How to Start Studying for the CFA Level 1 Exam

One of the hardest things to do in the entire CFA process is to start studying for the level one exam. There’s a lot of material to cover and life is busy.

So, despite our best intentions, it often happens that we find days slipping by without covering any material. I’ll just read a little extra tomorrow you say to yourself. And it is true, a few days here and there is OK (in fact, we’ve long advocated planned zero days).

CFA Study Tip 1: Avoid Zero Days - They Compound Quickly

But putting together multiple zero days has a compounding effect. That's because:

  1. You get used to not working or covering material.
  2. When you do study you try to cram lots of material at once (which is sub-optimal for retention)
  3. Perhaps even worse, you start feeling a nervous tension that builds up because you know you’re not doing what you need to prepare.

The end result is that you’re not studying and you’re also not enjoying your free time because you feel like you should be. The CFA study process is hard enough without becoming your own worst enemy. You need to learn how to macro-manage your life.

The CFA Is a Grind

Passing Level 1 (and then 2 and 3) depends on a steady application of effort to cover the material over a long period of time. In other words, it's a grind. Little habits really do add up. And while everyone will find their own groove, we’ve been around the block (both ourselves and with hundreds of other Candidates) and we’ve distilled out a few lessons from that.

CFA Study Tip 2: Know the basic outline of the material and the ways it is interlinked

Before you dive into the weeds of the CFA curriculum material you need the thousand foot view. Basically, it helps to have a general idea of the topics you’re going to be expected to learn.

  • How do various topics link together and build on one another?
  • What areas are more conceptual and which are calculation heavy?
  • What percentage of the exam points are assigned to each topic?

We cover all of these topics and more in our overview guide to the Level 1 exam

Knowing how topics relate to one another helps you chunk material and streamlines your memorization (and it’s one of the specialties of our notes). Knowing the topic weights lets you spend your time on the highest leverage topics. That way if you are weak on an area that might only show up in 1-2 questions you can skip it, but if you struggle with fixed income you know you need to drill problems in that area repeatedly.

Understand the perspective of the test makers

There’s a lot of reasons to undertake the CFA Exam. But we’re willing to bet that your number one goal is to PASS.

Who cares if you’ve memorized every detail. There’s no grade here. You need to score 70% on three exams. Period. To do that, it’s helpful to understand what the CFA Institute is asking you to learn for each level, why they might be driving towards that, and how they format the exam to meet their goals.

You also need to drill your weaknesses.

CFA Study Tip 3: Find your Cadence & Steal Study Time

While Level 1 is often considered the easiest of the CFA exams it comes with an extra wrinkle. Everything is new.

You haven’t learned the style of the material and the way it is presented. You haven’t done enough practice problems yet to know how this material can be tested. You don’t know exactly what it takes to pass.

But that’s OK. You’ll adapt. We’ll provide you a framework for all of it. Before too long you’ll see that the material has a certain cadence to it. It gets easier the more you do it.

Trust us when we say that incremental marginal improvements can really add up. Your job is to find the right routine.

CFA Study Tip 4: Figure out how to Hack the Test

As you study you’ll get more comfortable with the various topics, your areas of strength and weakness, and the variations of how problems can get tested and how the test takers might try to trick you.

That entire process takes time and effort. We like to think that we can help you hack that process by pointing out areas of emphasis, the ways problems have been asked in the past, and the key tricks and tips that will help save you hours and hours of time.

For more tips on studying you can see this general tips and tricks post

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