On Persistence, or how I aced the CFA exams
Anyone can achieve anything if he is willing to put in the work necessary to achieve their goal. This sounds like the classical catchphrase from a motivation guru but I truly believe in this mantra. I’d like to share with you some impressions of my journey to earn my CFA charter (A placeholder for any goal you may like to achieve) and the ups and downs I went through, the mistakes I made, and what helped me ultimately to achieve my goal.
Spoiler alert! Nor was it easy or an overnight miracle… I put in hours and hours of work, challenging my body and mind to the max. Hopefully, you can take a piece of advice or two and apply it to the specific challenge you encounter at the moment and ultimately be successful. There are countless guides to pass the CFA exams, so I don’t want to repeat the obvious things and only want to point out what worked for me.
I was just one semester shy of finishing my masters degree back in 2017 when I set course for the journey I went trough over the next 3 years. In retrospect, to be honest, it is hard to recollect what lead me to the decision to pursue the CFA charter, it may was because I wanted to push myself (I had the feeling that my learning potential was not maxed out) or the curiosity to learn, or both.
Besides studying at the university, I was working part-time in the asset management department of an insurance company and a colleague of mine had recently earned his charter. We had a lot of discussions about the value of the program as well as the possibilities it offered. My employer at that time also heavily encouraged me to do it and supported me financially as well.
I decided to enroll, knowing I had an enormous challenge in front of me.
With this short memo, like to point out some general principles I adhered to and how persistence helped me master this challenge. You will also find some useful resources, which can be used during preparation at the end of the article.
Round about Christmas in 2017 I started my journey with some research on how to prepare for the exam in a proper way. First, I was stunned by the amount of work this would require, on average candidates put in more than 300 hours of preparation to pass each level. In hindsight, it was a lot more than that.
A lot of websites suggest you set out a well-thought-through study plan to achieve your learning goals in time and don’t get in a hurry when the exam deadline approaches. I often tried to apply this mantra but hadn’t much success with it. I frequently failed to keep up with the schedule, resulting in more concentrated study periods in the final months before the exams.
Nevertheless, I’d like to outline the approach, which worked fine for me.
I used an insight I developed throughout my time at the university. During exam preparation, I frequently tried to do anything I could (mentally and physically), so if I would fail the exam, I wouldn’t have to blame myself for not putting in the work. During the semester I usually kept study efforts loosely, only doing enough to stay up to date and have a sufficient overview of the course material I needed to cover since I also wanted to have some kind of life besides working and studying. After 3/4 of the semester I would pick up efforts continuously and roundabout six to eight weeks before the exams, I started sitting for study sessions of 8-12 hours a day. With the exams approaching, my efforts would become even more extreme, studying 12+ hours a day, seven days a week. I optimized my whole day for optimal study performance.
In retrospect, this wasn’t a healthy study schedule but it laid the foundation I used for completing the CFA exams at each first attempt. Through the years I learned valuable lessons on how to improve my study performance and the corresponding results.
When I sat for the first exam, you could only apply for the June or December sessions. I always went for the June option.
To make sure, there is sufficient time to cover all the course material, I suggest you start at least six months prior to the respective exams. I always used the Christmas holidays to kick off my study efforts and make myself familiar with the course material. First, I read and re-read the course material over the first 3 months of the preparation period and after that, started answering the practice questions and mock exams.
Over the years I discovered that the information would be best remembered when I read and re-read the material and complete the practice questions in parallel. I used a very naive technique to ensure I did everything I could to pass the exams. I tried to repeat this process as many times as possible until ca. 2 weeks prior to the exams. Usually, I was able to cover the course material three times during this period.
Prior to the exams I always took two weeks off to fully concentrate on my preparation. This period consisted of intensive study sessions, where I focused on my weak spots as well as areas with the highest weighting. Throughout the preparation, I did between 2 and 3 mock exams each. It is important to simulate actual exam conditions as much as possible.
Don’t panic, if your score on the mock exams isn’t around 90% consistently. I scored between 60-80% in all of my mock exams and managed to ace the exams on the first attempt. Nevertheless, at the end of your study period, you should be able to score around 70-80%, to have enough confidence for the exam and don’t need to pray for good luck.
