The 5 Biggest Mistakes CFA Candidates Will Make

I’ve been writing about CFA exam preparation since the beginning of 2012 and was a candidate myself for three years to 2011. One thing I’ve learned about CFA candidates and preparing for the exam is that there are a few major mistakes that almost everyone makes.
Call them the five points to failure, the fatal five or any number of other names but these mistakes account for why less than half of the candidates pass the CFA exams each year. Making sure you don’t commit these five mistakes won’t guarantee you pass the June exam but it will definitely put you ahead of the pack.
Avoid these five biggest mistakes and you’ll be well on your way to passing the 2016 CFA exams in June.
Starting your CFA Study Plan Too Late
This is the most obvious mistake CFA candidates make but also one of the worst. I know, everyone has other responsibilities and it doesn’t make sense to start studying for the CFA months before you think is necessary.
You’ve heard of the 300 hours that most candidates report studying for the exam but you’ve always done well in school and figure you can do it in less, maybe 250 hours. Wrong! Those other candidates aren’t the average student you find in your classes. They’re over-achieving Type-A personalities that have also done well in school. Don’t underestimate the exams or the time it takes to study.
So 300 hours divided by 15 or 20 hours a week means about 17 weeks or about four months of studying. Starting your study schedule in February sounds about right and that’s what many candidates do. The problem is that ‘life’ gets in the way. Things come up and candidates miss their target for weekly study time. Before they know it, it’s already April and they are only a third the way through their study plan.
Start studying for the CFA exams with 25 weeks left to the exam and make a plan that gets you all the way through the material a few times with two or three weeks left to spare. This is going to do two things to help you pass:

  • Give you enough time to cover the material multiple times, a necessity for really remembering something
  • Give you enough time that you can miss a couple of days and not have to worry about falling behind

Avoiding Tough Topics
This is a big one on the CFA Level II exam but affects candidates on all three exams. The CFA curriculum is tough enough but some of the sections just seem impossible…and boring! I never really drank much coffee until I started trying to learn derivatives pricing in the CFA curriculum.
You may not even realize you’re doing it but almost everyone avoids studying a topic or two. Whether something takes you away from studying or you just study another topic instead, avoiding the topics we don’t like happens to everyone.
Stick to your study schedule over the first month or two, doing all the readings and reviewing each one with condensed study notes. Don’t skip any sections or topic areas. Consciously think about your study time and how much time you are spending on each subject.
When you start changing your schedule according to need, take regular question bank tests to gauge your mastery of each topic. Let your score on the tests guide your study time, not whether you’re tired of the topic or not.
Thinking the Next Level is the Same as the Last
Ever wonder why only 43% of Level II candidates pass the exam? With only about 39% of Level 1 candidates passing, you would think that only the best and brightest make it through and should have a better than 50/50 chance at passing the second exam.
The problem is that too many candidates are surprised by the CFA exam every year, no matter which level they are taking. Many candidates study for an exam with the same plan that got them through the previous level. It worked last year, why not this year as well?
Each level is difficult in its own way. The first exam is a mile wide but only an inch deep, you need to understand a vast amount of concepts but really don’t need too much detail in anything. The second exam is a quantitative monster with more formulas than you’ve ever seen. The final CFA exam is a time-consuming nightmare with essays that can go on for pages.
Learn the specific study strategy for each CFA exam and don’t be surprised in June.
Avoiding Practice Problems
This one is a lot like avoiding a specific topic area but I see candidates do it across all topics. One of our first posts on the blog was the difference between active and passive learning and it remains one of the best pieces of advice on the blog.
I know how much easier it is to just sit back and read through the curriculum rather than getting out a pen and paper to work practice problems. You just don’t remember things as well when you’ve only read them. Studies show that we only remember about 10% of what we read but can retain up to 90% of what we say and do.
Force yourself to love practice problems because they are going to be your best chance at passing the CFA exams. I challenge you to do 1,440 practice problems before the next CFA exam. That’s about eight full-length tests and more than 50% above the number of problems the average successful candidate is doing.
Click through to see how to get the most from your CFA mock and practice exams
Too Much Meta-Studying
Ok, so this one is going to come back to haunt me but candidates do way too much meta-studying. Meta-studying is studying about studying and about the exams. This includes reading forum posts on the LinkedIn group, talking to other candidates about how to pass and yes even reading this blog.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend time learning how to study and how to approach the exams. Knowing the structure of the exams and the tricks I’ve picked up over almost seven years will definitely help you pass.
But don’t use your study time to learn about studying. Have an hour a week that you use to answer any test questions, visit the blog or refine your study plan. After that hour, spend the rest of your time actually studying the CFA curriculum and mastering the material.
Passing the CFA exams doesn’t have to be difficult. Put in your time and avoid the biggest mistakes made by candidates. Putting together your study plan with these five mistakes in mind will drastically improve your chances and put you on the path to success.
‘til next time, happy studying
Joseph Hogue, CFA

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