December CFA Exam Must-Know Strategy

Following our discussion last week on taking the December and June exams, we thought it would be a good time to start a series of posts to prepare December candidates for the exam. This week we will cover the basic strategy and helpful tips for the first CFA exam. Over the next couple of months, we will cover specific topic-level information within the first exam.

Follow those topic weights

The CFA Institute does not disclose the minimum passing score on any exam but has said that no one with a score of 70% or greater has ever failed. The Institute does release a topic-level breakdown of the question weights you will see on the exam, shown in the graphic below. While you cannot afford to neglect any particular topic, one of the best things you can do while studying is focus on the high-point areas on each exam.
It will do you no good to spend half your time studying Corporate Finance, even if that is what it takes to master the information, if it means performing poorly in other areas.
cfa topic weights
Looking at the chart, it should be clear that you need to focus on three or four topic areas for the first exam.
You absolutely must master the material in Ethical and Professional Standards. Not only is it carry the second most questions on the exam but it will be 10% of your next two exams as well. You’ll see additional material in the other two exams but the Code and Standards do not change so learn them early. The most challenging aspect for most candidates is that they underestimate the difficulty of the exam questions. Candidates reason that they are more or less honest people and so will intuitively know the answers to the ethics questions.
WRONG! You only need to read through a few of the end-of-chapter questions in the curriculum to see how difficult and confusing the Institute can make these questions. My suggestion, make flashcards for each professional standard for quick review. Then spend most of your time practicing questions. The best resource will be your curriculum book or those from prior years. Try getting the book from last year or the year before for another set of questions. Test bank questions are also a good resource. By practicing as many questions as possible, you will start to get a feel for how they might appear on the actual exam.
Financial Reporting & Analysis is likely the most important topic area in the curriculum across all three exams. You are testing for the designation of Chartered Financial Analyst, so you better master the topic to pass the exams and succeed in your career. There are four study sessions covering FRA for the first exam. I would say SS8, the material on the financial statements, is probably the most important.
A few keys to passing the FRA material

  • Understand how items are recorded on the financial statements – Are they historical costs or market values, are they point-in-time values or for the entire period
  • Understand the relationships between the financial statements – These are absolutely critical to your success as an analyst. Building your first proforma model will mean linking the three financial statements to your projections flow through and tell you where the company is going.
  • Understand how to adjust and analyze the financial statements through ratios, earnings quality and backing out different items. This is really the Holy Grail of the analyst’s job and you won’t be expected to do it on your first CFA exam but you will be expected to understand the very basics.

We’ll cover FRA in more detail through our topic-level breakdowns. Just remember to leave yourself plenty of study time for the topic when you are planning your schedule.
The time you spend on Quantitative Methods will depend on your prior experience with statistics. While the points in the topic are not huge over the first two exams, understanding the Level 1 material can make the material on the second exam much easier. For this reason, I would suggest spending a little more time to get it down. Study Session 2 is relatively basic material but absolutely fundamental to our industry so you need to understand it.
While Equity Investments is only 10% of your first exam, I would recommend spending more time here as well because it will save you a lot of time on the next exam. Study Session 14 is the more important but SS13 is relatively basic and should be easy enough to get the general ideas. In particular, the material on Industry and Company Analysis (reading 50) and Equity Valuation (reading 51) are extremely important and very testable.
If you do not have a background in debt instruments, you’ll need to spend a little extra time in Fixed Income as well even if it is not a lot of points on the first exam. The basics on pricing and valuation that you learn on the first exam will be needed to understand the material in the other two exams.

Key Resources

While the curriculum is the last word for exam prep, it is simply too long to make it your only resource.
I would recommend you read through a study guide for each topic before you read through the curriculum. This is going to help you quickly get the basic ideas and will help speed your reading through the long curriculum readings. A lot of the curriculum is academic and a little dense so without a quick primer, you could find yourself re-reading passages just to understand what you’re looking at.
Flash cards are another key resource. These are a great resource to carry around with you and get a little extra studying in whenever you have down-time. Don’t buy your flashcards though. Half the benefit is from writing the problems out so you will want to make your own. I talk through how to make a set of quality flash cards in a prior post.
Practice problems, whether from the end-of-chapters or a study bank, are likely the number one reason candidates pass the exam or not. Sitting there reading the curriculum, and other passive learning techniques, will only help you retain about 20% of the material. Actively working through practice problems can help you retain at least 80% and get you well on your way to passing the exam.
As in the ethics material, a lot of candidates underestimate the difficulty of exam questions. You really need to study the practice problems to see what you will be up against for those six hours in December. I usually recommend doing at least 900 practice problems throughout your study plan.

A basic strategy

It is said that the human brain needs to see/experience something upwards of six or seven times to assimilate it into long-term memory. You’ve likely seen this in your daily life. Do you usually remember a phone number by just seeing it one time? No, you need to say it and see it a couple of times before you are able to remember it later.
The same can be said for preparing for the CFA exams. Plan on seeing or practicing the material at least 5-7 times before the exam. If you are breaking the study sessions into a weekly plan, it may look something like this:
Monday: Read study guide material
Tuesday: Practice problems and flash cards
Wednesday: Read curriculum and 30 minutes practice problems
Thursday: Finish curriculum and 30 minutes practice problems
Friday: Test over the material and flash cards
Saturday: Review study guide material and 30 minutes practice problems
By combining study guides, flash cards, practice problems and the curriculum you will be able to cover the material multiple times. By using multiple resources, you avoid getting bored looking at the exact same material every time. Notice, even on the reading days, I have added some practice problems. This is to reinforce the material you learned with active engagement.
I was quite surprised how general the questions were when I took the Level 1 exam. The first exam is an indoctrination into the industry and you are not expected to know all the details. Start by understanding the reasoning and basic ideas within each topic area and then move on to get the details. Understanding the basic reasoning in each Learning Outcome Statement (LOS) will usually help you eliminate at least one of the three answers provided.
Next week, we will start working through some of the topic areas on the Level 1 exam. We will spend most of our time focusing on core topics like Ethics, Financial Reporting, Quantitative Methods and Equity Investments but will try to touch on each topic over the next couple of months.
‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

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