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This article is originally from 300Hours.com. You can read the full article here.

6 years ago, I signed up for my CFA Level I as a sprightly, wide-eyed innocent.

I wish at the time I had someone who'd gone through everything to point out the potholes of the journey I'm on. For example, warning me about the difficulty of Level II would have saved me a lot of trouble!

Here are 20 things I didn't know before I went through the CFA exams. Some are funny and inconsequential, some are serious and important to know.


  1. It's tough as nails.

    Yeah, OK, I know, it's generally known that it's tough. But I didn't know that it's never-seen-before-and-by-the-way-you-could-definitely-fail tough.

  2. That I'd have no weekends for the 6 months preceding every exam. That's at least 18 months of no weekends, or 153 holidays' worth of time. Gone.
  3. That people will start saying silly crap to me like 'oh, you'll be fine' that will bug the hell out of me.
  4. I will be familiar with cafes nearby my home, all populated with similarly haggard professional-types probably also studying for the CFA exams.
  5. I will develop a sudden paranoia of calculators running out of batteries, even though that has never happened to anyone I've heard of.
  6. That the low CFA passing rate does NOT include people who didn't show up.
  7. That I would not have the willpower to study on weekdays. The combination of the long day at work plus CFA is just a bit too much for me personally.
  8. That the CFA Institute material is dry as hell. Disclaimer: I find it much better now, but it was very difficult to digest when I was taking it as a candidate.
  9. That the key is to practice the hell out of the mock & practice exams. And that the CFA Institute includes a free mock for each candidate, and it's one of the best resources at your disposal. Yeah, I didn't know that until Level II.
  10. That it's not necessarily a silver bullet for my dreams of career world domination. It helps, but it's definitely not the answer to everything as many candidates think/hope it would be.
  11. That it doesn't matter how awesome I was in exams before this. The chance of failing is very real, and will present a huge dilemma - do I retake? When do I give up?
  12. That a little more than wiggling around and fidgeting could get me accused of cheating and my exam disqualified. There is some regional variation (London normally is more reasonable), but the proctors don't screw around. Be good during the exam.
  13. The security during the exam will be impressive and tight. Some people will be trying to pull some dodgy crap on the day.
  14. That no matter what, there will be a candidate bringing an entire stationery shop's worth of pencils, erasers and calculators to the exam.
  15. That someone will probably show up for the exam in a suit. And on the opposite spectrum, someone will probably show up looking only slightly better than a homeless person.
  16. That although the exam starts at 9am, the doors will close A LOT earlier. You'll be shut out if you're sloppy on this.
  17. That I will from now on never be able to tolerate other people using the term 'CFA' as a noun. OK, I probably make this mistake all the time too, but I can't let it slide when I do realize.
  18. That displaying my current qualification in the CFA exams isn't as straightforward as it seems.
  19. You need to start early when the enthusiasm is high. When my HR person told me not to 'jump the gun' and sign up for Level I as soon as I started my job, she didn't know what the hell she was talking about.
  20. That despite the pass rates increasing with each level, Level II and III are actually way harder than Level I. You need to step up your game at every level. Putting in the same amount of effort as the last level is not enough.

Do you have any other things you wish you knew before starting the CFA process? Share them with us here!

2

Comments (18)

  • Maherj1's picture

    Think the big one is how tough L2 is.

    Quantity of material goes up, depth of material goes up, enthusiasm goes down and usually you are a year more advanced in work and hours/stress/responsibility levels are up.

    I dont think the material at level 2 is necessarily "difficult" I mean its not like theoretical phyics or something but there is just so much of it and it goes into so much depth...I am just finding it really difficult to retain information.

    Tough exam and when the benefits are just a hazy idea that they may help your career in the future you start to question and lose motivation.

  • Outsider's picture

    5

    How big is yours?

  • TL2C24's picture

    If you have no weekends for 6 months before the test, you're doing something wrong. You can study during the day and easily have time to go out at least one night

  • In reply to Maherj1
    FrankD'anconia's picture

    Maherj1:
    ...enthusiasm goes down...

    Tough exam and when the benefits are just a hazy idea that they may help your career in the future you start to question and lose motivation.

    lol, totally this. Then again nothing is a sure bet these days, and the CFA is about 195k cheaper than an MBA. The whole field is an aristocracy imo. People you know > literally ANYTHING else. I expect absolutely nothing out of the program. I am only doing it in case there is a return to a meritocracy at some point. Unlikely... but at least it has the cost advantage.

  • Amphipathic's picture

    I came in thinking that the CFA L1 would have a moderate amount of difficult material, and realized it has an insane amount (to memorize) of easy material.

  • streetwannabe's picture

    I have thought about taking these exams, but they are extremely daunting. Even L1 to me just seems tough because I have a very hard time memorizing terms and stale material like that.

    "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

  • dossier's picture

    Completely agree with the original poster - I started CFA in 2005; and finally finished it all in 2010. Never underestimate the CFA exams.

  • In reply to streetwannabe
    JasonLoh's picture

    streetwannabe:
    I have thought about taking these exams, but they are extremely daunting. Even L1 to me just seems tough because I have a very hard time memorizing terms and stale material like that.

    Well, if one truly like finance, one wont have a trouble with the materials.

  • FrankD'anconia's picture

    L1 isn't terrible imo given a relevant UG major(s) (i.e. finance, accounting, statistics). L2, however, is. So unless you'd be happy stopping there, I'd keep that in mind.

    One more point- while L1 does have a ton of material, if you take enough practice exams you start to distinguish between what's important and what's just noise (and there is a TON of noise).

  • nhlfan's picture

    Treat it with the same respect and commitment of your time as you would an evening MBA program. It's not the difficulty of the exam that stumps most people, it's the difficulty of organizing your life in such a way that gives you enough time to study.

  • overpaid_overworked's picture

    My buddy's wife did econ undergrad, masters in stats, somehow she failed level I twice and level II once so far. She's now committed six years to it, and has two tests left to pass. Not for want of trying either, her office tells them to pull out the books when they aren't busy.

    Thing that always bugged me, I started studing lightly in November, but started, then if shit hits the fan in May, you don't run out of time. Case in point, I had to go on a due diligence trip in SE Asia two weeks before level II. Everyone knows when the test is, there's (almost) no excuse for running out of time.

  • In reply to overpaid_overworked
    oreos's picture

    overpaid_overworked:
    My buddy's wife did econ undergrad, masters in stats, somehow she failed level I twice and level II once so far. She's now committed six years to it, and has two tests left to pass. Not for want of trying either, her office tells them to pull out the books when they aren't busy.

    Thing that always bugged me, I started studing lightly in November, but started, then if shit hits the fan in May, you don't run out of time. Case in point, I had to go on a due diligence trip in SE Asia two weeks before level II. Everyone knows when the test is, there's (almost) no excuse for running out of time.


    wow. she sucks. good on her for sticking through it though, that's heart.

    ""After you work on Wall Street it's a choice, would you rather work at McDonalds or on the sell-side? I would choose McDonalds over the sell-side." - David Tepper

  • DCDepository's picture

    You (OP) and I started at almost the exact same time. I signed up for L1 in December 2006 to sit in June 2007. I passed L1 then but did not continue on with the charter because my career began to go in a different direction. I'm still pissed that I spent the money to sign up for L2 but never read more than half a textbook or sat for the exam.

    I am glad I didn't lose the next 5 1/2 years of my life doing this exam as I have a great career, but it would definitely have been some good job security/guarantee.

  • panther2k's picture

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