Every level of the CFA program comes with a thick book of formulas, usually around 100 pages strong. To counter my forgetfulness, two weeks prior to the exams I would rehearse the whole formula book once a day. So at the end of the preparation, I knew most of the formulas covered. Often I studied formulas before sleeping time and I had the impression that I was able to imprint the formulas into my brain during the night and ultimately remembered more.
The CFA curriculum is known for its enormous depth and easily contains a few thousand pages for each level. There are some areas where you won’t need to study the whole thing to master the exams. I have made the experience that the additional learning material (e.g. Efficient learning, Schweser, etc.) is valuable in terms of providing a sufficient summary of the curriculum as well as a ton of practice questions and mock exams. Personally, I went with the efficient learning materials for each level, which in hindsight was a great investment.
Helpful resources were various websites regarding the preparation for the CFA program www.analystforum.com or 300hours.com, which provide you with useful insider tips for preparation. Besides putting in the necessary work, I’d propose that the additional learning material is the second most important key to acing the exams.
One mission-critical thing during the exam is the lack of time to complete it. The exams are designed to challenge your time management skills. I used a simple method to make sure, I don’t waste too much time and answer all exam questions. To speed up your performance during the exam it is essential to practice using your calculator correctly. You need to know the different calculation methods and how to switch between them easily.
If I had to think about how to solve the question I was working on in an extensive way, I skipped it and marked it to solve it at a later stage, if there was time left at the end. I suggest you do the same if you don’t remember how to approach a specific problem immediately. Otherwise, you will run into severe problems regarding finishing the exam in time. You can come back to questions you skipped initially when you solved all questions you are certain about. Since most parts of all three levels are in some kind of multiple-choice questions, I highly recommend at least checking one of the possible answer boxes so you may get lucky by ticking the correct one.
One monumental thing I learned throughout my years of preparation is to grant yourself enough rest, to perform on a high level consistently. Therefore, during the second and third exams, I limited my average study session to around 8 hours, to get enough rest as well as to have time for other activities. This pays enormous dividends later on because your brain will perform more reliably.
During the whole process of mastering the CFA program, I went through multiple periods of extreme mental and emotional stress. I have to admit, that I even went through dark periods a few times during the preparation for the first exam due to the overwhelming amount of stuff to cover and I felt that I didn’t do enough. It may sound esoteric but I made the experience that meditation, regular exercise, and eating well build a good base for optimal mental performance. Especially during the last exam preparation, I studied for 8 hours, exercised for one to one and a half hours during the lunch break, and adhered to a more or less strict diet. As a result, it felt like there was a lot less stress on my mind as well as my body.
I also used the app headspace to sometimes meditate between study sessions or to listen to focus music while studying. It felt a bit like resetting my brain to take on the next chapters of the curriculum. It never fully restored my mental abilities during the day but did only enough to be a bit more focused and keep going. For me, it’s the small details that make the difference between passing and failing.
This piece of advice may have been more valuable as the CFA exams weren’t structured as computer exams. Nevertheless, I think these tips are of equal use today. I took all my CFA exams in Frankfurt. The first two exams took place at the big exhibition hall and the last one was held in various decentralized locations where you sat in supervised computer rooms.
Before my first exam, I searched for a hotel, which was within walking distance of the testing site as well so I didn’t have to think about how to get to the testing site. I also looked for hotels that weren’t perceived as accommodation for students or people looking to party, since you need uninterrupted sleep to perform best. I did this to minimize possible distractions and create some kind of positive and familiar environment, once I knew this worked for me.
Between study sessions, you are allowed to leave the exam site for one to one and a half hours. I recommend you take some snacks with you, so you don’t have to search for food and waste valuable resting time. Go with some light snacks which don’t fill up your stomach or cause a food coma. Some fruits to restore your glycogen levels in your brain are good as well.
To master any challenge you may face right now, you need to show a high degree of persistence. In this world, there is hardly anything given to you for free.
I hope you took a few things from this short memo on how to master complicated challenges and develop persistence. There is no secret sauce, only work and a few tweaks you can make to tilt the odds in your favor. I’m sure there are a dozen more useful tips out there and look forward to learning more about being persistent.