The end of January marks the unofficial launch of the 2015 CFA Exam Study Season. You’ve got just four months to soak in all that great information, shunning friends and family alike to get one step closer to the designation.
While many will choose to wait a little longer, despite the considerable risk of waiting too long, the 18 weeks you’ll have starting February is just enough for a low-stress study schedule. Eighteen study sessions and 18 weeks left…seems like an obvious choice to me.
Changing up the Schedule
I posted last week on how the changes to the 2015 CFA curriculum could change your study plans for the exams. While most years do not see enough changes to the curriculum to really make a difference, we saw some big changes to the upcoming June exams. Besides a change to some of the readings at each exam level, the CFA Institute changed the topic area weights as well.
For the most part, changes to topic weights leveled the playing field for the topics in the exams. Those topics that always got a big weighting were mostly downgraded while previously less important topics picked up a few percent of your total score. This may mean that you need to spend less time on any one or two topics and spread your study time out evenly. No longer can you spend all your time on a focus-topic and rely on a big win there to cover a potentially lower score in other topics.
Fight Burnout with Diverse Resources
One of the biggest challenges you’ll face in your study for the CFA exams is burnout. An 18-week study schedule requires around 15 hours per week of studying to even approach the average 300 hours most candidates spend studying. After a full day of work, another few hours of reading and problem sets can seem like capital punishment.
Of course, you’ll enthusiastically dive into your CFA texts for the first couple of weeks. You’ve had months to relax and now you are ready to dive back into the professional course. It’s usually in the fourth or fifth week that candidates start feeling the sting of burnout.
Everyone faces burnout and you’ll need some strategies to control it when it happens but there is one way to delay or minimize curriculum fatigue, mixing up the resources you use in studying.
Anybody trying to read the 1,000+ pages of curriculum every day and doing nothing else is going to get burnt out very quickly. The CFA curriculum is written by some of the best minds in finance but can get extremely dry and academic in some places. You need to be able to put the books down and still study for the exam.
One of my favorite resources for studying is flashcards. I highlighted how to make your own flashcards in another post but the process is pretty easy. The idea in making flashcards is that you first get exposure to the problem by writing out the card, then later by working the problem. Make sure you write out a full question problem just like you’d see on the exam. Flash cards are great because you can carry them around and get some valuable study time in whenever you’ve got a couple of minutes.
Study groups are another good resource to break up the monotony but can be time-consuming. Keep your group small, less than five or six people, and make sure you stay on task. Talking about your job or other things is fine but save it for after the study session. Online study groups have been popular lately but I still prefer in-person groups. They are easier to manage and you get the chance to network with other professionals in your community.
Studying for the CFA exams is all about working practice problems and they are a great way to break up your time from reading. Stop to do some practice problems for every 30 minutes of reading. It will help reinforce the concepts and avoid going into that zombie-like reading trance where you really don’t remember what you read.
Videos are a great way to use another medium to help explain tough concepts. Almost every concept on the exams has a YouTube video that will help walk you through it. I would look for shorter videos that just help with the general idea. You don’t want to waste 20 minutes on a video that really wasn’t worth watching.
FinQuiz offers condensed study notes for each CFA exam. The study notes are unique from other providers because they are meant to be used in conjunction with the curriculum instead of replacing it. Don’t expect study notes (from any provider) to be able to cover all the curriculum material. Read the curriculum and use study notes for review.
CFA Study Schedule Blueprint
After six years, three as a candidate and three writing about the exams, I’ve crafted a pretty good blueprint for a CFA study schedule. You’ll want to modify your own schedule to fit your needs but this blueprint works pretty well for most.
I’ve found that a five- or six-day schedule is the best since it allows for at least one day of rest and doesn’t require long hours of studying. If you plan for a five-day schedule, stagger your days off so they are not together.
I always like to make one study session the focus each week and another study session a secondary review. By including the secondary study session, you get a chance to review the material you studied in the prior week. I’ve seen a lot of candidates go the entire 18 weeks studying one session per week and never reviewing, only to find in June that they’ve forgotten the material from the earliest study sessions.
A good plan might go something like:
Day 1: Reading curriculum
Day 2: Review study notes for the previous day’s curriculum and practice problems
Day 3: Make flashcards of most difficult material and review the focus study session
Day 4: Practice problems on focus study session and review study notes on secondary SS
Day 5: Practice Problems on secondary SS and study notes for focus study session
Day 6: Take a practice test on both study sessions from question bank or practice problems
This format gives you exposure to each study session twice and helps emphasize actually working the problems and testing yourself. A review of your flashcards is not included in the schedule because they can be reviewed during the normal course of your day. Make it a point to carry some flashcards around with you and review them quickly when you have a minute or two.
I’ve gotta say, even though I’m not a candidate anymore, I am excited to get the 2015 study season underway. It is going to be a tough road along the way but it is so very much worth it. You are going to be opening yourself to a whole new level of professional knowledge. Stick with it even when you feel burnout creeping up behind you and you’ll make it through to June. Start early enough and stick to a sensible plan and you’ll go into the exam with the full confidence that you’ll pass.
‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA