Wanna Be A Stockbroker? Good Luck One desperate week, 260 questions--and ten souls cramming for a killer exam.
By Carol Vinzant

(FORTUNE Magazine) – "There is nothing on the test beyond third-grade math," Dearborn instructor Mark Sanchirico tells his class. "This is not rocket science." Sanchirico is trying to make the Series 7 test seem easy, but no one in the class quite believes him. The Series 7, after all, is the notorious Wall Street rite of passage, the exam all potential stockbrokers have to pass before being licensed by the NASD. Brokers brag that the Series 7 is harder to pass than the bar exam in some states.

To witness this hazing ritual--and to see what brokers really know--I signed up for a $350, one-week Series 7 cram course at Dearborn's Manhattan location. Dearborn was bought by Kaplan in 1998 and offers about 5,000 such classes around the country each year. If that seems like a lot of stockbrokers in need of special help, consider that more than 70,000 people took the Series 7 exam in 1999--the number goes up each year--and that typically about 30% fail. (Something to think about the next time some broker cold-calls you at dinnertime to pitch a stock.)

Indeed, there's a reason for such inordinately high failure rates: This test's a killer. It lasts six hours and comprises 260 questions on everything from economics to order flow to options, which is why about one-fourth of all applicants take the Dearborn course. Brokers on Wall Street refer to themselves by the NASD licensing exams they've passed, such as "I'm a 7 and a 63." Everyone in my group desperately wants to be a 7.

Day 1: Before class starts, boyish Chris Harvey, in the front row, scolds himself as he takes a practice exam out loud. He needs the passing 70% score to keep his job at Dreyfus. The other ten people in my class are an assortment of Wall Street professionals and wannabes. Tamara Davis, a published poet, says she "just stumbled into" Wall Street. Olesia Kennedy, 47, came from North Carolina for the weeklong class. She scored a tragic 69 on her first shot. Previous failures are common among Dearborn students, and Sanchirico, the instructor, tells us that part of his job is to "talk people in off the ledge." He also tells us we should have already read our 954-page, formula-filled textbook. Glancing around the class, I'm surprised to find that most of the students actually did. This is exactly how every math nightmare I've had since high school begins.

The 18 years Sanchirico spent on Wall Street, including a stint as Ivan Boesky's options trader, have seemingly provided him with a personal anecdote for every piece of regulation arcana. Picture a combination of Jon Lovitz and the Ben Stein "Anyone? Anyone?" character in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. At first it seems like a speech tic, the way he repeats everything. He repeats everything. Then I realize it's his shtick. When he asks how much a bond point is worth and no one gives the correct answer ($10), he quips, "I apologize. I wish I had said that four or five times, but I guess I hadn't." At lunch, I eat with Patricia Soto-Silva de Gatto, who tells me she has laid down the law with her family: They are not allowed to contact her during study hours.

Day 2: The dreaded Options Day. Options is the most universally feared subject on the exam. Learning options is the opposite of learning to ride a bicycle: Each time you have to start all over again. Sanchirico tries to keep the class practical, and he frequently has to stifle the curiosity of a student I'll refer to as "The Why Guy." The Why Guy endlessly probes legislative intent. Sanchirico tells him that most of his questions are "BS--Beyond the Scope of the test."

Through ceaseless repetition, Sanchirico hammers home the main points of options trading, and by the afternoon we're all amazed that we have a pretty firm grasp of the subject. He praises Chris Harvey from Dreyfus: "In the last 90 seconds you've just answered six options questions correctly."

Day 3: The class' intensity speeds up our socialization. Sanchirico becomes a mentor. The younger students ask for career advice. He takes more liberties in teasing us. After lunch, when he asks what the market is doing and we respond with absolute silence, he mocks us: "Oh, yeah, everyone in this room is right on top of the game."

It's worth noting that Sanchirico clearly likes his work, so much so that he's passing up a lucrative salary in order to teach. Graduates call him with their test results, which he grandly reports to the class: "I just heard from two more passers," he says. One afternoon he tells me, "The first time I saved it on the voice mail system for as long as the system would let me save it, because it felt so good." Teachers often sacrifice pay to teach a subject they love, but I've never seen anyone do it all for muni bonds before.

Day 4: There is not enough coffee in the world to keep us alert through Market Structure. Sanchirico wakes us up by reenacting floor trades--at full volume and speed, and with hand signals intact.

Soto-Silva de Gatto, who has been cramming at night, tells me she finally relented and now lets her husband come home after work. He still has to stay in the other room while she studies, however.

Day 5: Over lunch, students swap business cards and horror stories of the test. "There's one word to describe what happens to you when you study for the Series 7: 'Bitch,' " says Olesia, the North Carolinian. "I swear I'm losing hair on one side of my head." After she takes her Series 7 exam the day after class ends, though, she has good news: She passed. Says the brand-new broker: "Options are my friend."