Hey all, I passed the CFA exam on the first attempt and thought I'd share my methodology. Enjoy!
The Time Commitment
It's generally recommended that you start five/six months studying before exam day. I recommend starting seven months before. This may seem excessive however, you want to give yourself the best chance of passing every level the first time so you won't have to spend even more time and more money retaking a level.
Would you rather spend an extra month studying to increase your odds of not having to RE-STUDY for another five to six months and RE-PAY exam registration fees?
Yeaaah...I'll take that extra month.
I didn't log the total number of study hours. There's no magic number of hours you need to hit that guarantees success on the exam. According to the CFA Institute, the average number of hours candidates spent for the June 2017 exams was 320.
I used Kaplan Schweser for all three levels.
Since I took level one as an undergraduate and it's your entire business undergrad in one exam, I went with Schweser's Essential Package ($649). For levels two and three, I went with their Premium Package ($1,099), which includes online classes led by CFA charterholders. For all levels, I recommend purchasing the Secret Sauce ($105) add-on booklet.
When you register for the exam, the CFA Institute provides you with the e-book version for free. I highly suggest spending the extra dough for the print version. Two reasons why. One, the e-book is only a license to access the books via VitalSource Bookshelf and it expires after five years (which is complete BS, but I digress). And two, my personal preference is reading and taking notes within a physical book (which is better for learning and retention versus digital note-taking). Maybe I'm just old school.
That being said, I almost exclusively used the Kaplan Schweser material (SchweserNotes) and maybe cracked the CFA program curriculum a handful of times during my entire CFA journey.
Kaplan Schweser does an excellent job of distilling all study sessions to provide you with exactly what you need to pass the exam. The SchweserNotes (level one notes have around 1,500 pages) give you the right amount of information in the least amount of words so you can maximize your study time.
On the flip side, whenever I need to refresh my knowledge on a particular topic on the job, I almost exclusively use the CFA program curriculum. The curriculum (a whopping 4,000 pages for level one) does an excellent job of teaching a topic and provides examples of how this topic is used in the financial sector. As a practitioner, I value and appreciate the amount of depth the CFA curriculum provides when I need both the big picture and the nitty-gritty. For test takers, the curriculum has a LOT more fluff that isn't necessary to pass the exam.
CFA Exam Season
Pre-Season (Month 1)
The extra month referenced previously; spend the first month reading through all the SchweserNotes so you know exactly what you're getting into. This eliminates the uncertainty of what's going to be covered as you get into the study season and you'll get a sense of what topics you're strong and weak in.
Don't even break out a pencil or highlighter during this month. Simply read and absorb.
Regular Season (Months 2 - 6)
For months 2 - 6, stick to the study calendar Schweser provides. Read the required Learning Outcome Statement (LOS) assignments, attend the online classes (if purchased), do the end of chapter questions, and work problems in the Q-Bank.
If you find you're struggling with a particular subject, work more problems online, rewatch the subject on the online class, or crack open the CFA curriculum and see if it clicks then.
For each end-of-chapter or Q-Bank questions you missed, figure out why you missed the question and physically write down a brief description as to the correct answer is right. For math problems, re-work the problem looking at the formula, and then rework it again without looking at the formula.
Playoffs (Month 7)
The Schweser Study Calendar usually has you taking practice exams about a month out however; I do more than what's recommended during this time period. Be warned, it's a beating but I attribute this approach for why I passed this sucker.
So for the first four (out of six) practice exams, I did the following:
- Day One - Take the first half of a practice exam, take a break for a couple hours, then take the second half of the practice exam and grade your exam. Write down the LOS section (number and letter) for each question you missed. You're done for the day.
- Day Two - For each problem missed, read the rationale for why you missed the question provided in the answer book, and physically write down a brief description for why you missed the question. For questions regarding math, write down the equation, continue writing down the equation until it's committed to memory, and then rework the problem. Then re-read each LOS section you jotted down the previous day in your SchweserNotes. Even if you missed a question because you rushed through it, re-reading is punishment for being careless.
For the last two practice exams, I performed everything stated above but on the same day. I usually burned vacation time a few days before the test date to accomplish this.
You should also have your Secret Sauce booklet by this time. When you have some downtime during the day or on your lunch hour, re-read sections you're continuing to struggle with.
The Day Before The Big Game (Day Before Exam)
I never cracked open the SchweserNotes or CFA curriculum the day before an exam as I believed my pass/fail fate was already sealed. I figured the best use of time was relaxing and getting my mind right for exam day. If you do decide to study the day before, make sure you keep it light by glancing over the QuickSheet, reading a few sections in your Secret Sauce book, or working a handful of questions online. Studying extensively the day before probably does more harm than good.
I also always drove out to the site of the exam the day before to make sure I knew exactly where it was and where I needed to park. When I was in college for level one, I booked a night at a hotel near the exam site. The last thing I wanted was to risk arriving late and showing up to the exam stressed and flustered.
Double check to make sure you have everything for exam day, set multiple alarm clocks, and get a solid night's sleep.
