How I Passed the CFA Exams Back-to-Back-to-Back
January 2, 2016 was the first Saturday of the year and the start of my Level I studies. At the time, I was working in real estate equity research and my hours during the work week prevented me from studying daily. So, 75% of my Level I studying was done every Saturday and Sunday leading up to the exam (generally 6-8 hours each day, starting around 9 am and finishing by 5 pm). For Level I, I felt the single most important tool I used was Kaplan Schweser's Qbank ("For Level I" are the operative words). I also used the CFAI curriculum books and the Topic Tests on cfainstitute.org, and of course previous exams. My strategy for Level I was:
- Read the Kaplan Schweser books (I did the sections in order) and make flashcards of the formulas (I knocked this out as quickly as possible, probably within two months).
- Do all questions from the Kaplan Schweser books (practice questions within the readings and end-of-chapter quizzes). While studying the Kaplan Schweser books, I would also complete all of the respective blue box and end-of-chapter quizzes in the CFAI curriculum books.
- Start cranking out the Qbank questions - there were 3,500 or so practice questions within the Qbank, so I would take random (rather than subject-specific) 100-250 question quizzes. This was so important because it is where I learned most of the material: when you get an answer wrong, the Qbank tells you the right answer and gives you the explanation. I always reviewed the answer immediately after I completed the question rather than waiting until the end. I'm the type that likes to learn what I did wrong right away.
- Qbank was instrumental and towards the last month or so of studying, I would knock out 50 questions a night even during the work week just so the material stayed fresh, plus the questions didn't take very long to complete.
- Topic Tests, Topic Tests, Topic Tests! I did every Topic Test until I knew everything cold. Some people say this isn't a great approach because you memorize the answers. WRONG! If I knew the answer without understanding why it was the answer, I would review again until I understood. These helped to solidify portions of the CFAI material and also exposed weaknesses so I knew where to focus.
- During the last month, I knocked out as many practice exams as I could find... but I couldn't find many. There was one provided from the CFA Institute, one or two from Kaplan Schweser that came with the study materials, and then one or two I found online. Most of my exam preparation came from the Qbank.
I went into the exam very nervous with plenty of excuses in mind to help rationalize failing, and left "cautiously optimistic" (at least this is what I told people - I felt like I failed). Fortunately, my studies paid off. My takeaway from this exam was, "wow, I need to focus more on Ethics." Studying Ethics made me realize how unethical I actually am because I felt I could argue for two of the three potential answers being correct for most questions, but at the end of the day, it's the CFA Institute's way that counts and you need to know the Ethics' nuances cold. Ethics was the first and the last material that I reviewed because it is instrumental for Level I; it can make or break your entire exam.
January 2, 2017 was the first Monday of the year and the start of my Level II studies. I approached this exam differently because my situation changed. I accepted a job in investment management across the country, requiring me to move from FL to CA with my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) and our 2 year old daughter. Late nights and long weekends wouldn't work anymore - I was a family man. So, instead of studying long hours on the weekends, I woke up at 4 am to get into work at 5 am to study for 2-3 hours before my work day actually started. I did this every workday until the exam, missing only a few days in between. I did not do much studying on the weekends until about a month before the exam. I used exclusively CFAI materials to study, in addition to one or two non-CFAI practice exams (I believe one was Bloomberg and another was IFT). My strategy was:
- Read all CFAI books and complete the blue box questions and end-of-chapter quizzes as I crossed them.
- Make flashcards of formulas. This is essential for Level II.
- I also took notes of materials I felt were especially important (usually in table or chart form). I felt that making visuals made the material easier to understand and retain. An example would be the table below:
I only used a few memory tricks to learn this table: The format starts with Barbell. Then I see Outperforms, Outperforms... etc all the way down. So I memorized O-O-U-U-O-U-O-U. That's just a pattern. Now I know the performance line items for BOTH barbell and bullet because I know barbell and bullet is just the opposite. Then I memorized parallel shift, then down up, down up, down up, for flattening and steepening, less curvature and more curvature, and decreased volatility and increased volatility.I used memory tricks like this throughout all of my studying. I'll provide another unique example in the Level III section.
4. Topic Tests, Topic Tests, Topic Tests! These were the most important contributors to my Level II success. Like Level I, I did this until I could answer every question correctly. Again, I would make sure I understood why the answer was the answer and didn't just simply memorize A, B, or C.
5. Mock exams - as many as I could find. I got a hold of maybe 6 or 8 exams between analystforum.com's resources, CFAI, and I believe I purchased 2-4 from IFT but it might have been another platform.
Overall, I enjoyed Level II more than Level I because there was less material, more detail, and I felt it was more interesting. Just like Level I, I felt like I failed but told people I was cautiously optimistic. And just like Level I, Ethics was my weakness.
January 2, 2018 was the first Tuesday of the year and not the start of my Level III studies. I waited until the end of January because the actual exam date was pushed back to the end of June (to accommodate those observing Ramadan) and I was starting to get tired of all this studying. I exclusively used CFAI materials for Level III. My strategy was:
- Read the CFAI curriculum books and make flash cards (notice a theme?).
- Complete all Topic Tests until I knew and understood every answer.
- Complete all past Level III morning exams for the past 8 years. CFAI has recent old morning exams and analystforum.com is a great resource for less recent exams. I think I was able to find every morning exam between 2000 and 2017, but I only used the most recent 8 exams because older material was stale.
Like Level I and Level II post-exam sentiment, I felt like I failed, but this time it felt more real. I never had issues completing the previous Levels, but I struggled completing the morning portion of Level III. I finished with about 5 minutes left for review. Some questions blindsided me. Others didn't feel like enough space was provided for the answer. Overall, I felt this one finally got the best of me, and this was a shared feeling based on posts from analystforum.com.
For each exam, I tracked my progress in Excel. For example:
My first worksheet in Excel had a table with the section, weight, and then my score following Qbank item sets, Topic Tests, mock exams, etc. For multiple Topic Tests within the same category, I would track every Topic Test score. Then, I'd use my average score from the category in the Score column below. The setup would look like this:
Then, I'd take a weighted average score (sumproduct in Excel using the weights and my scores) to figure out my overall estimated score. I updated this every time I completed item sets.
Another memory technique I used extensively was making acronyms. For example, in Level III you have to memorize a ton behavioral biases (cognitive and emotional). To memorize the emotional biases, I created my own acronym. The biases are:
Loss aversion bias
Self quo bias
Regret aversion bias
So the acronym I made was LOSSSER. I used the first letter of each word to create something I could remember. From there, I would think, "ok, L-O-S-S-S-E-R, so the first one is L, which bias is emotional and starts with an L? Loss aversion."
This is how I memorized a bulk of the information.
I cannot reiterate enough the need to make your own flash cards and flip through them routinely.
I am not especially smart and the material never came naturally to me. I had a very consistent study schedule and I put in the hours. You can't just go through the book once and know the answers to pass all three levels (maybe Level I). There's a reason why it's recommended to study 900+ hours. Don't make excuses. Put in the effort.
I hope this is helpful for those going through the process. Everyone learns differently, so figuring out how to you learn is key. I learn through funky acronyms/memory techniques and making charts/tables to visualize the answers. If that helps you, make your own or feel free to reach out and I can share more of the techniques I used in another post.