Is the CFA Exam More Difficult Now?

Perhaps an unanswerable question but candidates are always wondering if the CFA exams are more difficult now than in the past

A common question we get at Finquiz each year, especially as candidates wait for their exam scores and look at pass rates provided by the CFA Institute for prior years, is has the CFA exam become more difficult over the years.

It’s a taboo question for some. It’s probably impossible to answer with certainty and emotions get high when you start comparing your CFA exam against others’.

Let’s look at the pass rates for the CFA exams over time and then some ideas of whether the exams are more difficult now than in the past.

Are the CFA Exams Getting More Difficult?

Looking at CFA exam pass rates over time suggests that the exams are getting more difficult but there are other factors that could be involved.

  • Pass rates for the CFA Level I exam have fallen from an average of 57% over the five years through 1989 to just 40% over the last five years
  • Pass rates for the CFA Level II exam have fallen from an average of 65% over the five years through 1989 to just 44% over the last five years
  • Pass rates for the CFA Level III exam have fallen from an average of 74% over the five years through 1989 to just 52% over the last five years

cfa pass rates over time

While there is a lot of volatility in pass rates from one year to the next, the trend over the last 30 years is fairly clear. The percentage of candidates passing their exam each year is falling.

There have been a lot of changes to the CFA exams over the years and it seems the curriculum has ballooned with new material. One candidate reports seeing a CFA Level III exam with just four essay questions as opposed to the 10+ essay questions on today’s exam. A few of the topics including Alternative Investments, Derivatives and GIPS didn’t exist in the past.

So the curriculum has definitely expanded along with the body of knowledge available in the industry but are there other reasons why pass rates have fallen?

There could certainly be some intent in the lower pass rates. With ever more candidates registering for the exams, the CFA Institute may be increasing the minimum passing score to manage how many pass. While the Institute needs to add new dues-paying members every year, it also doesn’t want a massive flood of new charterholders to overwhelm the industry. There’s no way of knowing whether this is true or not because the minimum passing score isn’t public but it’s one theory.

There could also be a geographic explanation to falling passing rates. Many more candidates come from non-English speaking countries than have in the past. While English proficiency among international candidates is very good, you would expect it to be more difficult for non-native English speakers to pass the exams. I speak conversational Spanish but there’s no way I would have been able to pass the CFA exams in the language.

In the end, is there really a need to compare the CFA exam of today with bygone years to say that either is more difficult? The industry changes, requiring a different skill set of analysts and money managers. The knowledge you needed to be successful in the 80s was far different from what you need as we reach farther into the 21st century.

What we should really be asking is whether the CFA exams remain as difficult as the industry needs them to be. As charterholders and future CFA charterholders, we need to require that the Institute and our community keeps up with changing requirements in the industry and designs a curriculum that will hold to the highest standard of the past. This means continuously updating your own knowledge even after passing the CFA exams and sharing that new skill set with the Institute and within your local societies.

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

You’re Waiting for the CFA Exam Results? Why?

Waiting for the CFA exam results can be excruciating for candidates but it may not matter as much as you think

Candidates worldwide are now waiting anxiously for their CFA exam results from the June test. That’s 172,682 candidates biting their nails and pacing the floor waiting for the CFA Institute to grade their exam.

It helps to have gone into the exams with the confidence of passing but even the most self-assured candidates will have a tough time until results are released. The Institute gives itself up to 60 days to release Levels I and II of the CFA exams and up to 90 days to grade the third exam.

It seems like an incredibly long time to wait given the stress around the exams and the work you put in studying…but does it really matter? Of course it would be great to pass the CFA exam but is there a bigger picture you’re overlooking?

The Zen Approach to the CFA Exams

Maybe it doesn’t help much if you’re sitting there wondering your fate for the next year. The low pass rate on the CFA exam means just about every candidate is going to have some doubt as to whether they’ll be spending another 300 hours before next June.

But if you think about the long-term and how much one year really matters within your entire career, it starts to look a little less significant. For many candidates without the necessary work requirements for the charter, you may have years before you can use the designation and passing the exams certainly won’t mean an end to long hours studying how to be a better analyst.

Passing the exam may seem like your top goal in life right now but which is more important, barely making it through to the next level or truly mastering the material? Many of you are probably thinking it’s much better to pass the exam now and worry about mastering the material later but taking one more year to really understand the profession isn’t that bad an idea.

Putting all this in perspective helps to handle a CFA fail as well. I’m not trying to jinx your results but historically half the candidates won’t pass their exam. Getting the bad news means telling everyone that wished you well and dealing with it every time someone asks you how it went.

Resist the urge to find an excuse to blame for not passing the exam. You just weren’t ready and there’s nothing wrong with having to retake the exam. You’re in good company with most candidates having to repeat at least one level of the CFA. Look at it as an opportunity to not only get a better understanding of the curriculum but to learn from whatever study habits held you back from passing. Not only will you be ready to take on the exam next year but you’ll have learned to pull yourself up from defeat and push yourself harder in the future.

Besides being much more relaxed about waiting for CFA exam results, taking the ‘no worries’ perspective of the exam can actually help you study and prepare for next year. If you’re less worried about scoring points and figuring out the tricks to passing the exam, you’ll be better prepared to just study and learn the curriculum. Instead of spending hours ‘studying’ about studying for the exam and trying to game the system, you’ll spend that time more efficiently mastering the curriculum and becoming a better financial professional. And that’s what it’s all about!

‘til next time, just relax!
Joseph Hogue, CFA

5 Ways to Relax after the CFA Exam

Learning to relax after the CFA exam can be the payoff after months of dedication

It’s usually this time of year, just after the June CFA exam, that I post an article about what to do with all your new free time. You’ve spent upwards of 20 hours a week buried in the CFA curriculum and many candidates forget what it’s like to be…human.

I’m a big proponent of using the post-exam quiet period to keep the momentum going. I usually use this post to highlight some ways to get involved with the local CFA society or ways to learn about finance without it being from the Institute.

If you’re looking for something like that, ideas on how to get a head start on everyone else, check out some of these posts from prior years.

But this post isn’t about any of that, it’s not about learning or networking with your new CFA brethren. This post is just about relaxing!

How to Relax after the CFA Exam

I would hope you have a few ideas of what you want to do over the next few months, ways to relax and feel a little more normal. I used to put things I couldn’t do while studying for the CFA exams on a mental checklist to do after that first Saturday in June. Unfortunately, sometimes we forget or have been studying for so long that it’s hard to remember how to relax.

1) Act Like a Kid Again. Seems everything was simpler when we were kids. Maybe there’s something to that and the key could be getting in touch with the kid inside. Think about a few things you loved doing as a kid. I played whiffle ball with cousins and liked to explore my grandparents’ farm but hadn’t done either in decades until I decided to last year. It was so much fun and my cousins and I get together every couple of months now to play a game.

2) De-orgainize. Most CFA candidates are super-organized type of people. What else would you expect of financial analysts? If I don’t have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to do for the week, I feel a little lost. But sometimes we have to just let our need for organization go to relax a little. Clear your schedule entirely for a day and make a point to do anything you want (unplanned). Go for a walk and just see where the day leads.

3) Get a massage. I’m not talking about asking your significant other to rub your shoulders. Go to an actual spa and get a professional massage, in fact, make it a whole spa day just for you. You’ve earned that sauna, massage, facial package and will love the sense of peace.

4) Make a short-term bucket list. A bucket list doesn’t have to be just things you want to do before you die. Make a list of things to do over the next couple of months. Get creative and be daring. Don’t be afraid to leave home and get outside your comfort zone.

5) Read something totally unrelated to finance. Take up a hobby or read a book totally unrelated to the CFA or finance. Do something regularly just for fun. Being goal-driven personalities is one thing but we have to remember that life is short and we need to take time out to have fun.

Don’t stop with just five ideas for your post-CFA exam relaxation. Make the next few months count and have as much fun as possible. It will be January soon enough and we’ll be right back here studying for another year.

‘til next time, happy relaxing!
Joseph Hogue, CFA

5 Things to Avoid During the Last Week Before the CFA Exam

Avoid these five wastes of time and challenges to get the most of your last week before the CFA exam

It’s the last week before the CFA exam and hopefully you’re reading this from your study room hideaway just before starting a long week of nothing but cramming for the test. Taking the whole week off work to study is a great way to get those last few points you need to pass the exam.

Not being able to take the week off to focus on studying doesn’t mean you won’t have enough time though. You’ve already spent hundreds of hours on your CFA study plan and putting in 15 or 20 hours this week instead of 40 isn’t going to doom your result.

There are a few things that won’t help your chance at passing the CFA exam though and that should be avoided at all costs.

What to Avoid Before the CFA Exam

Distractions – This one might be difficult to avoid at any point in your CFA study plan but it’s crucial that you get the most of your time this week. This is it, just one more week before the exam and you can’t afford to be taking breaks and surfing online. Find a study area away from home where you will not be distracted regularly and work through the day. Take a ten minute break each hour and 30 minutes for lunch.

Too much group time – Whether you have been studying in a group so far or not, the returns to additional group time are probably limited. At this point, everyone has very specific topic areas in which they need to study most and group members’ needs may not align with yours. If the rest of the group wants to work on derivatives and risk management but you feel you’ve got the study sessions mastered, your time would be better spent studying the topics in which you need to study. Keep the lines of communication open with group members for any quick and specific questions but its best to spend your time really focusing on your individual needs this week.

Negativity and Worry – I understand it’s a lot easier to say not to worry about the exams now that it’s five years since passing the level 3 but you really do need a Zen-like perspective on it. You have done what you can and are using this last week to get those last few points. Worrying about the exam isn’t going to help you make any additional points. Calm down, put in the study time this week and accept whatever score you earn.

New study ideas and inefficient study – It’s too late to start trying out new study ideas or trying to work all the way through the official CFA curriculum again. You need to focus on what has worked in your study routine and getting the most of your time. If you have FinQuiz Study Notes and other review study aids, focus on them to get the point of each LOS rather than reading through thousands of pages in the curriculum.

Too much meta-studying – We’ve covered this one on the blog before but it’s extra important now. What is meta-studying…you’re doing it now. Any time you read something about the test or how to prepare for it, you’re meta-studying. It’s not a bad thing, you need to understand how to study in the most efficient way possible and what to expect on the exam. Just don’t use meta-studying to replace actual studying of the LOS and curriculum. Too many candidates spend a lot of time online, in different CFA forums and searching for questions about the exam rather than actually reviewing the material and working practice problems. Get what you need to know what to expect on the exam then get back to studying.

Getting caught up in some of these studying hurdles won’t necessarily doom you on the exam. If you’ve already put in the time you need then you can probably relax a little this week and go to the exam refreshed on Saturday. Spending a lot of time on these five distractions and wastes of time won’t help you either though so make sure you know that you’re getting the most from your time.

‘til next time, happy testing!
Joseph Hogue, CFA

Beating CFA Study Burnout in these Last Few Weeks

Just a few weeks remain and CFA study burnout can be your biggest challenge. Use these strategies to stay strong.

There’s just three weeks left to the June 2016 CFA exam and you’re probably hitting the books pretty hard trying to get those last few points. After months of studying, many candidates face a critical challenge in these last few weeks. Whether you get tired of studying or just become less efficient, you need a plan to confront CFA study burnout.

Burnout can hit in one of two ways. The most obvious kind of burnout is when you just get tired of studying, can’t bring yourself to even look at the CFA curriculum and stop studying. You either stop studying altogether or procrastinate studying so much that you barely put in a few hours each week.

The other kind of burnout is just as bad, maybe worse. In this kind of burnout, you just zone out while you’re studying. You still put in the hours studying for the exam but it becomes like driving to work, you get to work but honestly can’t remember much about the trip. Not only are you still spending hours on the curriculum but it’s so ineffective that it’s like not studying at all.

Don’t want to throw you off your plan but want to offer an alternative in case you feel tired

Study Better by Turning Your Plan on its Head

I don’t want to throw you off your study plan so late in the game. If you feel like you’re still studying effectively and retaining the material, go ahead and keep to your schedule.

Use your CFA mock exam or test questions as a guide. If you are still doing progressively better every time you do practice problems after studying, then your studying is still paying off. If you’re getting less out of your CFA study sessions, you might want to check out some of these ideas to energize your studying.

One of the best ways to change up your studying is to use different media. This means using flash cards, study notes, audio and video in your studying. You can usually find some good YouTube videos to walk you through the bigger topics in the curriculum. These usually won’t substitute for a programmed course but can be a good way to break up the monotony and answer a few questions on difficult subjects.

Try going through a different process when you study. Do you always start out reading the curriculum then taking a few practice problems? Try starting off with practice problems or working through some flash cards. As a bonus, starting off with questions before you review the material will force you to reach deeper into your memory for the material.

We looked at some of the best places to study for the CFA in a recent post as well as what makes a great study place. Even the best location can get stale after a while and changing up your study spot can help to shake you out of a rut. Parks, libraries and coffee shops top the list of best places to study so try a few of these to see which helps to change up your routine.

If you’ve been really hitting one topic area in particular, you might try focusing on a few others for a few days. You still need to make sure you’re ready for the most important topics like financial statement analysis, ethics and equity investments but try not to overdo it. I spent so much time over the last few weeks studying equity investments for the Level II CFA exam that I caught myself skimming over important areas.

The idea is just to change up your studying to shock your brain into paying attention. The problem behind burnout is that you’ve done the same thing so many times that your brain is bored with the routine. Anything you can do to change that and make your new study plan unique should help to shake your brain out of its daze.

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

A Scientifically-Proven Way to Study for the CFA Exam

Look to science to help you learn and remember more of what you study for the CFA exam

The phrase ‘study smarter, not harder’ is thrown around a lot but candidates may not be taking the advice to heart. Studying upwards of 300 hours for the CFA exam is hard enough but even that may not get you closer to the designation if you’re not retaining the information. You truly do need to master the material in order to recall it on the six-hour CFA exam and you won’t be able to do that by just reading through the curriculum.

We’ve already talked about the power of active learnings to remembering the CFA curriculum. We only remember about 10% of what we read and 20% of what we hear through these passive learning strategies. Working practice problems, flash cards and other active learning strategies can help you remember up to 90% of the material.

I thought I would explore a few more ways science has proven the best study methods and how you can incorporate them into your CFA study plan.

Keeping from Forgetting What You’ve Learned for the CFA

Ebbinghaus published his hypothesis on the ‘curve of forgetting’ in 1885, describing how we learn and forget information. The idea is that you learn everything you can about a topic through a study event or lecture but then start to lose the information over time if it’s not reinforced. If you do nothing to remember the information, you’ve lost up to 80% of it by the second day and retain just 2% in a matter of 30 days.

The solution is to reinforce the material and commit it to long-term memory by reminding yourself of the key points. Spending just 10 minutes studying the material the day after a lecture will help boost your memory back to full comprehension. After that, it takes less time revisiting the material to remember the bulk of the topic.

curve of forgetting

Using this idea in your CFA study plan means reviewing the material you study the following day and each week for the next month. Use study notes to review the key points and then do 15 or 20 minutes of practice problems.

Use active recall to convert to long-term memory

Work published in Psychological Science by a Washington University professor on a 2009 study shows that students remember material better when they actively recall it after studying. Instead of just reviewing notes or rereading material, close your book and verbally recite the key points to a topic. Do this just after studying and before reviewing the material.

Focus on one thing and don’t multitask

I know a lot of CFA candidates like to listen to music or sit in front of the TV while studying but research proves that these distractions cost you when you go to recall the information. Studies by Indiana University and Ohio State show that trying to multitask while studying interrupts the process of absorbing and retaining the material. Study more effectively by concentrating on just one thing and limit distractions.

Change up your environment

We talked about finding the ‘perfect’ CFA study location last week but there’s science behind finding a few different places to study. UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork points to evidence that changing your study location regularly helps to improve retention. It has to do with state-dependent learning and the idea that the brain associates learned material with the environment you were in when you learned it. Change up your location every few weeks and you’ll be able to recall the information no matter where you are.

Get moving before you get learning

Exercise gets your blood pumping and that includes to the brain. Research has proven that a brief period of exercise before studying can make you more alert and better able to learn.