Super Bowl (Exam Day)
Show up to the exam site early. Check-in begins at 8:00am so plan on getting there around 7:30am to compensate for any potential hiccups.
My strategy for the exam:
- Go to your best performing section first and knock these questions out. You'll be nervous at the beginning of the morning session and cruising through your strongest section will help build your confidence to slog through the rest of the session.
- If you can't instantly figure out how to answer a question, circle the question number and move on. Don't get hung up trying to figure out questions you don't immediately know until the end. Else you'll spend too much time on a low-probability-of-getting-right question and could miss out on guaranteed-to-get-right-questions but couldn't get to because you ran out of time.
- Realize that you will not know every single answer to every single question. A close second to knowing which answers are right is knowing which answers are completely wrong. For example, each question on level one and two has three answers, if you know that one answer is unequivocally wrong you've increased your odds of getting that question correct from 1/3 to 1/2. Going from a probability of 33.33% to 50.00% may not sound like much, but over enough questions can make the difference between passing and failing.
During the break between the morning and afternoon session, I would highly recommend NOT looking at any study materials.
This exam is enough of a mental grind and by looking over materials you risk your brain saying "screw you" and not performing optimally for the afternoon session. I also heard of people getting worked up because they looked up answers to questions that were in the morning section and proceed to stress out when they found out they missed it. This is a pointless exercise and probably left them worse off going into the second half of the day.
Just be a cool customer and look forward to dominating the second session.
Off Season (Post Exam Madness)
You're done! Enjoy your time off until your results come out!
Which you won't...
Something funny happens to candidates during this period. They will randomly think of questions that were on the exam, figure out the answer, and then depending on if they got the question right or wrong, will be gleeful or pissed off for the rest of the day.
I can recall a time in college where I was in the shower and shouted "FUCK!" because I knew I got an answer wrong and irrationally thought I failed the entire damn thing because of it.
The CFA Institute sends the results for level one and two eight weeks after the exam and ten weeks after for level three.
Miscellaneous CFA Prep Tips
It's important that your studies are priority #1. Once you've finished your assignment for the day, then you're free to do whatever you want. YOU HAVE TO STAY DISCIPLINED!
Start Level One in College or Immediately After
You should attempt level one while you're in college or immediately after. I believe this for the following reasons:
- Topics are Fresh - As previously mentioned, level one is a huge review of your undergraduate business degree, especially for accounting, finance, and economics majors. Having these topics fresh on your mind will reduce the time needed to review certain sections.
- Your Classes Can Serve as Review Courses (and Vice Versa) - If you're studying for level one while concurrently attending college, many classes will cover the same concepts as the exam. This is a huge benefit as not only will you have a greater chance of acing the class, the class will also serve as a review course for the exam. Win-win!
- Leg Up On (Financial) Projects - Finance projects will give you an opportunity to further cement knowledge gained from studying by applying it to real-world scenarios. And similar to acing your classes, you'll more likely grade better on the projects you're working on. I can think of at least five assignments where the knowledge gained from studying CFA exam topics was a huge plus.
- Leverage College Resources - Having issues with a particular topic? Ask a professor to help you out. Can't find a quiet place to study? Go to the library! Colleges are set up to encourage academic success. Make sure you leverage all the resources your university offers!
- Less Responsibility/Time Commitments - When you're late in your college career or a recent graduate, you'll likely have less real-world responsibility and time commitments. Many people don't come out of college married, with children, or time-consuming jobs, so it's wise to accomplish your career goals earlier rather than later when these factors can make it much more difficult.
Get Comfortable with Failing
You are going to fail, A LOT, while you're studying for this thing. Whether it be from working practice problems to mock exams, you HAVE to get comfortable with failing. You can't get discouraged from continuing to work on difficult topics because your ego is sensitive. Humble up, realize you don't know everything, and realize that failing is a part of the process. Uncoincidentally, you'll give yourself a better chance at passing come exam day should you fail often and early.
Live a Healthy Lifestyle
People who live a healthy lifestyle have a better chance of passing the CFA exam than those who don't. Eating right, getting enough sleep, and exercising have an overwhelmingly positive correlation with increased focus, memory retention, and productivity.
Don't sacrifice your well-being for a few extra study hours. You'll be worse off in the long run.
Silence for Studies, Music for Math
When it came to reading over any chapter, I made sure I was in complete silence and focused on absorbing and conceptualizing all of the information on the page as possible.
When it came to answering the end of chapter questions and working through the Q-bank, I ALWAYS made sure I had music in my ear. Not only is it a mini-reward for getting through the assigned reading, it makes studying more enjoyable. I probably worked more problems that I would have otherwise simply because I was enjoying some tunes.
The Three Main Takeaways for CFA Success
So to recap, I attribute three main differentiators for my success on the CFA exam to...
- Extra Month for Review
- Grueling Practice Test Schedule
- Work-Reward Mindset (Stay Disciplined)
Best of luck to all! Feel free to reach out if you have any questions!
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