How to Use Mock and Practice Exams to Pass the CFA Exams

There may be a confusion in semantics here, I use the term ‘practice exam’ to mean a graded test over more than one topic area but not necessarily over all topics or for the six-hour exam format. ‘Mock’ exams, however, are graded tests that incorporate all topic areas at the CFA Institute area weightings and with the full six-hour time window. The difference in definitions may be minimal, but it’s important.


You should be using practice exams throughout your studying to gauge your retention of the material. Mock exams are particularly important for two reasons:


  • Getting used to sitting down for six-hours and putting your brain through some tough mental gymnastics. Don’t underestimate this. Fatigue can be a big problem with the exams and I have heard candidates say that by the last couple of hours, they were just writing in anything to get it over.
  • Mock exams will help you follow your progress through each topic area, refining your study in each topic where you are weak. The level 1 and 2 CFA exams have clearly defined topic weights with some areas clearly the focus of the exams.


Six Times a Charm


About nine weeks out from the exam, I would clear my dance schedule for Saturdays from 9am-4pm. Each Saturday I would take my laptop to the library and complete a mock exam using a question bank. After the exam was done, the scores for overall and within each topic area went into a spreadsheet to track my progress week to week.


Going to a quiet (non-home) location and completing the mock exam is important for another reason, state-dependent learning. This is a peculiar little trick your brain plays. State-dependent learning is a concept where you are better able to recall information when placed in similar situations in which you learned the info. We won’t go into all the biology, but you should study and practice in a similar environment where you will be taking the test. This means no more curling up in bed with the curriculum while the tv hums in the background.


I usually ended up taking at least six of these mock exams. As each progressed, I could build a confidence band around the estimate for my percentage in each topic area. While you may struggle on a particular exam and see your percentage fall in a topic, your averaged scores will be more accurate and reliable (gotta love that Quant Methods section). We know that no candidate with a score of 70% has ever failed the exam, so you should be aiming for something above this. I would aim for +80% in the core topics for the level 1 or 2 exams (Ethics, FRA, Equity, Fixed Income) while looking for at least 70-75% in the other topics. If my average in any topic fell below that target any given week, I would review it the next week.


This is in addition to other studying I would be doing these last couple of months. Flash-cards are a great way to quickly work through the material and review. With the time left, you may not be able to work through the official curriculum but might be able to make another pass through condensed study guides or summaries.


Coming down to the wire, you really need to fine-tune your program to make sure you get max points on the exam.


‘Til next time. Happy studyin’


Joe 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. That’s tens of thousands of 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 Level I exam result.

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!

CFA Results – It Doesn’t Matter! It really doesn’t!

You can read about how to deal with failure in my earlier post. Statistically, about half of you are looking forward to the end of your studying and the other half are wondering if you want to continue in the process.

Whether it comes as a cruel reality or a reassuring truth, the fact is, it doesn’t matter whether you got good news or bad last week. It really doesn’t!

I’m not saying that the CFA charter is not a significant milestone and something worthwhile. I am glad I took the challenge and made it through. What I am saying is that it is just part of a continuing process in your life as an analyst.

Passing the CFA Exam and landing a job after CFA results

While passing the exam might help you land a job, failing the exam won’t keep you from getting one.

Networking and persistence will trump the CFA charter in the job search any day of the week.

Not passing the exam also does not mean you will not be a good analyst or investment professional.

Everyone that failed this year’s exam will eventually pass, given enough determination and hard work, the same amount of determination and hard work that are prerequisites to being successful in the industry.

The only difference between those that pass the exams sooner rather than those it takes a few extra years is that the early birds realize one indisputable truth a few years earlier.

Passing the CFA exams does not mean you are done studying!

CFA Results – Exams Passed? Now read more

I do more reading now than I did while studying for the CFA exams. The only difference is that now, I have to find the material instead of having it all delivered to me in a series of texts.

I have to find and study a company’s annual and quarterly reports, any press releases and news reports. I have to find and study other analyst opinions on the company and the industry.

An analyst has to find and study the specific industry’s trade journals. One has to study the macro trends that are going to affect the industry.

Beyond the ‘studying’ you will do to analyze your coverage universe or group of investment products, you will also need to keep on top of the general regulatory environment, changes in tax code and accounting principles, and the newest paradigms in wealth management.

It may seem a dismal truth for many, the idea that hard hours of studying never really end, but I don’t mind it at all. Why? Because I have embraced it as a part of being a true professional, as a part of being the best in my career.

In fact, I have embraced the idea of this life-long process so completely that when someone asks what I do for fun, I have a hard time not saying, “I like to read some of the trade journals or surfing the web for new ideas on accounting gimmicks.”

Your first three years as an financial analyst

Maybe I’m a nerd and just love this stuff too much but you really do need to find some joy in it. The industry is extremely demanding on its analysts, especially the new ones.

Your first three years as an analyst, you will put in far more time ‘studying’ than you ever did for the CFA exams. Those thinking about dropping out of the CFA program after CFA results because they are tired of studying may want to reevaluate their chosen career path.

Think of it this way, in your career as an analyst just as with the CFA exams, there will be a minimum passing score but not a maximum passing score.

The minimum score is not published and is always changing depending on the size of the candidate pool and their knowledge. Falling behind this MPS once or twice will not doom your career but you need to continuously improve on your score to be a better professional.

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


Download PDF files of two-column, colored notes on curriculum by clicking here.

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