How to Use Mock and Practice Exams to Pass the CFA Exams

There may be a confusion in semantics here, I use the term ‘practice exam’ to mean a graded test over more than one topic area but not necessarily over all topics or for the six-hour exam format. ‘Mock’ exams, however, are graded tests that incorporate all topic areas at the CFA Institute area weightings and with the full six-hour time window. The difference in definitions may be minimal, but it’s important.


You should be using practice exams throughout your studying to gauge your retention of the material. Mock exams are particularly important for two reasons:


  • Getting used to sitting down for six-hours and putting your brain through some tough mental gymnastics. Don’t underestimate this. Fatigue can be a big problem with the exams and I have heard candidates say that by the last couple of hours, they were just writing in anything to get it over.
  • Mock exams will help you follow your progress through each topic area, refining your study in each topic where you are weak. The level 1 and 2 CFA exams have clearly defined topic weights with some areas clearly the focus of the exams.


Six Times a Charm


About nine weeks out from the exam, I would clear my dance schedule for Saturdays from 9am-4pm. Each Saturday I would take my laptop to the library and complete a mock exam using a question bank. After the exam was done, the scores for overall and within each topic area went into a spreadsheet to track my progress week to week.


Going to a quiet (non-home) location and completing the mock exam is important for another reason, state-dependent learning. This is a peculiar little trick your brain plays. State-dependent learning is a concept where you are better able to recall information when placed in similar situations in which you learned the info. We won’t go into all the biology, but you should study and practice in a similar environment where you will be taking the test. This means no more curling up in bed with the curriculum while the tv hums in the background.


I usually ended up taking at least six of these mock exams. As each progressed, I could build a confidence band around the estimate for my percentage in each topic area. While you may struggle on a particular exam and see your percentage fall in a topic, your averaged scores will be more accurate and reliable (gotta love that Quant Methods section). We know that no candidate with a score of 70% has ever failed the exam, so you should be aiming for something above this. I would aim for +80% in the core topics for the level 1 or 2 exams (Ethics, FRA, Equity, Fixed Income) while looking for at least 70-75% in the other topics. If my average in any topic fell below that target any given week, I would review it the next week.


This is in addition to other studying I would be doing these last couple of months. Flash-cards are a great way to quickly work through the material and review. With the time left, you may not be able to work through the official curriculum but might be able to make another pass through condensed study guides or summaries.


Coming down to the wire, you really need to fine-tune your program to make sure you get max points on the exam.


‘Til next time. Happy studyin’


Joe Hogue, CFA

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