Why Candidates Fail: Not All Topics Are Created Equal



This post wraps up our five-part series on the most common hurdles facing candidates for the CFA designation. The first reason was too much time spent studying about studying, posted here. The second reason, planning a schedule around life and burnout, is a big one for those of us with a family and a full-time job. Last week’s post, the difference between active and passive studying, is probably the biggest hurdle to success for most candidates. Last week looked at the myriad of resources available to candidates and using the right ones.

This week’s hurdle could just as easily have been titled, “I’m an ethical person, so why study ethics?” While the material on Ethics and Professional Standards is not the only one neglected by candidates, it is probably the most avoided. Sure, you need to have a good understanding of the entire curriculum but a look at the topic weights provided by the Institute makes it clear that some topics are a source of some major points.

Ethics, the easiest and most difficult topic on the exams
Candidates have a big opportunity with the ethics section though it still presents a problem for most. The topic area is tested at each level and is worth at least 10% of your exam points. The opportunity comes in the fact that the topic is the only one that really does not change much as you progress. You’ll see a couple of additional sections like soft dollars and GIPS, but these are relatively secondary against the core Code and Standards, which do not change. For candidates that give the topic its due at level I, the next two levels are that much easier.

The problem with the ethics material is twofold. Some candidates consider themselves to be fairly ethical people and so think that the answers on the exam will be intuitive. They neglect the topic and end up failing on the exam. Other candidates read the material, to the point of memorizing the Code and Standards, but neglect to do practice problems.

There are two types of ethics questions on the exam, those with no answer and those that seem to have two correct answers. You absolutely must practice the ethics problems provided by the Institute at the end of the chapters. You’ll be surprised by the level of ambiguity in some of the problems and how minute details can make the difference between one answer versus another. Don’t let the first time you are surprised by this be at the exam.

You need to know Financial Reporting & Analysis for the CFA designations??? Who Knew?
If not of equal importance to the ethics material, I would put FRA a close second. Unfortunately, a lot of candidates avoid this section as well. The material, much of it focused on accounting issues, may not be as interesting for some. It can also get extremely complicated and detailed on the level II exam.

Anyone that works in the industry, whether a charterholder or not, will tell you that understanding the financial statements is of the highest priority. As an analyst, you will need to develop models and an expert knowledge of how the company is reporting its business and how it all flows together. Spending extra time on the material will not only help you pass the exams, it will make your life so much simpler further down the road.

Equity and Fixed Income: The fun parts that aren’t so much fun anymore
Many candidates start the path to the charter because the love analyzing investments, whether in the equity or fixed income market. When they realize that it is a little more than just calculating the price-earnings ratio for the stock everyone is talking about… it becomes less fun.

The two topics can get extremely formula-intensive and most candidates only have experience in one of them. Avoid the temptation of only studying the topic in which you currently work or in which you think you want to work. First, you’ll need the points from each section to pass the exam. Also important though is the fact that you never know how your career will unfold or when you might want to work in another asset class.

Each level has its own idiosyncracies and no one topic area will get you through every exam. The four topic areas above are extremely important but you still shouldn’t neglect the other five topics. Other posts on the blog talk about specific strategies for each level and can help you further focus your study plans.

Are there any hurdles to passing the exams that I forgot? What tripped you up the most? Let me know if you have any questions about the last five posts.

‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA