Master your CFA Exam studies with these 7 best practices

You need your best for the CFA Exam. Whether you have just decided to sign up for CFA Level I, or are working towards your CFA Level III, these best practices should help you get the most out of your studying.

(1) Plan

We all have busy lives – whether you’re a student or professional – and hence you need to plan your studying. It also helps if you have a fixed daily rhythm so you can build it in. Are you most flexible in the mornings or evenings? Do you work late – and if yes can you anticipate this?

plan to study when there’s the smallest likelihood of disruption

If you start work at 9AM sharp every day and have no commitments in the morning (kids, partner, dog etc.), get yourself out of bed early and block 90 minutes to study.

Do you finish work early and you don’t have any variables that could throw a wrench in your wheels? Take that 6-8PM block and study. Personally, I’m not a fan of studying after work. We use our mental resistance “muscle” throughout the day and it’s much harder to resist temptation after a long and strenuous working day.

(2) Understand Yourself

Nobody understands better how you best study than yourself. We spent hours researching the “best” way to study and came out hopelessly uninformed. Why? Because opinions on the method of study varied so widely. Some people love to read and soak up all the information like a sponge. Others love listening to lectures. Yet some people swear by a case study methodology where they learn-by-struggling (one of my favorites).

It’s important to understand yourself and study accordingly

(3) Assess Your Need

CFA Exam candidates start at various levels and their needs vary accordingly. A student in Art History will simply have a lower financial knowledge base than an experienced Investment Banker. That’s why broad strokes like “X hours” are useless for you as an individual (unless you are median).

The best way to assess your need is to head first into a mock exam and see how you fare. You can use our Professor Scoring Method to enhance the understanding of your topic mastery (to be released in the future!). The key aspect of this mock exam is to assess your need.

Some people come into the CFA Program with Topic Mastery in the majority of topics because they spent 5 years studying Finance & Economics, did 2 years in Investment Banking and are now in Private Equity. Others haven’t ever heard of Equity Value and have to start from ground zero. This is why some people will need less than 100 hours and others over 300.

Assessing your need should be the first step in your CFA studying journey to optimize efficiency

(4) Understand the Formulas, Don’t Just Memorize

At times you may be lured into just memorizing a formula because it’s easier in the short-run. Don’t! Formulas are representations of logical relationships, and you will only really master them if you truly understand the reasoning behind them. That’s why our brainteasers focus on manipulating the formulas from an algebraic – and not a numeric – perspective.

While the CFA Program explains formulas, a full-blown university course on the same topic usually entails a complete mathematical derivation of formulas to show where they come from. Unfortunately, the CFA Program’s breadth means it doesn’t lend itself to such deep-dives. However, if you can do it, you will most likely be able to answer any question on the CFA Exam.

(5) Deep Work

Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World goes into detail on Deep Work, or how to be more productive (Get Shit Done). In this day and age, we have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat etc. to consume our attention. In your study blocks, you should completely eradicate smartphones or any other distractions. You should literally be on 100% lockdown to maximize your productivity.

Personally, we found it useful to put our phones on airplane mode and put them in a drawer. Use noise-canceling headphones to block out all noise and if needed close curtains if you suffer from visual distraction. In case you want to embed breaks, use a stopwatch or kitchen timer (not even kidding – it works quite well).

Block all distractions

(6) Get A Study Buddy

A study buddy is a great help to keep yourself motivated. It’s a lonely endeavor to study every morning at 7AM or in the evening. Studying together creates companionship and bonding. It’s like meeting your friend at the gym. If you were planning on going solo it’s so much easier to convince yourself not to go! Furthermore, there’s the competitive element. Do you really want to fail while this smartass colleague or friend passes and tells everyone in the office?

It also gives you the opportunity to test your knowledge by bouncing questions off each other. When you have non-overlapping study schedules, this works very well. Basically, you take 5 to 10 minutes to lecture each other on subject matter that you have just learned. This not only enforces your own studying (teaching someone else requires a higher level of Topic Mastery) but because of the personal connection the “learner” tends to remember this better as well!

(7) Start Testing Early

OK, so we had the mock CFA Exam to start. Then we study until we drop, right? Incorrect. While it’s important not to switch doing practice tests and mock exams too early, once you feel you have a decent grasp of all topics you should start mixing practice tests, mock exams and studying the core materials.

The risk associated with switching to practice tests and mock exams too early is that the repetition of questions gives you a false sense of security. While the numbers may differ, the concept of solving some of the practice tests and mock exams may be exactly the same. There is no guarantee that this will be the case for the real exam. Don’t risk falling into this trap and then being stumped by “completely different” questions on the real exam.

Don’t wait too long though! Test-taking is a skill that must be practiced and mastered. Read our full article on Test Taking Mastery here. Every CFA Exam session there are candidates going in well-prepared with a true ability sufficient to pass, but they don’t. Why? Because they have not practiced enough in the real test-taking environment.

Next Steps…

These tips and tricks should help you become more productive and efficient in reaching your goal – those coveted CFA Level I, II and III Exam passes. Stay tuned for more hints, tips and tricks!