Know and Drill Your CFA Exam Weaknesses

One of the keys to success on any level of the CFA exams is to get a firm handle on your weaknesses. 

This is part test taking strategy, part math, and partly just a more efficient use of time and mental energy.

Knowing your gaps ahead of time

First, if you understand your areas of weakness (when you still have enough time to do something about it) then you know what areas you need to drill more. This let's you stay laser focused, meaning you'll be far more efficient with your study time. That translates to a higher marginal benefit from each incremental piece of effort. At some point, with enough work, you can even turn areas you struggled in to areas you dominate. 

But its only partly about crushing a given section of the CFA curriculum.

In fact, knowing your weaknesses is really more about damage control. You see, there are large chunks of interrelated material throughout L1, L2, and L3 where a failure to grasp a small keystone concept can cost you 10-20 points easily. Out of 360 available points on a CFA exam, that's costly.

You can also think of damage control as it applies to each individual problem you face.

The Math Behind Being a Little Less Bad

Level 1 and Level 2 are all multiple choice, where you need to select the correct option out of three choices. The same is true for the afternoon portion of Level 3. Practically speaking, this opens up a huge opportunity. You see, the more you drill your weaknesses, the more likely you will be able to eliminate at least one choice per question.

Boosting your individual odds from 33% to 50% can really compound your probability of success. 

Say you guess on 30 questions. If it's a coin flip each time you might get 15 right, for 45 points out of a possible 90. But if your odds are only 1 in 3, you now only get 30 out of 90 points which means you're 5% further away from the passing score of 70ish percent.  

At the risk of offending some of the purists out there, always remember, you don't graded on how well you know the material. At the end of the day you get graded on whether you filled out the right bubble on your scorecard (and yes, this is a little different for Level 3).

In the quest towards that very specific goal it doesn't hurt (and can sometimes be vital) to score some "freebie" guess points. 

If that covers the mathematical and time value of focusing your prep, the last thing to mention are the mental benefits

Knowledge = Awareness = Calm = Flow

If you know where you are weak, you can structure your test taking around it. For example when you hit a tough area for you you're ready to practice good time management. You might feel comfortable skipping these questions and saving them to the end, or at the very least know that the whole test won't feel that way. This lets you keep moving without mentally exhausting yourself (the CFA exams are six hours long after all!).

Knowing where you struggle also means knowing where you excel.

So when you hit a part of the test where you're confident you are more likely to stay calm, which leads to fewer mistakes, more points, and extra time you can bank for areas where you need it more. Just don't get over-confident and move too fast and make dumb mistakes when you know the material. That has sunk many a prepared Candidate in the past.

By the way, don't make the mistake of thinking a weakness can be confined to certain areas of the curriculum. A weakness centered on a concept like "financial statement analysis" is only one type of issue.

A weakness could center around a certain type of question. For example maybe you didn't come from a math background so the "plug and play" or calculation-centric questions are more problematic. Or maybe concept or compare/contrast questions are more difficult for you. It could just be that English is your second or third language annd the wording sometimes trips you up.

Whatever your weakness, figure it out and work at improving it. Ignorance isn't bliss and denial is ineffective because no excuses will change whether you pass or fail.

How to recognize areas of weakness

Hopefully you already have some sense of this. Does certain material just not click? Did you do EOC Chapters at the end of a specific CFA study session or reading that were especially hard or where you scored too low? As you went through the readings were there sections you just glossed over because they were so boring? What about areas that took you weeks to get through instead of days? 

All of these signs are helpful. Often, however, Candidates rely too much on this type of casual assessment.

I think there are three bulletproof ways of "knowing" where you stand.

The first is through mock exams. You have to stress test yourself in conditions that mimic the same format and question type you should expect to see. For L3 the best option is going through dozens of the real, old morning mock exams. For L1 and L2 there are a variety of decent mock exams you can buy.

The second option is with notecards. If you're writing them out by hand (valuable but oh so time consuming and sometimes clunky) you can manually separate out piles of cards until eventually you're confident you know the answer to each one. If you use the GoStudy App we do all that work for you by letting you indicate whether you're confident or not confident on over 900+ created cards sorted by reading and study session but also by concepts (equations, compare-contrast, definitions or importance level). 

Finally, you can teach it to someone. If you can explain a concept and how to solve a problem that means you know the material. The only thing left is to perform at game time.

A Final Note on How to Cram 

We've written about it before in our how to cram post, but once you've identified weaknesses here's how to approach covering a study session:

  • Read (our) Summary Notes for the given chapter
  • Read the Curriculum if you have time,especially for sections that really don't make sense 
  • Optional: Create notecards as you read OR use our notecards/app to sneak in study time while commuting or during coffee breaks at work
  • Complete all End of Chapter Questions in the CFA-I curriculum and/or third party notes. Review your answers immediately afterwards. Make a note of the page numbers for these questions and the questions you got wrong andt those that cover very important topics.
  • Do the same with focused mock exams, where you return to the same exact problem 2-3 times over a month or two
  • Don't forget to stay fresh on the areas you're solid in so they don't slip