So incorporating these five ideas into your study schedule could help boost your memory and get you those last few needed points on the CFA exam. Remember to use active learning by working practice problems and learning through all five senses (ok, maybe not so much through touch and taste). Actively recall the material after you study and then keep from forgetting by touching on it the next day. Keep physically active and focus only on your studying at different locations.

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

 

Rounding Up the Best Ways to Prepare for the CFA Exam

Use these 8 articles on preparing for the last month before the CFA exam to get everything in order

There’s just six weeks to the June 2016 CFA exam and candidates are feverishly preparing their last month study plans. One of the biggest pitfalls that catch CFA candidates is all this time meta-studying, or studying about studying. All the time you spend finding resources, asking other candidates and putting together your study plan is time you could be spending on the curriculum and getting those last few points you need to earn the CFA designation.

To help speed up the task of meta-studying  and build out your last month study plan, we highlight the best articles on preparing for the CFA exam as well as checklists you can use to make sure you’re on track. Use the articles below as your guide to plan out your CFA study schedule as well as prepare for the big day.

Best CFA Advice on Studying

This last month CFA study plan includes the tools and resources you’ll want to use to get through the material one last time before the exam. You won’t be able to read the curriculum again but these resources will help you cover as much as possible to make sure you’ve mastered the topic areas. The article also includes a strategy on how to use practice tests to guide your study plan to focus your time where it’s needed most. Includes a six-day study schedule that you can customize with your available time.

A big hurdle to effective studying is the uncertainty around whether you’ve studied enough. Candidates freak out and scramble for ideas and input on how much is enough and what more they can do. I put together this CFA study checklist to help you know that you’re on the right track or to point out some milestones you need to reach for confidence on the exam. How many times do you need to read the curriculum and other sources? How many practice problems should you do?

The last week before the CFA exam was always my favorite. In this last week CFA schedule, I talk about how to use the time as a study-vacation and how to get the most from your time. The post also includes exam day materials and a link to some important Institute pages.

Best CFA Advice on Preparing for the Big Day

This CFA exam day checklist includes everything you need to prepare for the big day. You’ll find links to a review of the typical exam day, a list of testing centers and the CFA testing center policy. This is information directly from the CFA Institute so make sure you know it.

This post on 10 ways to relax on CFA exam day has been one of our most popular this year. The chemicals released when you’re nervous won’t help you remember the curriculum or pass the exam. One of the best things you can do to get a passing score is just to relax and have the confidence that you’ve done all you could…and that it will be enough. There’s ten great ideas here so definitely a few for everyone.

Most people carry an emergency road kit in their car but do you have your CFA exam day emergency kit ready? The post includes a list of things you’ll want to put together to have on exam day. The list includes required exam materials like your passport, admission ticket, pencils and calculator. It also includes the just-in-case materials that can mean the difference between passing the exam or ending up in one of the fail bands.

This is your CFA exam day strategy, a replay of the big day starting with the night before and running all the way through the afternoon. You’ll get advice on what to eat for breakfast and important considerations for getting to the exam. I cover what happens as the exam starts and how to spend your lunch to relax and set yourself up for a successful afternoon session.

What to do after the exam isn’t something candidates usually think about but you’ll want to check out this post-CFA exam checklist. It will get you started on making next year’s exam a success by setting an email reminder and reflecting on what worked for this year’s study plan.

The important idea here is to get what you need to put your last month study plan together and then get back to studying. Don’t spend time preparing to study at the expense of actual studying and the points you need to pass the CFA exam.

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

 

Don’t forget your Free CFA Mock Exam!

Learn to use mock exams and CFA practice tests to guide your study plan and pass the exams

The CFA mock exams are now available on the CFA Institute website for registered candidates. If you are registered for the June exam, you have access to a free mock exam and topic tests. Both of these can be critical in guiding your study plan over the last two months and getting the most out of your time.

The CFA mock exam is designed to mimic the exam day experience with timed sections and structured along the exam topic weights. The Level 1 and Level 2 CFA mock exams include a morning and afternoon section of multiple choice questions. The Level 3 CFA mock exam does not include a section for the morning essay questions but does test you on the afternoon vignette format. The exams include the correct answers, a brief explanation of each and reference the curriculum on each question.

The CFA Institute recommends you take the mock exam towards the end of your exam preparation and most third-party mock exams take place well into May.  There’s good reason you may want to consider taking your mock exam much earlier than this to get the most from the experience.

How to Get the Most of Your CFA Mock Exam

I always thought it was odd that CFA mock exams were not held until mid-May at most local societies or third-party providers. I remember taking one mock exam on the 18th of May, just over two weeks before the June exam.

At this point, what is the mock exam going to do for you? You’ve got little time to rearrange your study plan. If you do poorly on the mock exam at this late in the game, it makes for a very stressful few weeks before the actual exam.

Getting the most out of your CFA mock exam means doing it early and in an environment that will simulate the actual test.

Ask your local society to organize a mock exam day in April or as soon as possible. It shouldn’t take weeks of planning, just reach out to candidates by email to see how many are interested and reserve a room at the library that can accommodate the group. Ask candidates to print off their mock exams and bring them to the event.

If your society cannot hold a mock exam day, you can still simulate the exam day experience by going to a semi-quiet public place. It shouldn’t be completely quiet like a solitary room but some place like the library with ambient noise.

Testing yourself in this exam day-type environment is going to test your concentration. If you find it difficult to concentrate on the exam with background noise, you’ll know to take earplugs to the actual exam in June. Testing yourself on three-hour sections will also help you see how your mental and physical stamina holds up. If you find yourself getting tired before time runs out, you should consider exercising ahead of the exam with more three-hour testing sessions.

More than anything, taking the CFA mock exam early is going to help you focus your study plan. It’s one thing to remember answers when taking short topic tests on material you’ve just studied that week. It’s another thing entirely to remember answers to all 18 study sessions all at once.

While taking the mock exam, you might want to mark the number on questions where you are unsure of the answer. This will help you review the questions that you happen to guess correctly but might need more study in the topic. Review the answers to these and any incorrect answers after the exam. Once you’re done, you’ll have an idea of how well prepared you are in each topic area. You can use this to rearrange your study plan over the last month to focus on those areas in which you need more work.

Don’t Just take One CFA Mock Exam

Also available and free to registered CFA candidates is a series of shorter topic tests. Download these from the CFA Institute website and use them for more practice.

Mock and practice exams are hugely beneficial and you should try doing more than one. Six hours is a long time to put pencil to paper and you need to train your body to not get tired. Without training over at least a few mock exams, you may not even realize how tired you’re getting and how much it’s affecting your score.

Taking multiple mock exams is also a great way to fine-tune your studying. Your first few months of studying were all about getting through the curriculum and touching on everything. Your last few weeks of studying should be about making sure you have a good understanding of everything but also making sure you get every last point where it counts.

I would recommend doing at least one mock exam every two weeks and a three-hour exam every other weekend. Try doing these in a semi-public place to get used to the noise and testing environment. You can use question banks to randomize the questions or take them in topic-order. Do this for the last month or few weeks leading up to the exam and you’ll be more confident and prepared for June.

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

10 Ways to Relax on CFA Exam Day

Learn how to relax on CFA exam day to help unlock everything you’ve worked so hard to learn

OK, so it’s nine weeks left to the CFA exams and the last thing you want to think about is exam day. You want to hear all the secrets to getting every last point and how to master the material, right?

We’ve covered study strategies, the ins-and-outs of each exam and just about every part of the curriculum on the blog. The one thing we have never covered in more than four years of the Finquiz blog may be one of the most important to your success on the CFA exams…how to relax on exam day!

CFA exam day is stressful (that should be STRESSFUL!). You’ve studied for 3+ months and upwards of 300 hours for this one day and you know that nearly half the candidates will have to repeat the same exam next year. The hormones released when we experience stress, cortisol, affects your ability to recall from your memory…and your chances for success on the CFA exam.

Now before you start getting stressed out about stress on exam day, check out these ways to relax and get the confidence you need to pass.

10 Ways to Relax for the CFA Exam

1) Put it into perspective. One year within a lifetime career isn’t really that big of a deal. I know you want to pass all three exams in three years but relax, it’s not that important. Focus on learning the material and being a better professional, exam success will follow. Think about that on exam day.

