Posted by: Jonathan Bone, Course Director
Updated: August 11, 2020
With the number of prep providers increasing, candidates are often left with a bewildering array of choices. We’ve put this guide together to give you a heads-up on the factors you should be considering when choosing which CFA® Program prep course is the best fit for you.
Do you know people who have successfully studied for the CFA exam? Your first port of call should be to speak to these people. Ask them about the CFA Program study material they used, and how they felt it prepared them for exam day. If you don’t know anyone personally, check with your local CFA Society to see if any of their members would be willling to share their experiences.
Some prep providers have been producing CFA exam prep notes and question banks for decades, while others have only just entered the market. Experience for a prep provider is essential, as it ensures that their products are tightly honed through the years to be the most effective for exam preparation. A full understanding of the CFA Institute examination process only comes with years of experience. You don’t want to be studying with a provider who is still learning themselves.
Check to see if the authors of the materials actually hold the CFA designation. Believe it or not, some vendors rely on authors who have not actually sat for the exams. This goes for the people leading your classes, too. You want your materials and instructors to have successfully navigated the exams themselves. You can’t rely on somebody who has not actually mastered the exams themselves to advise you how to pass.
Ineffective study practices are the source of a lot of candidate failure. This is often due to candidates reverting to university study habits, namely reading and note taking. Learning science tells us that these methods are very ineffective ways to study for the CFA exam. Look for a provider who incorporates the insights from learning science into their products. When you hear 300 hours of study are required per level, remember that it needs to be effective study.
Learning methodology takes us nicely to point five, which is the availability of practice questions and practice exams. Learning science shows us that the most effective study technique, by some margin, is question practice. You must ensure that your chosen provider can offer you plenty of question practice. Questions should be included in the study notes and online question banks. You also want to pay attention to the volume of mock (practice) examinations provided. Ensure that online question banks are fully customisable, allowing you to design custom tests to work on those weak points.
Mock examinations provide what learning scientists call interleaved learning. Put simply, interleaved learning means testing yourself on all areas of the curriculum, rather than just focusing on one at a time. This is shown to significantly aid in retention. You also need exposure to exam format question practice, especially at levels II and III, with items set and essay formats. You need to use these mock exams to develop your exam technique in the weeks leading up to the exam.
Select a provider that can give you at least four high quality practice exams, in addition the mocks provided by CFA Institute. The mock exam portion of your study is where you will develop a stronger recall of the syllabus and improve your test scores.
One of the greatest challenges of the CFA Program is covering the volume of material effectively. Many bright candidates have failed simply because they run out of time with their studies. Candidates short on time tend to sacrifice question practice, which has disastrous consequences come test day. Not all providers have their materials ready at the start of the exam window. Look for a provider who has their materials ready to go as soon as the previous exam results come out. The longer you have to spread your study, the smaller the impact on your social life.
Many candidates like to use online courses. They speed up technical understanding and ensure you remain on track with your studies. If you keep up with the class, you should be properly prepared with time to focus on practice exams. Other candidates feel they learn best in a traditional, structured classroom environment. Some providers only provide online classes, while others provide both online and physical classroom courses. You should consider how you want to study when choosing a provider, and find one that gives you options.
The number of candidates using a particular prep provider can be a significant indicator of quality. More candidates means more feedback for the CFA Program prep provider to develop and refine their study products. Additionally, some providers allow you to compare your practice exam results online to everyone who has taken that exam. More candidates means more data, and more accurate comparisons.
Some providers only provide their study materials in an electronic format. You need to ask yourself, “Do I really see myself studying 300 hours or more looking at a computer screen, especially if I am staring at one at work all day?” Look for a provider that offers the flexibility of both hard copy and online materials so you can choose the blend that fits your study preferences.
Finally, remember that an exceptional CFA Program prep course can help make your studies more efficient and give you a structure to the study process. But even the best prep course can’t replace the need for your hard work. There is no magic bullet in the market, and you should be very suspicious of any provider who claims they can seriously reduce the study commitment.