Are You Already Too Late to Start Studying the CFA Exams?

As we get further into March, more candidates are going to start picking up their books and putting those long hours into studying for the CFA exams. If you haven’t started yet, are you already too late? How early do you need to start studying for the exams?
It’s a loaded question to be sure. There are numbers and studies for how much time you need to be successful. As a numbers guy myself, I love quoting the fact that successful candidates spend an average of 300 hours studying for the CFA exams. It is going to ultimately depend on your abilities and how well you prepared for earlier exams.
I’m not going to judge if you haven’t started, or if you don’t plan on starting until later in the month. I’d rather take the time to talk through how you can still make it work and get the good news in August.

300 Hours: A Condensed Schedule

We’ve all seen the surveys by the CFA Institute that claim an average of 300 hours is spent by candidates passing their exam. This obviously isn’t a rule but with all the uncertainty around the exam and your outcome, it’s nice to have a numerical objective to target.
If you did particularly well in a prior CFA exam, maybe scoring in the 70% or above in most topics, then you might not need 300 hours of preparation for this exam. The exams build off of each other so if you built a good base of knowledge at previous levels, current material becomes much easier. Of course, there are also going to be candidates that are just naturally smarter than others and won’t need as much prep time. I wouldn’t assume too much here. Candidates are relatively smart in general and it won’t do you any favors to start getting overconfident at this point in the game.
Whether you need 300 hours or not, it will get more difficult to fit all your study time into your schedule the closer you get to June. If you were aiming for 300 hours, 13 weeks left means you need to put in 23 hours a week. Include the fact that you are sure to have a busy week or two at work or with the family and you may need to devote 30 hours a week studying to meet your goal.
Thirty-hours a week studying is an unlikely goal, especially with a full-time job or a family, so you need to start thinking about optimizing your studying for effect. I am a huge proponent of mastering the material to become a better professional but at this point, your goal is to focus on the material that will get you points and get you to the next exam.
Practice problems and question banks are going to be your new best friends. Working through practice problems, an active learning technique, is generally a good part of your schedule anyway but it becomes even more important at this point. Break your reading up into smaller chunks and work through practice problems more often than you might if you had more time to study. Once you reach 75% on a set of practice problems, you can probably put the topic or reading aside and move on to another. This isn’t going to leave much margin for error but it will help you cover the topics quickly and sufficiently.
You are also going to want to spend more time on condensed study notes and less time on the official curriculum. The Finquiz notes are designed to be used along with the curriculum and you will not want to completely neglect your textbooks, but you may want to skim the longer text to pick out the idea for the learning outcome statement. Once you have the general idea from the curriculum, you can reinforce it with a more detailed reading of the notes.
While it’s possible to start studying for the CFA exams later in March or even in April and still hope for a passing score, I wouldn’t push it too far. Even if you’ve got a heavy workload for the next couple of weeks, start studying in small breaks and then ramp up the time when you’re able. The exams take dedication and hard work but the designation is worth every minute you spend studying.
‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

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