2) Meditate for five minutes. Find a quite spot at the testing center, you might have to go somewhere nearby, and just sit with your eyes closed for five minutes. Breathe deeply and relax. Know that you have done all you can and it will be enough.

3) Concentrated breathing. Concentrate on your breathing for a few breathes. Breathe deeply in and out and feel yourself relaxing with each exhale. It’s amazing how just slowing your mind and breathing can help calm you down.

4) Take some chocolate squares. Dark chocolate has ingredients that regulate the stress hormone cortisol.

5) Chew some gum. This one never really worked well for me but I’ve heard it work for other people to reduce stress.

5) Green tea contains L-Theanine, a chemical that is supposed to relieve anger and calm you down.

6) Visualize success. Close your eyes and visualize the day for five minutes. See yourself sitting down to the exam and smiling. See yourself working through the questions, still smiling because it’s easier than you expected. See yourself and a huge sigh of relief as you walk out of the test center knowing that you passed the exam.

7) Try a little cold water. Dripping cold water on your wrists and behind your ears can help calm you down by cooling the major arteries just beneath the skin in these spots.

8) Make a checklist. For me, organization is calming. Making a checklist of things I need to take with me or of things I need to study/do to pass the exam helps me to know that I’ve covered everything.

9) Stretch for five minutes. Doing some light stretching helps to relieve muscle tension and aids circulation. Start with your toes and work your way up to your neck.

10) Take a walk. It will be early morning before the CFA exam starts so hopefully it won’t be too noisy outside. Try walking a few blocks in one direction from the test center. Breathe the fresh air and enjoy the morning a little.

Everything else aside, I always found the best way to reduce stress on exam day was super-preparation. Cover the material multiple times from multiple sources, i.e. reading the curriculum and study notes, working practice problems and flash cards, etcetera. The more you study, the more confident you are going to be going into the exam. It may not be the easiest answer but it will get you the designation.

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

10 Week CFA Study Plans for Every Type of Candidate

Two 10 week CFA study plans for candidates that haven’t started and for those with a head start

We’ve got 10 weeks left to the 2016 June CFA exams and this point always seems to be a milestone for candidates. Maybe it’s just that ten is such an easy, round number that cause people to reevaluate their CFA study plans or motivate others to finally get started.

I get emails from both types of candidates. Those that started months ago want to make sure they’re on the right track. They start thinking about what they can do to change up their study plan to avoid burnout and squeeze out those last points they need to pass the exams. The candidates that haven’t managed to get started yet finally get nervous enough to crack open the books but are worried they don’t have enough time to study.

I thought I would use this week’s blog post to share some ideas for 10 week CFA study plans, one for those that have been studying and one for those just getting started. You don’t necessarily need to change up your plans if you already have a good routine but take a look at some of the ideas below.

10 Week CFA Study Plan for Candidates with a Head Start

If you’re already well into your CFA studying then revising your plan now is all about constantly testing where you’re at and changing your study plan to fill in the gaps.

We reviewed the Finquiz CFA question bank a few weeks ago and how to use it to test your progress across study sessions. You should be doing practice problems when you finish every reading and then doing more a day or two afterwards to refresh what you learned. Consider taking a half test or at least 90 questions every weekend to test your retention across all 18 study sessions. This is going to help you see where you need more studying.

If you haven’t read through all the readings yet, finish the remaining material up first. After that, go back and spend some more time on the core topic areas (those with the most points on the exam like FSA) and those readings where you are not scoring as well on practice tests.

You don’t need to read the CFA curriculum as thoroughly as you did on your first pass. Scan the official readings for the key points while using study guide notes to reinforce the Learning Outcome Statements. For your review, try to get through at least two study sessions a week.

10 Week CFA Study Plan for Candidates Just Starting

If you haven’t started studying for the CFA exam yet, or only have a couple of weeks of studying done, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. That 300 hours studying that the average candidate spends ahead of the CFA exam is now like a full-time job spread over 10 weeks.

There is still a chance though if you devote yourself fully to the task. If you can make studying for the CFA your job, studying eight hours a day throughout the week, you can get the necessary studying in with no problem. If you have to do your studying after work or on the weekends, it is going to be more difficult but still doable.

The difference with this 10 week CFA study plan compared to the one above is that you don’t have as much time to read through the official curriculum. The CFA curriculum is the best resource for studying but it’s just way too long when you’re pressed for time.

If you are to save the last week for an intensive review, you’ll need to work through two study sessions each week just to finish all of them. Instead of reading through the curriculum then study notes, try reading through the study notes first. This will give you a good idea of the important points and will make the curriculum reading faster and you’ll pick out those key points more easily.

Split your week into two 3-day study sessions, each one to cover one of the 18 study sessions in the curriculum. Read through the study notes and the curriculum over the first two days then spend the third day doing practice problems and reviewing the study notes one more time. Three days isn’t much to cover each study session but you’ll get through the entire curriculum in nine weeks.

One of the most important ideas for this accelerated CFA study plan is to use your time efficiently. You absolutely must study in a place where there will be no distractions. Turn off your cell phone and disable the internet browsing on your computer. You need to study straight through and cannot afford to spend your time doing anything else. If you can reserve a private study room at the library, that’s usually your best option but any quiet and uninterrupted space will work.

Whichever study plan you follow, you’ll still want to take the last week off from work for studying if possible. I always loved my last week before the CFA exams, studying upwards of ten hours to get those last points before the exam. It’s a challenging week but well worth it when you go to the exam confident that you’ll pass.

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

FinQuiz CFA Question Bank Review

Use this CFA question bank review to guide you through the process of using the FinQuiz question bank

I’ve gotten a lot of questions from CFA candidates about the FinQuiz suite of study materials so I thought I would try out the question bank software. It’s been almost five years since I took a test around CFA questions but I felt confident my score wouldn’t be too bad (hopefully). I’ve kept up-to-date on the curriculum through the blog and use most of the material in my job as an equity analyst.

I got access to the CFA question bank in the FinQuiz dashboard. The first page is a filter screen where you choose which readings you’d like to test. You can also filter the questions by ones you haven’t attempted, those answered incorrectly before or bookmarked questions. You can select to score as you go, randomize the questions and select how many of the 2,345 questions you see.

Starting the Question Bank Test

The testing page shows a timer at the top along with the Learning Outcome Statements (LOS) from which the specific questions are coming. Candidates studying for the CFA exams should pay attention to the timer and keep themselves to a timed-experience to better prepare for the exam.

The questions are very similar in structure to what you’ll see on the CFA Level 1 exam. Each question is two to four sentences long including data and sometimes a data table. Three potential answers are given and provided in a multiple choice format. If you chose, score as you go, you will see the correct answer after making your selection.

You can bookmark and write notes to each question for better reviewing when you finish the test. This is helpful for marking which questions had you stumped or other notes to track your progress. Each question also includes a feedback box for sending comments or notes to FinQuiz.

CFA Question Bank Results

I did pretty well, scoring 90% on the 30 CFA Level 1 questions though I had to think about quite a few and the time ran longer than I expected. It has been quite a while since taking a test on the Level 1 curriculum but I use the material quite a bit.

The reports to track your CFA question bank performance are really helpful. Immediately after finishing the test, you see a screen summarizing your question bank results. The screen lists each question with an ID, your selected answer and the correct answer if you made an incorrect choice. You see from which readings the questions came so you can review those where you might need more work.

CFA Test Bank FinquizYou can review all the questions, those you scored correctly or incorrectly and those you bookmarked. The software gives you the option of retaking or deleting the test.

Clicking back to the dashboard shows your cumulative performance across each study session and all the question bank exams. This is a great way to track your progress studying for the CFA exam because you’ll know in which study sessions you need to review.

cfa test resultsOver 2,000 questions means you’re not likely to run out of questions and can work the question bank into your regular studying. After reading the curriculum for each study session, do the end-of-chapter questions. The next day, review the FinQuiz curriculum notes and do another 30 questions from the question bank. The following week, review the study session with another 30 question exam to make sure you retained the material.

