Made It To Little-Known Level IV

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For the vast majority of those on the quest to become a Chartered Financial Analyst, there are three tests to be conquered and then they're set. They've gained the keys to the kingdom. Three tests, they think, and you're in. That's because these people are not true children of the CFA. If they were, they'd spend their nights, weekends and holidays hosting CFA trivia night with friends, they'd scour eBay for CFA collector's items, such as the first exam ever given, and they'd know that passing Level III? Doesn't mean jack. Because after III comes the ultimate test: Level IV, AKA gaining access to Camp CFA.

What is CCFA? A weeklong "retreat" wherein the ultimate charter holders gather to decide who will be given the green light to spend the next 6 months of their lives studying for the next level and who will be punted back to square one. Whereas Levels I, II and III have pass rates that range from (ballparking it) 29 to 53 percent, i.e. anyone can get in, Camp CFA changes the lives of a mere 15 percent of people. And make no mistake, being chosen to attend Camp CFA is viewed as a life changing event. Some might even call it an honor.

Although most of the graders were chartered by the institute years ago, for many, the invite to Charlottesville is the ultimate honor in the arduous CFA process.

And it's not simply about grading exams. No, only a philistine would think such a thing. It's about so much more than that. It's about bonding with people who share the same burning passion for securities.

Joe Biernat, 57, has been wanting to grade tests since he became a CFA in 1982. He was always too busy running European Credit Management, a firm that invested for institutional clients. Biernat made the trip to Virginia for the first time last year after Wells Fargo bought his business. "It's an amazing group," Biernat said. "And it's very easy to get to know people. At the end of the day, you've gotten through 200 to 250 exams and you're cross-eyed, so it's just good camaraderie."

It's about using two weeks of vacation time for free coffee and unlimited karaoke.

For the past 12 days, 541 CFA charter-holders have been holed up in a Charlottesville, Va. high school, grading almost 23,000 completed CFA exams. The group works for two weeks, roughly seven hours a day -- no more, no less, in order to finish on time and still remain sharp. In off hours, they play golf, sip wine at nearby vineyards, tour Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate and belt out bad pop songs at an annual karaoke night. They are paid a few hundred dollars a day and plied with a steady supply of food, coffee and alcohol.

Most of all? It's about coming home.

John Richardson started grading CFA exams in 1986, along with 76 other volunteers. He has made the trip to Charlottesville every year since, including in 2000 when a record 978 graders descended on the sultry city. "I really feel like I'm getting on a plane and going to see family," Richardson said in a phone interview last week as he waited to take off from a Phoenix airport.

Wet, Hot CFA Summer [FINS]

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