CFA: Practice Exam Strategy

Practice exams are usually a fairly central part of studying for the CFA exam. But I think I consider them even more important than the average CFA candidate. I think that doing practice exams is the only valid way to find out how well your studying is going. I’ve known of so many candidates who studied for weeks or months and then took their first practice exam a few days before the real one… that often created panic on a level that you can unfortunately imagine very easily.

How Many Practice Exams Should I Do?

I think the basic answer to this question is you do not know and will not know until a day or two before the exam. The obvious answer is that you should lean on doing more than less. These exams have the same format as what you will encounter on the exam and you are almost certain to find nearly identical questions on exam day. They do take a long time to do but it’s worth the effort more than anything else you will end up doing. I think it’s even more for the first 2 exams.

When Should I Do Them?

This may surprise you but I would start doing them early. How early? Do your first one 2 months before the exam. I know, I know, you’re not ready, you’ve learned nothing by heart, have only read the material once, and probably have not even finished that first reading. I don’t care, I really don’t. The classic mistake is postponing the first practice exam for weeks and weeks.

You NEED To Do The Exam As Early As Possible. Why?

-It will give you a realist vision of how well you’re doing: Chances are that you are far away from knowing everything. Having that feeling and that fear of failing isn’t fun but it’s much better to start doing the exams 2 months in advance than 10 days before when you feel like you do not have a fair chance to catch up.

-It will improve your studying efficiency: Reading a lesson and doing practice questions is a lot easier when you have an idea of how questions could be asked regarding the material.

-You will start getting an idea of your strengths and weaknesses: It’s important to know which sections you’re doing well and which ones are more of a problem. Practice exams are the best way to find out.

Track Your Progress

It takes a few minutes longer but write down your scores by section. When you add this info to what you’ll gather from the practice questions, you will get a clear idea of what you need to focus on, in order to use your time as well as possible. I will discuss this later on but I would simply write down the score in % for each section of the exam. Since you are doing “half-exams”, not every section will be covered in these exams. But as you do more, the picture will get clearer about your progress.

I suggest doing a minimum of one exam every 2 weeks for the last 2 months until you get to crunch time (which we’ll discuss in a future post).

How Do I Do Them And Correct Them?

I personally do them on a weekend morning. I would usually give myself access to the formulas that I will know by heart when I do the first 2-3 practice exams. The objective is getting an idea of how you’ll do, not how you’d do if the exam was that day. Do the exam in the allowed amount of time. Then,  correct and try to understand the questions as much as possible.

Again, the objective is not to understand every single question; don’t spend 30 minutes on one question because you are looking for maximum efficiency. Simply do your best to understand the majority of the questions that you missed. That should always be the objective.

Should I Really Pay For Practice Exams?

In short.. yes no doubt. You are investing a lot of money and even more resources (time!) in this exam. Don’t cut short the resources that you can afford, you will regret it on exam day or when you get your grade. It should be about increasing your chances of succeeding, not about evaluating how to best use your money.


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