This study routine should give you a pretty good idea of which study sessions you need to spend some more time reviewing at the end of 18 weeks. Take a few full-length practice exams using the question bank to retest the entire material. Aim for at least 75% on each study session and you may want to aim for 80% or better on the core material like Ethics, FSA and Equity.

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

CFA 2016 Review: Level I Income Statements

We started our review of the CFA level 1 financial statement material last week with a basic understanding of the financial statements and the framework in analysis. A lot of this introductory material is extremely basic but you should resist the urge to speed through it. Financial Statement Analysis accounts for up to 20% of the points on all three CFA exams and you will need to use it every day during your career as an equity analyst. Most importantly, you’ll need most of this introductory material to understand more detailed concepts and formulas on the CFA Level 2 and Level 3 exams.

We jump right into it this week with a look at the income statement, the major accounting concepts and statement analysis. The income statement is likely the most talked about in the financial press of the three principal financial statements though you’ll spend just as much time as an analyst on the other two statements. We’ll be using the Finquiz notes to the CFA curriculum.

Understanding the Income Statement on CFA Level 1

The income statement represents the company’s profitability over a period of time, either a quarter or through the year. Analysts use the income statement to evaluate the quality of a company’s earnings and earnings growth rate.

CFA income statement structureIncome statements have a fairly basic layout that starts with sales or revenue and then deducts expenses, taxes, interest and other items to arrive at net income.

You should remember the requirements for revenue recognition under IFRS and U.S. GAAP. The general rules plus recognition of special cases like long-term contracts is highly testable material, especially quick calculations like the percentage-of-sales methodology.

Income from operations is an important number because it shows the operational earnings power of the firm. The operating margin, operating profits divided by sales, can be used to judge the operational efficiency of the company compared to competitors. Operating earnings are sometimes referred to as Earnings Before Interest and Taxes (EBIT) and an important valuation multiple will be on EBITDA, which adds back depreciation and amortization.

Everything below net income from operations is referred to as “below the line” and includes many items that are not part of normal operational activities. The definition and reasons why an activity is reported below the line as non-operating items is very important. Understand the difference between Extraordinary Items (not allowed under IFRS) and Unusual or Infrequent Items.

  • Extraordinary Items are both infrequent and unusual, such as losses on natural disasters and expropriations.
  • Unusual or Infrequent Items are either/or and are generally reported as part of continuing operations of a company. Common items are restructuring charges or gains/losses on sales of an asset.

CFA inventory costing methodsExpense recognition around inventory will be very important material so master the LIFO, FIFO and weighted-average costing methods. You’ll see whole readings on this later so getting the basics here will make the more detailed readings easier to grasp. An important point is the effect of different costing methodology on Cost of Goods Sold.

Understand how to calculate Weighted Average Number of Shares Outstanding over a period as well as the difference between a simple and complex capital structure. Understand the difference between basic EPS and diluted EPS along with which securities are used in the calculation of dilution (i.e. options, warrants, convertible debt, convertible preferreds).

CFA Level 1 Income Statement Analysis

The focus on the CFA level 1 exam is placed on understanding the layout and accounting of the income statement rather than detailed analysis. The analysis in Reading 25 is fairly basic and just covers common-size statements and margins.

Common-size financial statements are a way of comparing statement items against a major line item like sales or assets. In vertical common-size analysis, you find the percentage of each line item relative to sales for each year. This is helpful in seeing if particular expenses have become larger or smaller in significance. In horizontal common-size analysis, you base each line item off of itself in a common year. It helps to see changes in expenses over the years.

Three margin ratios are common in income statement analysis,

  • Gross margin is the percentage of revenue after cost of sales and may help show different competitive strategies across companies
  • Operating margin is the percentage of revenue after operating expenses and is valuable in showing how well management controls costs
  • Net margin is income divided by sales and shows the overall income statement profitability

This basic statement analysis is detailed further in Reading 28 of the CFA level 1 curriculum which brings the financial statements together for a closer look at analysis and ratios. These are some of the most important readings you’ll cover within the curriculum and for your job as an analyst so make sure you spend as much time as it takes to master the material.

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

The 5 Biggest Mistakes CFA Candidates Will Make in 2016

I’ve been writing about CFA exam preparation since the beginning of 2012 and was a candidate myself for three years to 2011. One thing I’ve learned about CFA candidates and preparing for the exam is that there are a few major mistakes that almost everyone makes.

Call them the five points to failure, the fatal five or any number of other names but these mistakes account for why less than half of the candidates pass the CFA exams each year. Making sure you don’t commit these five mistakes won’t guarantee you pass the June exam but it will definitely put you ahead of the pack.

Avoid these five biggest mistakes and you’ll be well on your way to passing the 2016 CFA exams in June.

Starting your CFA Study Plan Too Late

This is the most obvious mistake CFA candidates make but also one of the worst. I know, everyone has other responsibilities and it doesn’t make sense to start studying for the CFA months before you think is necessary.

You’ve heard of the 300 hours that most candidates report studying for the exam but you’ve always done well in school and figure you can do it in less, maybe 250 hours. Wrong! Those other candidates aren’t the average student you find in your classes. They’re over-achieving Type-A personalities that have also done well in school. Don’t underestimate the exams or the time it takes to study.

So 300 hours divided by 15 or 20 hours a week means about 17 weeks or about four months of studying. Starting your study schedule in February sounds about right and that’s what many candidates do. The problem is that ‘life’ gets in the way. Things come up and candidates miss their target for weekly study time. Before they know it, it’s already April and they are only a third the way through their study plan.

Start studying for the CFA exams with 25 weeks left to the exam and make a plan that gets you all the way through the material a few times with two or three weeks left to spare. This is going to do two things to help you pass:

  • Give you enough time to cover the material multiple times, a necessity for really remembering something
  • Give you enough time that you can miss a couple of days and not have to worry about falling behind

Avoiding Tough Topics

This is a big one on the CFA Level II exam but affects candidates on all three exams. The CFA curriculum is tough enough but some of the sections just seem impossible…and boring! I never really drank much coffee until I started trying to learn derivatives pricing in the CFA curriculum.

You may not even realize you’re doing it but almost everyone avoids studying a topic or two. Whether something takes you away from studying or you just study another topic instead, avoiding the topics we don’t like happens to everyone.

Stick to your study schedule over the first month or two, doing all the readings and reviewing each one with condensed study notes. Don’t skip any sections or topic areas. Consciously think about your study time and how much time you are spending on each subject.

When you start changing your schedule according to need, take regular question bank tests to gauge your mastery of each topic. Let your score on the tests guide your study time, not whether you’re tired of the topic or not.

Thinking the Next Level is the Same as the Last

Ever wonder why only 43% of Level II candidates pass the exam? With only about 39% of Level 1 candidates passing, you would think that only the best and brightest make it through and should have a better than 50/50 chance at passing the second exam.

The problem is that too many candidates are surprised by the CFA exam every year, no matter which level they are taking. Many candidates study for an exam with the same plan that got them through the previous level. It worked last year, why not this year as well?

Each level is difficult in its own way. The first exam is a mile wide but only an inch deep, you need to understand a vast amount of concepts but really don’t need too much detail in anything. The second exam is a quantitative monster with more formulas than you’ve ever seen. The final CFA exam is a time-consuming nightmare with essays that can go on for pages.

Learn the specific study strategy for each CFA exam and don’t be surprised in June.

Avoiding Practice Problems

This one is a lot like avoiding a specific topic area but I see candidates do it across all topics. One of our first posts on the blog was the difference between active and passive learning and it remains one of the best pieces of advice on the blog.

I know how much easier it is to just sit back and read through the curriculum rather than getting out a pen and paper to work practice problems. You just don’t remember things as well when you’ve only read them. Studies show that we only remember about 10% of what we read but can retain up to 90% of what we say and do.

Force yourself to love practice problems because they are going to be your best chance at passing the CFA exams. I challenge you to do 1,440 practice problems before the next CFA exam. That’s about eight full-length tests and more than 50% above the number of problems the average successful candidate is doing.

Click through to see how to get the most from your CFA mock and practice exams

Too Much Meta-Studying

Ok, so this one is going to come back to haunt me but candidates do way too much meta-studying. Meta-studying is studying about studying and about the exams. This includes reading forum posts on the LinkedIn group, talking to other candidates about how to pass and yes even reading this blog.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend time learning how to study and how to approach the exams. Knowing the structure of the exams and the tricks I’ve picked up over almost seven years will definitely help you pass.

