How to Pass the CFA Exam

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.

Study Materials

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

Work-Reward Mindset

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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...

  1. Extra Month for Review
  2. Grueling Practice Test Schedule
  3. Work-Reward Mindset (Stay Disciplined)

Best of luck to all! Feel free to reach out if you have any questions!

Comments (30)

Feb 8, 2018

Show up and you'll pass.

    • 2
    • 1
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Feb 8, 2018

What a prick

Feb 8, 2018

Great post - will be revisiting this when I take level II next July.

Feb 8, 2018

My spark notes tips:

  1. You really need to hit the 300 hour guideline to feel confident. Download an excel calendar and make a 10-15 hour per week study schedule for 5 months leading up to the exam and follow it religiously.
  2. Finish reading all the material 1 month before the exam and spend the final month on review. Mix in lots of practice exams and flash cards so you have a variety of ways to study. If you put in long sessions of straight reading you'll burn out. It's much easier to study for 3+ hours a day if you have a variety of methods. Take a break every 2 hours or so for some Netflix.
  3. Take a week of vacation prior to the exam. Wake up every day, eat breakfast, and go to sleep exactly how you will on exam day. Put in some 8+ hour days hitting the flash cards and practice exams as hard as you can. Stop studying by 5pm the night before and take that final night to relax and feel confident about the 300+ hours you put in. I guarantee you'll pass if you put in 300+ hours, take 5+ practice exams, and have a huge stack of flash cards you can run through without missing any of them.

Also I recommend using the Schweser notes but do some of the actual practice exams provided by the CFA institute. When you come acrosss questions you don't know bc Schweser glossed over the topic, look it up in the real cfa texbooks to understand it.

    • 3
Feb 8, 2018

My spark notes tips:

  1. You really need to hit the 300 hour guideline to feel confident. Download an excel calendar and make a 10-15 hour per week study schedule for 5 months leading up to the exam and follow it religiously.
  2. Finish reading all the material 1 month before the exam and spend the final month on review. Mix in lots of practice exams and flash cards so you have a variety of ways to study. If you put in long sessions of straight reading you'll burn out. It's much easier to study for 3+ hours a day if you have a variety of methods. Take a break every 2 hours or so for some Netflix.
  3. Take a week of vacation prior to the exam. Wake up every day, eat breakfast, and go to sleep exactly how you will on exam day. Put in some 8+ hour days hitting the flash cards and practice exams as hard as you can. Stop studying by 5pm the night before and take that final night to relax and feel confident about the 300+ hours you put in. I guarantee you'll pass if you put in 300+ hours, take 5+ practice exams, and have a huge stack of flash cards you can run through without missing any of them.

Also I recommend using the Schweser notes but do some of the actual practice exams provided by the CFA institute. When you come acrosss questions you don't know bc Schweser glossed over the topic, look it up in the real cfa texbooks to understand it.

    • 2
Feb 8, 2018

I passed all three levels on the first attempt with >70% in each area.

My tips:

  1. Never open the CFAI material. It's way too dense. Use a prep provider. I used Schweser for all three levels with the study notes, videos, and Qbank.
  2. Try to get through the material as many times as you can. I went through level 2 four times before I took the exam and it was a breeze. I finished both sections in under 45 minutes each.
  3. Do not fret over the small stuff. I remember I spent three days focused purely on pension accounting for level 2...and they asked one broad question about it. There is simply not enough time to test you on these minute details. They don't need to do this to fail 60% of test takers. The breadth of the material, not the depth, is the real challenge.

and the Topic Tests are utterly worthless from CFAI. They are way more difficult than the exam. The Schweser QBank is closer to exam quality questions than most would like to believe.

    • 1
Feb 8, 2018

I though 3 months would be enough to pass level 1 as long as i put in somewhere around 300 hours.

Also heard the CFAI material is very good. But to purely pass the exam its better to use prep materials.

Feb 8, 2018

The CFAI material is very detailed and will bog you down. If you just want to pass the test just use a prep provider and then use CFAI material to go into more detail on areas that you are interested in or relate to your job.

