Looking through forum posts and talking to a few candidates about timing and planning for the CFA exams provides some interesting stats and might help you assess how well your own preparation is going. The two core issues here are: when to start studying and exactly how much is enough studying.
When to Start studying for CFA Exam ?
It might be a little simplistic, but I see candidates starting their study plans in one of three categories: really early, about right, and what are you thinking! The actual dates started appear to follow a fairly normal distribution with the median around mid-February. I usually started with the ‘really early’ crowd between October and November, so I’m a little biased toward earlier rather than later.
While pre-January may be earlier than necessary, we see a lot of people waiting until March to begin studying. Biased I may be but 13 weeks to cram approximately 300 hours of studying seems a stretch. There will always be the intellectual giants out there (or at least those that think they are) that will have no problem learning all the material in three months. Then again, while actual pass-fail statistics are not available, I would put good money on the bet that the 50% of candidates in the fail band come disproportionately from these late starters.
Is it too late to begin studying for CFA Exam ?
Then there are always the (comical) posts in late April and through May asking for opinions whether it is too late to begin studying and still pass the exam. Most of the candidates I have met and talked to were fairly smart, but sometimes I’ve got to wonder.
Like I said, I am probably a little overcautious and biased to starting early. Most candidates have fairly relaxed schedules and can sacrifice a few extra hours for something that is undoubtedly going to change your career prospects and arguably your life (going out with that hot co-ed you met last week or keeping up with this season’s American Idol are not as important as you think). Nothing I could say would get most of you to start before January, but hopefully you will not wait until March.
How Much is Enough for CFA Exam ?
More important than when you start studying is (duh!) how much studying you do. Reading through forums and taking a few polls, I was surprised that the consensus is for reading through the material only once and then working through practice problems and a mock exam. At most, I found that candidates expect to read through study guides once then review a quarter to half of the material again. Most candidates planned on working through all the end-of-chapter questions and doing ‘some’ practice problems from a provider question bank.
Again, I might be a little conservative, but this seems entirely inadequate. Who are all these candidates with eidetic (photographic) memory that can pick everything up that easily? Practice exams taken through question banks will give you a good indication if you have picked up the material but most do not start taking these until late in the season. What happens when you take your first inclusive practice exam in May and find out you are not nearly as prepared as you thought?
The candidates that expressed a higher level of confidence with their preparation were mostly those that had read through all of the material at least twice and had started monitoring their progress through practice exams at least two months before the test date. This leaves time to focus on a few of the weaker topic areas as well as going through the material with a few other media (video, summary sheets, flash cards).
I guess it comes down to being realistic about your abilities and taking a rational look at the statistics. Surveys by CFA Institute show that candidates (both passing and otherwise) averaged around 300 hours of study time for each exam. We also know that approximately 50% of candidates fail the exam each year. This is one area where being ‘average’ is likely to not be enough.
I imagine that the absolute number of hours reported belies a fairly large distribution, but we’ll call it 200 hours minimum and maybe 400 maximum needed to pass the exams. Now think about your pre-CFA studying schedule. How many hours per week do you think you can realistically commit to studying? You need to plan conservatively if you are married, have children, or have a job with increasing workload around quarterly reporting. Life happens, don’t expect to be able to study as much as you would like every week.
‘til next time, happy studying
Joseph Hogue, CFA