Using that Last Week Before the Exam

There are all kind of exam strategies floating around the web. Some are great, others not so much. As I’ve recommended in other posts, it’s usually more about what you feel comfortable with doing and what fits well with your learning style.

One recommendation I always ignored was to not do any studying the week before the exam. This one has different time periods associated (i.e. don’t study… the day before, the morning of, the whole week before, etc). While I usually took the day before the exam off, Friday was usually my day off anyway, I always hit the rest of the week before the exam extremely hard.

The last week before the exam was my ‘superman’ week. I would take the week off from work and go to my fortress of solitude each day for about 8-10 hours of studying. The CFA curriculum and test is your ‘job’ for that week and you should treat it as such. DO NOT STAY HOME! You really need to go a place where you will not be distracted and can concentrate for the full day. The library is the obvious choice if you can keep from people watching or taking time out to read the magazines.


I would start each day with a 3-hour exam using the topic weights. This would help to see in which topics I needed more studying. Within those areas where I was scoring around 80% or above, I would probably just review the topic summaries or review my flash cards quickly.


The rest of the day, I was focusing on those topic areas or specific points where I was not scoring as high.


My goal for the week was not necessarily to review the entire curriculum. You need to understand what parts of the curriculum are giving you trouble. Within each ‘problem’ topic, is it formulas or general concepts? Is it the amount of information or the depth?


My problem areas were usually the detailed formulas, especially within derivatives and fixed-income. I would review the material quickly if I felt there were any concepts I was missing, but most of the time I just needed to get the process for the calculations. Writing and reviewing detailed flash cards for the topic or formula always helped, so I would spend a couple hours on that. I would usually spend another 45 minutes going through question bank problems as well, reviewing the solutions to those I missed.


If I didn’t score better in the topic area the next day, or made the same mistakes, then I had to make the decision to hit the topic some more or write it off as ‘concept’ points. This is a tricky subject and we’ll go over it in another post. There are some areas or formulas where you are just not going to grasp even with a great deal of studying. For me it was swaptions and some of the other detailed derivative calculations. It may not make sense to spend three times the amount of study time on something that may or may not be worth a few points on the exam. For these areas, I made sure to understand the concept and enough of the calculation to make an educated guess among three choices.


Some will say that spending the week before the exam studying, or spending so much time studying, will lead to burnout before the exam. I always found that taking Friday off was more than enough time to relax and avoid burnout. I can understand the burnout fear but also realize that the time you are studying for the CFA exams is a miniscule period over your entire career. I think a lot of people ‘blame’ burnout for a simple lack of determination and heart. So you’re tired, so what, there will be plenty of time to relax after the exam.


That last week of studying always reminded me of the Crucible in Marine Corps recruit training, a 54-hour culmination of the three-month boot camp. Over the 2+ days, recruits push through sleep deprivation, hunger and over 40 miles of forced march before they earn the right to the title, United States Marine. That last week of studying is going to be hard, it will tax you mentally, but it will also get you those final points necessary and prepare you for the exam. Don’t pass up this opportunity to earn your CFA charter.


Good luck, and happy studyin’


Joseph Hogue, CFA

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