But don’t use your study time to learn about studying. Have an hour a week that you use to answer any test questions, visit the blog or refine your study plan. After that hour, spend the rest of your time actually studying the CFA curriculum and mastering the material.

Passing the CFA exams doesn’t have to be difficult. Put in your time and avoid the biggest mistakes made by candidates. Putting together your study plan with these five mistakes in mind will drastically improve your chances and put you on the path to success.

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

FinQuiz 2016 CFA Level I/II/III Question Bank – Benefits

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Books to Read when You’re Not Studying for the CFA

Studying for the December CFA exam is over and most candidates haven’t yet started studying for the June exams. What does a motivated CFA candidate do to pass the time when there’s nothing to study?

Sure, you could take a month or two off before ramping up your June CFA schedule. It sounds nice but I was never able to just sit around and do nothing. If you’re like me, you’re constantly looking for new opportunities to learn and for self-improvement.

One of the best ways to use your newfound free time is through checking a few books off your reading list. I always tried reading one or two books completely unrelated to the CFA curriculum or finance during my end-of-year downtime but also found time to fit in a couple of books related to my professional goals.

Check out the book ideas below to keep your skills fresh and get ahead of the pack while you’re waiting for the next CFA study season.

Books Related to the CFA Curriculum

I always tried fitting in at least one educational book during the month or two between CFA study plans. These are books that examine different parts of the curriculum but may go into a little more detail or help explain a topic from a different perspective.

The examples below are all written by contributors to the CFA curriculum so you know they are going to stick closely to the same methods and process. This is important because you don’t want to learn something that might be significantly different from what is taught in the curriculum. You can form your own methods and techniques after passing the CFA exams, until then try to stick as closely to the curriculum as possible.

All the books below are available on Amazon. You may have to look for an older edition to get a better price.

Equity Asset Valuation Workbook; Jerald Pinto, Elaine Henry, Thomas Robinson, John Stowe

There are a couple different workbooks available as companion pieces to other books. You might be able to find the textbook at your local library so you’ll only have to buy the workbook. The CFA curriculum is mostly academic and I’ve said a few times that candidates need to supplement their study with some practical application.

Asian Financial Statement Analysis: Detecting Financial Irregularities; Chin Hwee Tan, Thomas R Robinson, Howard Schilit

This has been a big topic over the last few years, especially around some high-profile cases of fraud on Chinese shares. Being able to spot irregularities isn’t yet a common skill and could help make you an asset to potential employers.

The Complete CFO Handbook: From Accounting to Accountability; Frank Fabozzi, Pamela Peterson Drake, Ralph Polimeni

This one is a little expensive but looks interesting. If you’re interested in corporate finance as a career path rather than strictly asset management, it might be something to check out.

Managing a Corporate Bond Portfolio; Leland Crabbe, Frank Fabozzi

Much of the CFA curriculum is based around asset management for individuals. The institutional portfolio management section on the Level 3 exam doesn’t go into much detail on actually managing a portfolio. This one might be an interesting supplement to the curriculum’s material on fixed-income and portfolio management.

Books to Read for Fun

Even when I wasn’t studying for the CFA curriculum or reading curriculum-related textbooks, I would often look for books related to financial topics. These books can still be powerful learning guides while also entertaining and letting you take your mind off the curriculum for a second.

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World; Niall Ferguson

I love reading about history and reading about financial or economic history is a double-bonus. Niall Ferguson is one of the most recognized names in financial history and the book puts a lot of today’s financial concepts into perspective.

The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing; Benjamin Graham, Jason Zweig

If you are going to be working with retail investors, this is almost required reading. Even if you use a different investing methodology for your clients, it’s a good idea to know what’s in the book because there’s a good chance your clients will ask about it.

Liar’s Poker; Michael Lewis

I enjoyed some of Michael Lewis’ earlier books like this one but he’s taken a more populist perspective in newer works. Liar’s Poker is an interesting view of the old school trading desk and doesn’t degenerate too much into the ‘Wall Street is evil’ perspective you get from some of Lewis’ newer books.

The links to Amazon don’t mean you have to buy the books online. Look around the internet to get some recommendations that suit your tastes and check out your local library to see if you can borrow the titles. Reading a little every day is a great way to relax between CFA study seasons and can help you expand your professional horizons at the same time.

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

Most Popular FinQuiz Blog Posts of 2015

Around this time of year, we love to look back at the posts that have helped CFA candidates the most and the ones most popular with candidates. Some articles are perennial favorites with candidates and a must read if you want to pass the exams. Other posts might not have gotten as much attention but carry some extremely valuable information and need to be highlighted.

The Finquiz CFA Blog had another record year in 2015. Nearly 280,000 candidates and potential candidates read 427,420 posts from January through November. That’s almost 1,300 pages a day of information helping candidates to pass the three CFA exams.

We’re proud to be able to bring this resource to candidates and will continue to get you the best information for CFA exam success for years to come. Check out the most popular posts of 2015 and of all-time below and get ready for a successful 2016!

Top Finquiz CFA Posts of 2015

2016 Level 1 CFA Curriculum Changes – The articles outlining the CFA curriculum changes for the following year are always the most popular and some of the most important information of the year. The CFA curriculum doesn’t change much from year to year but it’s must-know information if you’re going to pass the exam.

The changes to the 2016 CFA curriculum were relatively light this year compared to the changes last year. No topic weights were changed in the exams so that was a big relief. One reading was added to the CFA Level 1 exam and quite a few LOS were modified or changed. If you’re taking the Level 1 exam in June, especially if you’re retaking the exam, this may be the most important post you read all year.

2016 Level 2 CFA Curriculum Changes – The final study session of the CFA Level 2 curriculum (Portfolio Management) was changed for 2016, making it a must-read topic for next year. Click through to the article and download the changes to the curriculum along with Learning Outcome Statements for review.

2016 Level 3 CFA Curriculum Changes – Two readings were removed and one was added to the 2016 CFA curriculum so make sure you’re up-to-date if you want to pass the final level of the designation.

Top 9 Formulas for the CFA Level 1 Exam – New CFA candidates always get information overload when they first see the CFA curriculum, especially when it comes to formulas. The books are massive and mastering the entire curriculum seems impossible. Focus on the most important material first like these nine critical formulas and you’ll be well on your way to passing the exam.

2015 CFA Study Schedule – We updated our CFA study schedule this year given the changes in CFA topic weights across the three exams. The post includes a great daily blueprint for your study schedule as well as how to use some of the new resources available through technology. Of course, using condensed CFA study notes to complement the curriculum is still a core part of the schedule to save time and get the most critical information.

Top Finquiz CFA Posts of All Time

These next posts have stood the test of time and are some of the most popular on the blog. They cover some of the most common questions we get from CFA candidates and how to really make your study time productive.

The Passing Score on the CFA Exams and How to Use It (2013) – Even though the CFA Institute doesn’t release the minimum passing score (MPS) for the CFA exams, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some very important information you can use. Learn what has been said about the passing score and how to use the information to plan your study schedule.

The #1 Reason Candidates do not Pass the CFA Exams (2012) – This is one of my favorite articles. It covers one of the biggest hurdles for CFA candidates and three ways to overcome it. It’s a short post but one that every candidate should read before beginning their CFA study plan.

How to Pass the CFA Level 2 Exam (2012) – The Level 2 CFA exam is likely the most difficult of the three exams. A few candidates will tell you the first exam was difficult for how the massive amount of material surprises new candidates or that the third CFA exam was most difficult for its essay section. Most candidates agree though that the Level 2 exam is a quantitative monster. You will get into the most minute detail of financial statements and be expected to master a mountain of formulas.

I Passed the CFA Level 1 Exam, Why don’t I Have a Job? (2013) – Using the CFA exams and designation to get a job is one of the most frequent questions we get. Passing the exams will not get you a job but you can use your CFA progress to get your foot in the door. Check out the post to see how to use the CFA to land your dream job and how to get ahead.

