How I Passed the CFA Exams Back-to-Back-to-Back

How I Passed the CFA Exams Back-to-Back-to-Back

Level I:

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, and of course previous exams. My strategy for Level I was:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Level II:

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:

  1. Read all CFAI books and complete the blue box questions and end-of-chapter quizzes as I crossed them.
  2. Make flashcards of formulas. This is essential for Level II.
  3. 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'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.

Level III:

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:

  1. Read the CFAI curriculum books and make flash cards (notice a theme?).
  2. Complete all Topic Tests until I knew and understood every answer.
  3. Complete all past Level III morning exams for the past 8 years. CFAI has recent old morning exams and 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

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:

Self-control bias
Loss aversion bias
Self quo bias
Overconfidence bias
Regret aversion bias
Endowment 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.

Financial Modeling Course

  • Get An Edge For Your Interviews & Finance Career
  • The Best (and Most Affordable) Financial Modeling Self-study Courses.
  • WSO Members receive a 15% discount

Comments (18)

Oct 24, 2018

Thanks for posting this. I am not sure if taking the CFA is something on my plate down the road, but this was an interesting read nonetheless.


    • 1
Oct 24, 2018

Not sure why you're getting MS, but I never understood why so many people have trouble with Ethics. It's literally common sense. I was getting 80%+ cold without looking at the material. FI and derivatives are the hard sections.

Anyways..congrats on the passes.

    • 1
Oct 25, 2018

Nice.. gonna take l1 this summer so useful

excel is my canvas, and data is my paint - new york - brunch conesseiour - atheist - centrist - ENFP - TCU alum

    • 1
Oct 25, 2018

I agree Schwesser Qbank is very helpful. If you start your studying a little later, the Schwesser Secret Sauce does a really good job of summarizing the important topics in each reading.

    • 1
Oct 25, 2018

Hi there, thanks for the summary above, really helpful. I just passed lvl I and II back-to-back and I'm going for the 18 months slam in June 2019. I've used schweser exclusively for the first 2 and it was more than enough to pass, but I heard lvl III is a different beast.

-Did you consider one of the video providers online to help you through the blend material of the CFAI curriculum?
-Do you mind PMing me your source or pdf for the Level III morning exams for the past 8 years? That would be a big help.
-Did you see a benefit at work from passing the exams? Pay raise maybe? or decided to switch industries?
-Lastly, did you join your local CFA society? If yes, is it worth it in your opinion?

    • 1
Learn More

Side-by-side comparison of top modeling training courses + exclusive discount through WSO here.

Oct 25, 2018

Hey man, did you mean 2020 June? If so why did you decide to take it after 18 months?

Oct 25, 2018

No I registered for June 2019, I meant passing all 3 exams in 18 months => December 2017 lvl 1 => June 2018 lvl 2 => June 2019 lvl 3.

Oct 25, 2018

Sent you a PM!

Oct 25, 2018

Great post and loved the level of detail. +1 SB to counteract some of the MS being thrown.

Oct 25, 2018

Greta post ! Taking CFA Lvl 2 in June - used old Scheweser and CFAI material for Lvl 1, but will be taking a third party course for Lvl 2 (probably)

Either way for anyone interested, I have a TON of CFA Level 1 material that is extremely useful (2015 Scheweser books, CFAI 2017 books, and a bunch of third party materials) and will sell for cheap, if you are interested PM me.

    • 1
Oct 25, 2018

Yeah QBank style learning methods work extremely well for me.

If you really focus on each question and method, its answer and why you picked what you did and go over this each time, it is how to pass these exams.

It will be slow at first, but that is the definition of 'mastery' and is what the CFAI is looking for.

"If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them." - Bruce Lee

    • 1
Oct 25, 2018

Congratulations!!! You must be thrilled the process is over. I also was able to pass each level on the first try. I was motivated to pass for two reasons: I did not want to have to go back to the office and tell people that I failed and my company paid us for each level that we passed.

    • 1
Oct 28, 2018

Veering off topic for a moment, but I am wondering if OP or others feel the studying helps build useful knowledge that you carry forward with you? I'm not so sure I need the credential for my particular career aspirations, but I can see how a solid understanding of such a broad range of concepts would be helpful for any investment professional.

Oct 24, 2018
The Invisible Hand:

Veering off topic for a moment, but I am wondering if OP or others feel the studying helps build useful knowledge that you carry forward with you? I'm not so sure I need the credential for my particular career aspirations, but I can see how a solid understanding of such a broad range of concepts would be helpful for any investment professional.

For me personally, yes. Especially econ, FI, and derivatives. The accounting and portfolio theory is mostly useless IMO.

    • 1
Oct 25, 2018
The Invisible Hand:

Veering off topic for a moment, but I am wondering if OP or others feel the studying helps build useful knowledge that you carry forward with you? I'm not so sure I need the credential for my particular career aspirations, but I can see how a solid understanding of such a broad range of concepts would be helpful for any investment professional.

You would be surprised as to what credentials eventually become useful even though you do not think it would be useful now. When I became a CFA charterholder, it was mostly the analysts and portfolio managers who pursued the destination. As time went on, I noticed that the type of people who pursued the designation became broader. It is not that unusual for sales people to have the CFA designation these days.. Usefulness also depends on your interests. I found most of the topics to be interesting. My favorite topics were equities, financial reporting/analysis (financial accounting) and portfolio management.

    • 1
Oct 29, 2018

Great post.

Agree 100% about the importance of flashcards. Scored a 60% two weeks before taking Level 1, decided to make about 400 flashcards and review them up until the actual exam and passed. Definitely going to get a head start on them while studying for Level 2

    • 1
Nov 2, 2018

Love the acronym - I really should use these more often. They've been consistently helpful yet I've been inconsistent in using them. Gotta get over that silly hurdle. Congrats on the pass!

    • 1