As much as we cover strategies and studying here on the Finquiz blog, one of the most difficult questions a candidate faces is, “How do I know if I’m ready to pass the CFA exam?” You can practically quarantine yourself away for months, studying every formula and note in the curriculum, and still the question will nag you.
Go into the exam shaken and worried that you’ll end up in one of the fail bands and you’ll have a harder time remembering the material. Without being able to know if you’ll pass the CFA exam, it’s difficult to find the confidence to not be worried.
It’s an ironic dilemma.
To that end, I’ve put together a checklist for passing the CFA Exam. Plan your CFA studies out to check off each point on the list and you can go into the exam with the confidence of your success.
Checklist for Passing the CFA Exam
First off, this isn’t a scientifically-developed checklist. The CFA Institute hasn’t provided any data or guarantees to prove the points. It’s just my experience of what makes a candidate successful after three years of taking the exams myself and another 3+ years of writing exam prep.
I’ve spent more years studying the curriculum than most. I’ve talked to more candidates than I can count about their experience. I can confidently say, if you have done the points below, you have a great chance of passing the CFA exam and you can be confident of your success.
I have read the official CFA curriculum at least once all the way through
There’s really no substitute for the official curriculum. On an exam where more than half the candidates fail and just a few points could make the difference, do you really want to put all your faith in condensed study notes?
The curriculum is extremely long and can get boring at times but you need every detail. I would recommend you read through it at least once and then review once more just to be sure.
I have read through the official CFA curriculum once again or through condensed notes once or twice
Part of the ‘secret’ to passing the CFA exams is just plain repetition. There’s an immense amount of material that you need to remember over the six-hour test. Studies show that you need to see something about seven times in order to commit it to memory. It might not be possible to read through the official curriculum that many times in your limited time but you can easily cover the material a few more times through condensed study guides.
Besides reading through the curriculum and reviewing it through notes a few times, you’ll want to build repetition through practice problems and other resources.
I have worked at least 120 practice problems for each study session
The CFA level 1 exam consists of 240 questions, split between morning and afternoon sessions. Working 120 practice problems for each of the 18 study sessions means over 2,000 problems and a full three-hour session practiced in each.
You won’t be able to get all the practice problems from the end-of-chapter sections of the curriculum. This is where question banks and study guides come in handy. You can refer to questions in older versions of the curriculum, usually available at the library or through members of the local CFA society, but you have to make sure they aren’t outdated.
I created flash cards with the most difficult problems – most of which I now know
This one serves a couple of purposes. It measures your use of different resources for mastering the CFA curriculum. Using different resources beyond just reading helps to keep your studying from becoming boring and gives you another way to look at the content. It’s one more repetition closer to the seven or so you’ll need to remember the material.
Being able to easily work problems you once found difficult is also a sign of progression and learning. Constantly progressing through your mastery of the CFA curriculum is more important than you might think. Besides understanding more of the material, you’ll become more confident from the regular reinforcement in the fact that you are learning more.
I have kept close to my original study schedule or if I lost some time, I made it up within the next week
This one is more a test of your commitment. Too many CFA candidates allow themselves to deviate from their schedule, promising to make up the time but never getting around to it. It becomes easier to skip studying all-together.
I have taken at least three mock exams and measured my results in each
How can you have any idea of how well you’ll do on the CFA exam if you don’t replicate the experience with a mock exam? Not only will it test your knowledge of the material but will also test your endurance to sit through the two 3-hour sessions.
Make sure you track your results for each mock exam, overall and for each topic area. Besides studying the material, it will help uncover any weak spots you may need to hit again.
Being able to say you’ve done everything on the list doesn’t guarantee you a passing score on the CFA exam but it does demonstrate your commitment to the process and a good review of the content. Remember, the idea isn’t just to check off that you’ve completed one of the points but to have the confidence that you’ve done what it takes. It’s not the end of the world if you’ve stumbled in a few of the points and can’t quite check them off, just try to get as much study time in from here to exam day.
‘til next time, happy studying
Joseph Hogue, CFA