There were quite a few great articles that didn’t make the cut. Check out the menu on the right of popular posts and make sure to use the search box above for any questions you have. The Finquiz CFA blog features more than 328 posts on passing the CFA exams and how to get the most from the CFA designation. Don’t miss your chance to get out in front of the rest and jumpstart your career!

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

Staying Focused on your CFA Schedule without Burning Out

It’s a big week for Level 1 CFA Candidates. Saturday is the big day and many of you will be using this last week for an intensive review of the curriculum.

Studying for eight to 12 hours a day can get you those last few points you need to pass but you’ll need to use your time effectively and avoid burning out. You’ve spent the last few months studying the curriculum and it can be easy to zone out if you stare at it for too much time before taking a break.

The MIT Center for Academic Excellence recommends planning your schedule around one-hour blocks with 50 minutes of studying and a ten minute break. This helps you stay focused without zoning out and getting tired during those long days of studying for the CFA exam.

But there’s more to managing your time than just planning for your ten minute breaks. Make sure you avoid the biggest risks in your hourly breaks and plan activities that will help you succeed.

Avoid these Study Break Nightmares

There are two problems that come up when CFA candidates try to take a break from studying

  • Too many breaks go into overtime. You plan on stopping for just 10 minutes but then find yourself an hour later still not back on your study schedule.
  • Some activities affect your studying well after you’ve returned to the curriculum. It might seem like it’s only taken 10 minutes but the after-effects last for hours.

Avoid these bad study break ideas:

  • Don’t turn on the television thinking you are going to watch just ten minutes of TV. You’ll end up watching an entire movie and wasting the whole day.
  • Anything online is going to be a recipe for disaster. This includes checking email, news, the stock market and just about anything else on the World Wide Web. There are two problems with getting online for your study breaks. First, there is just too much temptation to go over your break time. You’ll also carry the distraction back with you to your studying. You’ll find yourself thinking about where the market is going or an important email instead of thinking about the CFA curriculum.
  • Don’t check in on CFA-related websites or study groups during your break. That’s not really a break from studying for the CFA exam. You need something that is unrelated and that will take your mind off the curriculum for a moment to relax.
  • Don’t start any conversations during your study break. You might not be able to wrap it up within the allotted time and any messages you leave might be returned when you’re trying to study.

Ideally, you want to take short breaks every hour or two that can take your mind off studying but that won’t keep you from getting off track.

Avoid foods as a CFA study distraction. Catching a snack every hour or two could mean some serious kilograms put on over the last week before the exam. Besides the extra weight, it’s too easy to be tempted to cook a bigger meal than you planned. You’ll spend valuable study time cooking and a big meal could make you drowsy when you finally get back to studying.

Instead, schedule regular meals around the day. Avoid foods high in fat that will sit in your stomach, making you feel sluggish, and don’t overeat.

Stretching or light exercise is a great way to use your study breaks. Do some quick calisthenics in the study room or stretch for about 10 minutes. It will improve circulation and wake you up. The idea isn’t to exercise vigorously but just to get a quick pickup. You’ll love the energy but won’t generally be tempted to extend the break for more than scheduled.

While you generally don’t want to do too much snacking or cooking during your study breaks, having a cup of tea can be a great alternative. It won’t take more than a few minutes to prepare your tea and another five or six minutes to drink. A cup of green tea will refocus your brain and improve your memory without hopping you up on too much caffeine.

If your study area is a disaster area, take a few minutes to organize your things and tidy up a little. Putting everything in its place can help you stay focused and can lead to less distractions while you’re studying. We’re not talking about taking an hour to deep clean the house, just a few minutes to pick up some stuff and make your study area more professional.

Whatever you decide to do for your regular study breaks, don’t do it every time you break. You’ll take upwards of ten breaks a day. Try exercising during every break and you’re going to start getting extremely tired. Doing the same thing each break will also get boring and won’t be much of a break at all.

Plan out your study schedule with effective breaks and use this last week for all that its worth.

‘til next time, good luck!
Joseph Hogue, CFA

A Last Week CFA Schedule and Checklist for Success

There’s just two weeks before the December CFA exam and there’s finally some light at the end of the tunnel. For a lot of CFA Level 1 candidates, the intensity of studying for the CFA exams is something entirely different.

You’ve come a very long way but resist the temptation to glide easily to the test. Using your last week wisely can mean the difference between passing on to the second exam or having to repeat your efforts in June.

Your Last Week CFA Study Plan

Long-time readers of the blog will know I’m a big believer in an intensive study schedule the final week before the exam. Not only can making the CFA exam your job that last week score you a lot of points it can actually be a lot of fun as well.

Think I’m exaggerating that your last week studying for the CFA exam can be fun?

Take next week off from work and commit to an intense study schedule around the CFA curriculum. I always stayed home during the week but I know a lot of candidates that have traveled somewhere for the week as well. Staying in another city not only makes the week more enjoyable but it also gets you away from all the distractions you’ll face at home.

Plan on studying between 10 and 12 hours a day from Sunday through Thursday. This can still leave you plenty of time to relax and take in a few sites around town. I wouldn’t plan on traveling too far from home and your test site, only as far as you can drive in a few hours. That way, you can spend Friday getting back home and relaxing before Saturday’s exam.

If you do stay home for the last week before the CFA exam, try studying in a private location. Reserve a study room at the library and turn off your cellphone. You might want to disable internet browsing if you are studying the CFA curriculum or notes on a tablet, just so you aren’t tempted to waste time.

Set a strict schedule for each day’s studying. Try reviewing at least two study sessions and working as many practice problems as possible. Do at least one full-length practice exam at the beginning of the week to find your problem topics and where you might need to focus.

Make sure you formally limit non-CFA study activities in your schedule. It may seem like only a few minutes but those constant bathroom breaks, walks to stretch out, snack breaks and checking your email can really add up.

Your Last Week CFA Materials Checklist

I usually leave this last-minute CFA checklist for a separate post. I wanted to include it here to give you more time to work on this administration and logistics-type problems this week so you can focus only on studying next week.

Put together your exam-day preparation kit now so you won’t be scrambling to find things just before the Saturday exam. Get a clear plastic bag to hold everything and store it in a safe place where you will be able to find it.

  • Passport identification
  • Your printed admission ticket – I usually printed two just to be safe
  • An approved calculator
  • An extra calculator battery and a small screwdriver – if you want to avoid having to change out your calculator battery, just take an extra calculator instead
  • At least three pencils
  • An eraser and a pencil sharpener
  • Ear plugs
  • Wristwatch

The CFA Institute Program Policy page has all the resource links you need to confirm what you can take to the exam. You will need to visit the page to print out your admission ticket.

You should know where your exam center is located but check out the CFA Institute December Test Center Locations for any updates. If you do not live nearby, it is a good idea to talk to someone that lives near the exam site to ask if there is any road construction or other potential travel problems. If you live more than a few hours from the exam site, you may want to consider staying in a nearby hotel the night before to avoid any problems and get a good night’s rest.

The Institute has published a brief schedule of the CFA Exam Day with recommendations on when to arrive and what to expect. The policy on leaving the exam room after completing one of the sessions has been changed. You are no longer allowed to leave the room after you finish. Everyone will wait to be dismissed together. You are still allowed to leave briefly to go to the restroom but must return to the exam room.

Making sure you get to the exam center and have the right materials isn’t really complicated but there is always one or two candidates that forget something or arrive too late. Prepare your materials and CFA exam day schedule well in advance to take the stress out of these little things. Arriving at the testing location rested and ready will go a long way in giving you the confidence you need to pass the exam.

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

The Best Part of the CFA Charter and You Don’t Even Need to Pass the Exams

As a CFA charterholder of more than four years, I can tell you about the benefits of having those three little letters after your name. I’ve gotten my foot in the door to jobs that wouldn’t have been available and have found that I can charge more for my freelance services.

But it turns out, there’s another benefit to the CFA program and you don’t even need to pass the exams to take advantage. This benefit will help you open doors as well. It will connect you with all the right people and will help you shape your career.

I’m talking about connecting with the CFA community through the resources on the CFA Institute website.

We’ve covered some of the great resources on the CFA Institute’s website before. Earlier this year, we ran a five-part series on landing your dream job from networking to interviews. I’ve talked about how to fill the void after studying for the CFA exams by becoming more active in your local CFA society.

