One of the most difficult aspects of the CFA exams is that you are basically on your own. Sure there are study groups but these are composed of candidates in the same exam level and probably making the same mistakes that you are making.
You’ll get some support from your local society (if you ask!), but for the most part it’s a self-study course and you will need to learn how to approach the exams just as much as learning the material.
While each exam is different, there are some commonalities in studying for all three. Over the three years, I learned the hard way how to best use my time and what was just a waste of time. Sometimes, I had to learn it over again on the following exam. Hopefully, this list will help you not repeat the same mistakes I made.
Study smarter, not harder
I would start every exam trying to get through at least two readings of the official curriculum. While the curriculum is the first and last word on the exams, trying to get through that much material twice is a recipe for burnout. I would invariably start my second time through and could not keep my eyes open or concentrate through more than a few pages. You need to work through the curriculum at least once but there are more efficient uses of your time after that. Study guides are typically a fifth the length while getting across at least 90% of the information. Flash cards and problem sets are another way to use your time more efficiently than wading through thousands of pages of text.
More problem sets, less reading
This one is related to the first but applies to study guides as well. It is too easy to sit back with a book and read instead of actively working those problems. I was as guilty as anyone on this, thinking that I would absorb the material just by reading. If you want to be able to work the problems on the exam, the single best method you will find is working the practice problems from the curriculum or from test banks.
I will not get some subjects and that’s ok, learn it early
Most of us are Type-A personalities, control-oriented and motivated. We want to plan everything out and have a hard time progressing without having completed every previous task. This was a problem for me in some of the derivatives material (i.e. swaps). I would spend hours practicing and studying relatively minor stuff when I should have just gotten the basic idea and spent more time on the higher value topics. You cannot afford to neglect any single topic, but you also cannot afford to spend all your time on topics that carry relatively fewer points. Make sure you understand the parties involved, how different drivers (i.e. changes in rates) affect the contract and then move on to other subjects.
Don’t study at home
Unless it takes you an hour to get to somewhere you can study privately, resist the urge to only study at home. You might still study at home by filling in gaps of ten or twenty minutes by looking over notes or flash cards, but your core study schedule should be somewhere else. There are just too many distractions at home and your time will not be spent efficiently. The library was usually the best study site for me. It had just enough background noise but privacy to simulate the testing environment.
After the exam, let it go!
This won’t help you on the exam but it can help save your sanity afterwards. Do everything you can to prepare for the test and have the confidence to relax after it’s over. Those precious few months after the exam are for getting back into your social life and spending time with your family, not worrying about whether you passed or failed.
Next, we’ll look at things I wish I knew before the level I CFA exam.
‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA