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There's a Difference Between Knowing the CFA Material and Passing the CFA Exam



I've spent the weekend moving apartments. It's a slog. Pack box after box, load it into a car, make trip after trip.

Pretty repetitive. Pretty exhausting. And the reward is at the end of a very long road.

Sound familiar?

With a few months to go, you've probably unpacked quite a bit of the CFA curriculum and moved that knowledge from the page into your brain.

That's good, but it's not enough.

Two months to go is when you should start to shift from covering the material to drilling it.

That doesn't mean you have to be 100% done with the curriculum. That's ideal obviously, but it's not required.​

What it does mean is you need to start unpacking that knowledge and learning how to translate it for 1 very specific purpose...passing this test.

What it boils down to is simple. You need to be on your game for 6 hours in two months. And like any athlete, that means you need a training program that lets you peak at exactly the right time.

Let's break down how to build a system and discipline that lets you pass the exam. 

 

Planning how to cram for the CFA exam

Step 1: Know where you are

To know where you want to go, you need to have a good idea of where you are right now.

So, are you through the entire curriculum at least once? If not, take 5 minutes to see how much material is left, how it is weighted on the exam (see L1 here), and how it fits into the overall curriculum. Here's the CFA Institute's official LOS and study session breakdown.

Then, spend 2 days covering the ENTIRE rest of the material you haven't read. If you're using our guided notes that should be really easy to do. If not, you can skim the official curriculum by reading intros, the blue box (now grey box) problems, and the end of chapter summaries. 

Don't worry about perfect knowledge or comprehension. You just need to process the information for the first time so that sub-consciously you're aware of what's involved. The more intense you can make these two days, the better. 

Once you've covered the material (and here's a post how to do that effectively) you might think you're done.

Wrong.

This isn't about the material remember? This is about the test.

So pull up an old CFA exam or a full length mock exam. And either take the practice test (which is what we recommend) or at the very least spend ~1 hour looking at the problems and how they are phrased. 

Trust me, you don't want to be the Candidate seeing what the exam will look like a week or two before show time.

Step 2: Assess your strengths and weaknesses

Now that you understand the various topics on the test we're going to start making choices about what to focus on.

We have three goals for the next two months.

  1. Strengthen areas of weakness that are either really high value from a points perspective or require less work to improve
  2. Practice enough problems to maintain your strongest areas
  3. Damage control the areas you just can't seem to grasp.

We've broken down how to understand and then strengthen your weaknesses in this post - https://gostudy.io/blog/know-your-cfa-exam-weaknesses but the core of it is simple. 

Handwrite flashcards for areas you are weak in. Do all the EOC practice problems and circle the ones you get wrong or struggle with. Repeat those every 1-2 weeks until gradually there are no more circles after you've done the problems. Cycle the flashcards for those weak areas more often (note: we have 900+ free flashcards with algorithms that help you do this automatically). 

Again, perfect knowledge is not our goal. Getting a 70% on a test the first Saturday of June is. This requires no frill drills.

Reptition is the friend of execution.

Step 3: Plan your time

If you're on our newsletter you know we talk a lot about macro-managing your life and stealing study time.

The truth is, time you steal now is more valuable than time you've already stolen.

So let's start with the planned time and then talk about how to sneak in extra minutes.

First, how many hours do you think it will take you to pass in June? Another 150? Well that's 2.5 hours a day every day for the next 60 days!

Yes. Yes it is.

Welcome to being a CFA Candidate in April/May.

Putting your CFA Study Time on the Calendar

So how many hours can you set aside on the ~8 weekends you have left. Can you do 10 hours a weekend?

If you can that leaves 70 hours you need to study during the week, or around ~1.5 hours a day. That sounds much more manageable but it's still a lot.

Now you need to calendar your study time. 

Literally block it off on your work calendar. But be strategic about when you're going to get this done. Are you going to wake up 40 minutes earlier or do you do your best studying late at night? Are you more effective studying at a library or a coffee shop? 

By now you probably know when and where you do your best work. So pencil in specific times that you will put yourself into the zone. This will set you up for success and create the discipline to keep you honest with yourself.

