CFA Studying Strategy

Taking the CFA exam is in many ways like leaving for a month long trip to a land far far away. If you have done such a trip, you know how critical preparation is and it is as much or even more so for the CFA exam. It’s not only about spending the hours, doing the reading, the reviews, practice exams, more learning, etc.  All of that needs to be done of course but if it is not carefully planned, it can end up being all for nothing.

So I thought I would write a post with my opinions about planning for the CFA exam. There are probably as many ways of studying as there are students but it’s always good to see possible plans so you can, compare, review and improve. You do start with a plan but over time that plan will change depending on how things go. So why plan if it’s going to change anyway? Simply because knowing where you’re going is the most important part of it. I’m a big fan of the analogy that Anthony Robbins uses. He compares a plan to a pilot leaving on an airplane. Pilots start off their journey not knowing which route they’ll be using because they do not know how the weather conditions and wind will be. But they make a plan and adjust throughout the trip as conditions change. I strongly believe that you should plan and adjust as the exam approaches.

What must be done

In my opinion, these are the parts that must be done in order to pass the exam:

-Reading the material
-Review of the material
-Practice questions
-Practice exams
-Learning by heart
-Intense period


Obviously, each candidate has a different amount of time and resources to dedicate to the exam so your plan would change accordingly. I will write this post supposing that you have 3-4 months of preparation although the last 2 weeks are much more intense and important than the first couple of months obviously.

Reading The Material

Most candidates would agree that reading the material at least once is key. What you want to do is get that phase done as soon as possible, ideally 1-2 months before the exam. The keys in my opinion are:

Spacing out the readings: Reading 12 hours straight will help you get it done quick but might only remember very little and if that’s the case, what is the point?

Don’t spend too much time on one point/aspect: You will have ample time to go back to those lessons, don’t forget that this is an initial reading and you will not be expected to understand everything.

Take notes: No matter how you do it.. I used to highlight and some others take notes in a separate notebook. You want to be able to take away the main points to avoid having to re-read everything in the final weeks before the exam. Do not write down too little or too much. Too little would be of little help and too much will be the equivalent of re-reading the chapter. Personally, I would highlight about 10% of the material.

Review Of The Material And Practice Questions

If you have paid for access to a question bank, one of the best ways is to spend a few hours at a time doing a few things:

Doing 20-30 practice questions – Be sure to understand your errors as much as possible. Then, spend 1 hour or so looking at your notes and the actual readings (if necessary). The objective is not to understand everything, but as much as possible. You do this over and over for the material, focusing on the more important sections obviously (more on that later on).

Practice Exams

I will be writing a longer post about this specifically later this week but for now I’ll just say this: Passing or failing the exam in my opinion is 95% about the practice exams and how you manage them

-Learning By Heart

Many of the formulas should be understood instead of learned by heart, which is obvious. But many other things must simply be learned. When and how to do so will be discussed soon but needless to say it is critical in order to pass the exam.

-Intense Period

As important as practice exams are, having an intense studying period a week or two before the exam can make a big difference. I can tell you without any doubt that I probably would have failed all 3 of the exams if I had not taken that week off from work so I could study. It makes a world of difference and I will be discussing the strategy and tactics that I used in detail.

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