How to Pass the CFA Exam on Your First Try

I passed Levels I, II, and III on my first try, and completed them all within the fastest possible time of 18 months. In addition, I scored in the 90th percentile on the Level III exam (I honestly don’t remember my percentiles for I and II). While I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, I believe I am in a good position to answer this question.

There are no secrets, only lots of hard work. Here was my study routine.

Five months prior to exam date.
I began reading the institute’s material about five months before the exam date. I read every chapter and tried to digest the information, not just skim it. This alone is not an easy task. This meant I spent about two hours every week day reading the material.

Two months prior to exam date.
About two months before the exam date, I was finished reading the material. I then re-read all the chapter summaries and worked all of the problems at the end of the chapters. The questions I got wrong (and there were lots of those) I would do again until I understood them. I began taking notes at this stage—beginning to outline the common themes I should remember in each exam section.

One month prior to exam date.
About one month before the exam date, I began working the institute’s subject exams. Again, problems I got wrong I would re-work until I got them right. It was here that I really fleshed out/boiled down my notes into what I really needed to know.

During this final month, I was also spending lots of time memorizing my notes. I carried my notes with me everywhere I went. Any spare moment I had, I would quiz myself, refresh my memory, try to commit a new formula to memory, etc. I also spent lots of time literally copying my notes from memory onto blank pages.

In addition to the note copying and subject exams, I began working the intitute’s mock exams. I tried to do these in as formal a way as possible—spending the full 3-hour block of time working either the AM or PM exam. While I couldn’t always work them back-to-back, I was able to get in maybe two full-day mock exams.

Two weeks prior to exam date.
Crunch time. I spent these two weeks working the previous year’s exams. In addition, I was re-reading the chapter summaries where I felt I was weakest, and re-working the subject exams/chapter questions that needed improvement.

It is also now when you have to cut your losses. There are inevitably sections that you simply will not remember or understand in time. Don’t waste your time on those sections! Concentrate now on the subjects you have a chance of mastering. It is worth doing some analysis to confirm that the sections you are focused on can get you a passing grade. For example, a fail in Ethics generally fails your whole exam, so foregoing time in that section is a probably a poor decision.

You should also have your notes memorized by now. If not, get cracking. To be fair, I remember spending the Friday night before the exam learning something new (and I’m glad I did), but you have room for maybe one more new thing at this point. If you don’t have it by now, you probably aren’t going to get it.

One week prior to exam date.
Work at least two practice exams early in the week. Study the questions you got wrong, and the questions you guessed on but got right! Would you have passed if your guesses had been wrong?

At this point, it is all a numbers game. In Level I, the numbers are in your favor—there are 240 questions with 3 answer choices. You only need about 170 to pass. If you can eliminate a mere one answer choice in half of those questions, you’ve got 60 right answers. That leaves only half the questions you have to actually know the answer to. In other words, you need to absolutely know only half the material. The other half you have to know about 1/3 of the material.

Level II’s numbers are about as forgiving, but it is a much broader test. You need 84 right answers out of 120 to pass. Meaning, if you absolutely know half the material, you can literally score no better than chance on the second half and still pass.

Level III, however, is a whole different animal. The material is more focused, and III has the “essay” section for the AM test. That means there are only 60 questions with multiple choice, the rest are self-sourced. To give you a clue of how the game changes with Level III, I scored in about the 95th percentile for the AM portion of the exam, and that put me at the passing line for the AM exam!! Though, I’d argue that time management is key in III. You will not have enough time to complete the questions. Again, this is about cutting losses and focusing on where you can win. For questions that require involved answers, write down the formula that applies and move on. Come back at the end to fill in the rest, if you have the time. It isn’t worth blowing the exam over one question.

Things I’d Do Differently.

  • I used Kaplan’s question bank for Level I. It was crap, don’t use it. For II and III, I used only the institute’s material. As you spend more and more time with the Institute’s material, you will notice certain patterns in the question asking. It is a…je ne sais quoi, but you will begin to notice it. This subtlety will carry over into your exam, but only if you have spent the time with the Institute’s material. The prep providers questions just didn’t have….it.
  • Answer more questions, more often. While I spent lots of time with practice questions, I didn’t feel like I spent enough. Reading the material is great, but you must shift focus to the questions early on. They are the key to passing.
  • Don’t use those formula/subject sheets that the prep providers sell! Make your own. For crying out loud, MAKE. YOUR. OWN. There are two reasons for this:
    • The very act of making the sheet is review. You will retain it more readily by building them yourself.
    • You can customize your sheets to exactly what you need. This means less time spent reviewing things you already know and more time spent with the stuff you need to remember.

That about covers it! I wish you luck, and in some ways I miss the excitement of the whole thing. Though, admittedly, I felt like one of those Iron Man runners with baby-giraffe legs at the end, crawling across the finish line.

Put in the work and you, too, will get those three letters after your name that mean….well, I’m not sure what they mean….

This originally appeared as an answer on Quora.
You can follow my Quora feed.

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