But there’s still some great resources and benefits I wanted to highlight, especially for the new readers that might not have seen the older posts. Check out the CFA resources below to network, keep informed on the industry and even make a name for yourself.

Again, best of all, your CFA candidate login gets you access to all of them. You don’t need to pass the exams to start benefitting.

CFA Institute Blogs

The CFA Institute Blogs are a relatively new resource on the website with posts dating back a few years. There are nine linked blogs though a few have been discontinued.

The most active blogs are the Enterprising Investor and Inside Investing. New posts are published on a daily basis and anyone can submit an article for publication. Not only are the blogs a great resource for staying up-to-date on market issues but could turn out to be an excellent way to distinguish yourself.

Check out the posts on one of the blogs to get a feel for the kind of issues discussed and how your expertise might fit in on the blog. Depending on your experience, you might need to research a particular topic to build enough expert knowledge to add something but it is easily doable.

Consider approaching a local CFA charterholder to team up for an article. They can provide the direction and you can do the research. Getting published on one of the CFA Institute blogs and building your expertise in a subject area is sure to get noticed by employers.

CFA Local Societies

I am a big supporter of the local CFA societies and sat on the board of directors to the Iowa society when I lived in the States. Besides the obvious benefits of networking with the people that direct the financial community, going to society events is just plain fun!

Check out a few of your local society’s events. Don’t worry about ‘networking’ at first, just talk to people and have fun. Going into the events without a motive other than just to talk to people and enjoying yourself will help lessen the stress of an unfamiliar room.

Remember, you aren’t restricted to only participating with your local society. Use the societies strategically to guide your career where you want it to go. If you want to end up in a particular city or at a particular firm, try contacting people in that city or with that firm.

CFA Institute Insights & Learning

The CFA Insights & Learning site is the main page for some great continuing education material.

My favorite section is Research & Financial Tools with topic-specific calculators, spreadsheet models, questionnaires and data sets for just about any need. The section is a great resource for data sets that has saved me a lot of time.

The Institute provides some excellent content for your clients in the For Investors section. This is material you can share with clients and other investors to help them understand the financial markets and basic investing principles.

The area also hosts the CFA Institute’s initiative on the Future of Finance, a long-term global effort to shape a trustworthy, forward-thinking financial industry that serves society. This project is on the forefront of the industry and will be a huge issue for years to come. It could be one area where you can make a name for yourself.

CFA Career Resources

Probably the most popular resource with candidates is the CFA Career Resources section with its resource library of presentations and the JobLine platform. The resource library hosts webinars, articles and presentations on everything from skills development to networking for that dream job. There are currently 2,623 jobs listed across five regions and by 175 employers on the CFA Institute’s JobLine.

It’s easy to let time slip away between study seasons for the CFA exams. You finish up the June exam and don’t even want to think about the curriculum or anything with CFA in its name. Pretty soon, it’s January and you have to start studying for the next exam. You’ve let a great opportunity pass by without taking advantage.

You’ve still got two months before you need to start thinking about your next CFA exam. Use those months to take advantage of all the CFA Institute has to offer and some of the resources available. If you haven’t attended a local CFA society event, make it a goal to attend at least one before the end of the year. If you’ve attended some of the events, make it a goal to start getting involved by volunteering. You won’t regret it and you will open up doors you didn’t even know where there.

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

How NOT to be Surprised by the CFA Exams!

Less than half the candidates taking the CFA exams each year pass. It’s a statistic most of you know but never ceases to amaze me. How can an exam be so difficult that less than half pass each year?

You could blame the CFA Institute for making it so difficult and adjusting the minimum passing score but the fact that no one with an average of 70% has ever failed takes some of the blame off the Institute’s shoulders. Having to answer about two-thirds of the questions correctly doesn’t seem like too much to ask for a professional exam.

What if it’s something else? What if candidates just aren’t prepared for the exams? Spending upwards of 300 hours doesn’t seem like a lack of preparation to me so maybe candidates just aren’t preparing correctly for the CFA exams.

Each exam can be surprising for its own reason. This specific challenge in each exam catches candidates off guard and leads to a ridiculously-high rate of failure.

Learn what to expect on each CFA exam and how to study for it, and you’ll be better prepared than half the candidates already.

CFA Level 1 Exam: Information Overload

The first thing that surprises candidates on the CFA level 1 exam is the sheer amount of information they are expected to remember. Through undergraduate studies, most of you have been responsible for textbooks of information but you haven’t had to master all the material for one mammoth-size exam.

The CFA Institute doesn’t feed you the information in manageable chunks and then ask you focused questions every couple of weeks. The Institute turns on the firehose and drowns you in knowledge of which you’re supposed to drink every last drop.

Maybe the firehose analogy is a little extreme but it seems that way at times.

The trick to passing the CFA level 1 exam is that you don’t need to know every excruciating detail within the curriculum. Much more important is the basic ideas and concepts around each study session. Understanding the qualitative ideas in the curriculum is much more important than being an expert in one topic. This means reviewing every study session and getting a basic understanding across the entire curriculum.

Understanding the main ideas will help you immediately eliminate at least one potential answer for each question and should help you pick out the most appropriate answer.

It also helps to use multiple resources when studying for the CFA level 1 exam. Getting the curriculum from several different perspectives, i.e. official text, study notes, videos, flash cards and practice problems, helps to build repetition and memory.

CFA Level 2 Exam: A Quantitative Monster

After figuring out that the first exam is all about basics and qualitative information, the CFA Institute throws you a curve ball with the CFA level 2 exam.

The second CFA exam is all about formulas and quantitative detail!

While the CFA level 2 exam includes the same topic areas as the first exam, the topic weights clearly show a focus on three subjects. Financial Reporting & Analysis, Equity Investments and Fixed Income will account for up to 65% of your exam score and a large chunk of that is in quantitative calculations.

Top it off with the fact that you have a different format in the vignette questions, having to read through a story and then answer a set of questions.

Avoid being surprised by the quantitative material on the second exam through understanding the conceptual reasoning in the formulas and repetition.

Try memorizing every formula on the CFA level 2 exam and you could end up in an asylum for the criminally-insane. There are just too many letters, abbreviations and craziness. If WACC = (Vd/(Vd +Vce))rd (1-t) + (Vce/(Vd+Vce))rce) doesn’t make you go cross-eyed you are a stronger person than I am. Think about it intuitively and it makes sense.

The overall cost of a firm’s funding capital is the cost and proportion of equity and debt. The percentage of each funding type relative to the total is multiplied by its cost. Debt is tax advantaged, so you need the after-tax cost.

Understanding the conceptual reasoning behind each formula will help you recall it on the exam and you won’t drown in a sea of math.

The second trick really is no trick at all. You just have to work those practice problems over and over again. Use flash cards to write out the especially-difficult problems so you can review them several times a day until you’ve got it down. Work the end-of-chapter questions for each study session and use a question bank of problems if you’ve got one available.

CFA Level 3 Exam: Essays are a Physical, Emotional and Intellectual Challenge

Most CFA candidates understand that the essay section will be difficult but few realize how difficult it’s going to be until they’re half way through the morning session and sweating through their shirt.

The three-hour morning section of the CFA level 3 exam is a physical, emotional and intellectual challenge for which few really prepare well. It isn’t about just understanding the material, it’s about being able to construct your own answer and being physically able to write for three-hours straight.

There is really no better resource than the old exams provided by the CFA Institute. The Institute releases the last three years’ worth of morning essay questions on its website along with guideline answers.

  • Don’t just review these past morning sections, actively work them as if you were sitting for the exam. If you haven’t prepared the muscles in your hand to write for three hours when you arrive at the exam, you are going to regret it.
  • Learn how to bullet-point your responses to include all the relevant information. This will save you a ton of time on the exam. See how it’s done in the guideline responses.
  • When you’re writing out your answers on old exams, practice writing out your thought pattern. The CFA Institute awards partial credit for the essay portion but you have to demonstrate a certain point within the answer. Writing out your reasoning makes it more likely that you’ll hit on a few of those points and get the highest score possible.

Passing the CFA exams means being prepared for each exam and not being caught off guard by differences on each. Ask other candidates what surprised them most and understand how to study for each exam.

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