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Feb 8, 2018

I'm slacking so hard on level 2 due to looking for a new job/ trying to move to a new city and having a kid coming smh. Fully prepared to take an L come June.

    • 1
Feb 8, 2018

Okay. That makes my prep task look much easier.

Feb 8, 2018

I recommend Bloomberg Test Prep. Passed level 2 using it and was a great experience.

Best Response
Feb 8, 2018

Top 5 Tips for the Perfect CFA Study Oasis (Originally Posted: 04/10/2014)

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

In order to achieve success in the CFA Program, you need to make some smart choices about where you are going to study and what your set-up will look like. So, where are you going to study? The short answer is everywhere. You'll be spending so much time mastering the material that, in reality, you'll need to study at home, at work, on the train or plane, or really anywhere you can squeeze in a few extra minutes. There's research showing that studying in various places can even be beneficial to your ability to understand and remember what you're reading. But if you're like most people, while you are studying every chance you get, you still have that one place where you put in most of your study hours--that one place that you get to know all too well over that exhaustive six-month study period. This is the place that I like to refer to as your "study oasis," and in my opinion, to bolster your chances of success, you need to spend some time thinking about how to set up your study oasis most effectively.

<

div class="paragraph" style="text-align:left;"> While I cover this topic extensively in my book, CFA Confidential, below I've distilled it down to my Top 5 Tips for the Perfect Study Oasis. 1. Stay local Probably the most important factor is that your study oasis needs to be convenient, preferably at home or within five minutes of home. Hey, maybe you've got the most beautiful library 20 minutes away that is perfect for an all-day weekend study marathon, but when you've got an hour or two on a Tuesday, you need somewhere you can get to within 5 minutes--max. If it's hard to get to, you've won't go. It's as simple as that. 2. Get a room! Or more precisely, a room with an actual door. If your study oasis is at home and you live with roommates or family members, you need to be able to get away. You need to shut the door and disappear for hours at a time. Being interrupted--especially while in the intense learning phases covering some seriously complicated material--just doesn't work. 3. Rock the Mozart Somewhat related to #2, a great way to "disappear" into your CFA books and avoid distractions, is to use music. Anything with lyrics is way too distracting and will work against you, but lyric-free tunes--in particular, classical music--can be a great way to provide background noise, drown out distractions, and maybe even help the material to sink in better. I mean, hey, what's cooler than rocking some Mozart or Bach in a sweet pair of Dre Beats headphones? 4. Log off Multi-tasking is a fallacy. While studying for the CFA exams, you should be focused on studying and studying alone. If you're stopping to check Facebook, Twitter, email, whatever... you will make the task infinitely harder for yourself. Turn off your phone, tablet, and laptop (unless you're using online study tools) and get in the habit of keeping them in a separate room so you won't be tempted to "update your status" when pension accounting starts to become too much to handle. 5. Listen to your body In a previous post, I discussedpaying attention to your health while studying for the CFA exams. It took me a few exam attempts to realize just how important having the right physical set-up for studying really is. Who knew that CFA studying can result in injury? OK, so it's not exactly a contact sport, but do yourself a favor and put some thought into your ergonomics. Standing-desks, exercise balls, and other tools are available to help take the stress off your body--you've got plenty of that already! So what's your secret to the perfect study-oasis? Any foolproof tips that have worked for you? Share your ideas with me in the comments below!

    • 3
Feb 8, 2018

I tend to use ear plugs when I study to drown out any noise completely and usually go to the gym to break a really long study session into 2. Also, I have to have a wall in front of me or it will be too distracting.

Feb 8, 2018

Beats are for wealthy, uneducated showoffs.

Appreciate your tips.

Feb 8, 2018

#5 is so important and overlooked by so many candidates. I cannot stress enough how a hearty breakfast (think oatmeal with fruit, coffee, & usually a protein shake) and a healthy lunch improves focus and your wellbeing. On top of that, nothing gets me through the grueling hours at night like a hard session at the gym. It's the best way to break up your day if you are putting in 10-12 hour days of studying on the weekend.