In this process there are two guiding principles that most successful Candidates adhere to:

  • Avoid zero days...but take a planned day off every once in awhile
  • Don't create unrealistic blocks of time that are too long and look too daunting
  • Once you've done this, be religious about sticking with it for the first 7 days

One note for Candidates with families: the above process is doubly important. I'd also suggest sitting down with your husband/wife/kids/partner and explaining what you are trying to do and why the next two months might be a bit tough.

Then, while you're still thinking about it, make plans for a nice dinner or vacation for the early summer months :)

OK. So now you have in your calendar 150 hours of blocked off time. Right?

If you don't, go do that now. We'll wait.

The last week is what separates the contenders from the pretenders

The next step is mapping out the all important week before the CFA exam. Have you put in your vacation time request? Can you take 3-4 days off? (You really SHOULD do this). 

This will let you take and carefully review 3-4 mock exams, re-read Ethics, cover our cram guide 10+ times, and come into the exam center primed and ready to go.

Here too make time to repeat problems you got wrong while still staying fresh in your strongest areas. 

Hacking the Psychology of your Discipline

You now have daily calendar blocks that add up to weekly goals for 8 weeks. To increase the chances of hitting your goals each week I recommend setting a carrot and stick approach for yourself.

Every week you hit your goal, have a nice reward set up (massage anyone!?). But every week you fall short of your hourly goal have a negative consequence laid out. I've seen some of our students set up a donation to a cause they HATE if they don't meet their goal. That's seemed to work really well. But it doesn't matter what the negative is, it just matters that it will actually upset/irritate you.

 

Steal study time that's not on the calendar

Life has a way of interrupting the best laid plans. I know, and you know, that you won't be studying perfectly every one of those blocks of time you've put on the calendar. Invariably something will come up that is more urgent (even if less important) than CFA studying.

That's OK though, because we're about to teach you how to add dozens of extra hours without much additional work. 

In CFA studying what happens on the margin matters A LOT. Over the next 60 days you will have lots of little pockets of time that you can turn into review. 

  • Commuting. Let's say getting to and from work takes an hour. Each month that’s an extra +20 hours
  • Bathroom trips - At the risk of being crude, let's say 20 minutes/day x 30 days = +10 hours a month
  • Standing in line at stores/coffeeshops, just general waiting... +15 minutes/day = +7.5 hours a month
  • 2-3 extra "walks" while at work +30 minutes/day, for 20 work days = 10 hours a month

Those ideas alone get you almost 100 hours over the lasttwo months…all without really interrupting the regular flow of your life.

But there's other, hidden benefits of layering in this time.

  • It's easier to get or stay motivated if you know the period of time is finite
  • It stimulates small discrete information processing which aids memory retention 
  • You can cover and recover material in cram guides or notecards without getting (as) bored
  • It keeps your long marathon study times focused more on actually doing problems 

Practice in Exam-like Conditions

If you were an olympic sprinter running the 400 meter race, you probably wouldn't train by running lots of slow miles. You might have a few of those sessions built in, but for the most part you'd focus your training on mimicking the conditions of your race.

The same is true for CFA Candidates.

It seems like common sense, but I'm constantly amazed by the hundreds of Candidates who have never mapped out what it feels like to solve problems when time is a serious constraint.

You need to get a feel for HOW to take the test. How much time you can spend on a problem. When you should skip a problem and come back to it. How to eliminate 1 incorrect answer to improve your odds from 33% to 50% on a given question.

All of these are trainable skills that don't fall into any given study session. But that doesn't mean they aren't 100% vital for passing the CFA exam.  

Take care of yourself

60 days is a long time. Don't burn out. Set aside time to do a few fun things. Eat healthy. Exercise. Get good sleep. You need to be at your peak in 60 days, and that starts with good habits today.

Summarizing how to study for the CFA

  • Get a lay of the land by reviewing all of the material
  • Know where you are strong and weak. Understand how to drill weaknesses and maximize strengths
  • Plan your time...literally put it on the calendar
  • Start stealing study time (our free flashcards help here)
  • Bias towards doing problems 
  • Practice in exam-like conditions
  • Stay healthy and sharp to peak at the right time