My schedule on Saturday looks like the following:

-wake at 8:00am
-breakfast / read news 8:00-8:45am
-library 9am - 5pm (bring lunch to library)
-gym 5:00 - 6:30pm
-dinner 6:30 - 7:30pm
-Starbucks/Panera bread/local study joint 7:30pm - 9/11:00pm

Good luck candidates! Only 57 days left, time to kick it into overdrive!

Buy fear, sell cheer

    • 1
Feb 8, 2018

local college libraries open to the public are a godsend. I pretty much work/gym and then camp at one of those in my town for Level 2 studying and I'm finding it much easier to concentrate in than at a cafe (which is what I did for Level 1).

    • 1
Feb 8, 2018

At this point the only tip that needs to be known is go hard, or go home

I'm on the pursuit of happiness and I know everything that shine ain't always gonna be gold. I'll be fine once I get it

    • 1
Feb 8, 2018

I passed L1 in Dec. I never looked at the official texts. I used Stalla. I'm using Schweser for L2, but I got last year's books so I've had to read a couple of sections from the official texts, and it sucks. Stalla/Schweser is definitely the way to go.

Feb 8, 2018

+1
schweser is much better. official books are useless

Feb 8, 2018

Currently studying for L2, for both L1 and L2, I haven't even opened the box the official texts came in. I am using nothing but the Schweser study guides.

Feb 8, 2018

Don't even open the textbooks. I did all three exams in 18 months.....used only the Schweser notes. Their practice tests are harder than the real thing as well. Although level 3 gets a bit dicey with the written component...

Feb 8, 2018

I passed all three using schweser's notes, practice tests and online question bank. Previous years' exams provided on the CFA website are also helpful I agree with former banker in that one doesn't need to use the CFA's materials at all.

Feb 8, 2018

schweser all the way baby, got me through in <2 yrs

Feb 8, 2018

I work in the regulation of financial entities and their parent holding companies. Due to expected changes in the present financial regulatory scheme and my desire to broaden my knowledge and expertise, I am planning to sit for the CFA exams. Being a CPA and licensed attorney, I am no stranger to long hours of study and grueling exams. However, I know that I don't have as much left in the tank as I once did. I would very much appreciate some input as to (1) how much time I should expect to study for the exam (been out of undergrad a long, long time), (2) which is the best prep course (sounds like stalla or schwesser with schwessar being the best), and (3) what should I pay particular attention to given the fact I took one or two finance course in college.

Thank you in advance for your assitance

Feb 8, 2018

1) Generally people study anywhere from 2 - 4 months. It obviously depends on where you stand before you start studying. Usually, it's 3 months of a very strict studying regiment. They recommend at least 250 hours.

2) I personally like Schweser. Try to see if you can find someone with old books from each course and see for yourself. I'm sure you can't go wrong with either, though.

3) Given you only took a few courses in college, some of the more deeper finance concepts may give you issues. However, also pay attention to which topics are more heavily weighted in the exam. For instance, being a CPA will serve to your advantage in the accounting section (financial statement analysis, or whatever it's called now). However, you won't be doing accounting math really, the exam will test your analytical skills when it comes to understanding ratios and how they are affected by certain accounting principles and how they can be manipulated by management. Also US GAAP vs International standards is big. Other sections to focus on, for you, may be fixed income, portfolio management, and equity valuation. There are several sections, so you really just have to learn it all. It's tough to tell someone to focus on certain sections. You will need to do well in Financial Statement Analysis and Ethics and Standards to solidify your chances of passing though.

It's a big time commitment, but if you're up for it, go for it. Also, you say you may not have much in the tank...perhaps you should weigh in if 2-3 years of hard studying (assuming you pass each exam in one try) is worth it. Will it increase your salary sufficiently? Create new professional opportunities for you...promotion, etc?

Hope this helps and good luck.

Feb 8, 2018

The best strategy for me was to go to the local CFA organization's classes and work thru the schweser exams. they are harder than the actual test which is good. it forces you to study harder.

Feb 8, 2018

(Didn't realize how to make a new post before I responded to this thread)

Feb 8, 2018

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Feb 8, 2018