How to Prepare an Effective CFA® Exam Study Plan

By: Tim Smaby, PhD, CFA, FRM Vice President, Advanced Designations, Kaplan Schweser
January 2, 2022
How to prepare an effective CFA exam study plan

The CFA program requires candidates to pass three separate exams. Each CFA level requires candidates to prepare for a lot of material. To be successful, you need to prepare an effective CFA study plan that includes a detailed prep schedule.

Having a study schedule can help you organize your study planner around the topics on which you will be tested. To master these curriculum topics and utilize the time you have we have outlined our recommendations for the CFA Charter and provided you with tips for creating an effective CFA study plan.


CFA Study Plan Schedules

When preparing a CFA study plan schedule, it’s important to account for your background and familiarity with the CFA curriculum.  Candidates with a financial degree and professional work experience may need less than 100 hours to study for a CFA exam.  However, candidates who don’t have a background in the CFA curriculum will likely need to study over 300 hours for a CFA exam. 

No matter what background a CFA exam candidate has, we recommend that candidates spend 6 to 9 months preparing for a CFA exam and create a study plan that spreads those hours out over the months to avoid cramming in too much within the last few. 

Before you choose your CFA exam date, download this free Before You Decide to Sit for the CFA Exam eBook.

How To Know When You’re Ready To Take The CFA Exam

A good measure by which to judge if a candidate is ready to take the CFA exam is by paying attention to mock practice exam results. If candidates are able to consistently score above 75% on each curriculum topic when taking a CFA mock practice exam, then we would suggest that they are ready for the exam regardless of the hours they have spent preparing.

Latest CFA Exam Dates »

What Is The Best Order To Study For The CFA Exam?

The best order to study for the CFA exam depends on a number of factors including:

  • The CFA level you’re preparing for
  • You’re educational and professional background
  • The amount of time you have available to study

Our recommendation for an average Level I CFA candidate is to begin preparing for the concepts covered in the Quantitative Methods topic if you don’t have a quantitative background because these concepts are present in multiple topic areas.

Consider preparing for the Fixed Income and Equity Investments topics before studying for Corporate Issuers because through that process you will familiarize yourself with the components of Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC), which is very important for Corporate Issuers.

Finally, in your study plan, end your CFA prep with the Ethical and Professional Standards topic.

Tips For Creating an Effective CFA Study Plan

1. Stick to your CFA study schedule and don’t fall behind.

Once you create your study schedule, be disciplined and stick to it! To provide the motivation to stay on task, take a CFA Program review course and prepare for it like a university course; read the relevant material ahead of time, get at least a big picture of the topics to be covered, and write down any questions you want to ask. 

Another great way to stick to your study plan is to form a study group that meets on a regular basis. Studying with others who are facing the same challenge you face provides motivation and support. In addition, being able to ask questions or explain a concept to someone else helps develop your own mastery of the topics. Build the class times and study group meeting times into your schedule, and, once again, stick to it!


What Is The Best Order To Study For The CFA Exam?





2. Prepare, Practice, Perform.

A very useful organizing structure for your plan is based on the three key stages of learning: Prepare, Practice, Perform. The path to success is to focus on the Learning Outcome Statements (LOS) provided by CFA Institute. 

These are performance-based objectives that provide detail on exactly what you are expected to be able to DO on exam day. For example, one LOS might be “Calculate and interpret Net Present Value (NPV).” The command words “calculate” and “interpret” are what you should be able to do correctly.

CFA Study Plan: The Prepare Stage

The first stage of creating an effective CFA study plan is to Prepare. This stage is when you begin to learn the basic concepts. This can be accomplished through reading and listening to or attending lectures. 

This stage is mostly a passive exercise of absorbing information and examples of vocabulary, theory concepts, and principles related to the LOS. In essence, the prepare stage gets you ready for the next vital stage. Before you learn how to calculate NPV, you need to know what it is and what tools you need to calculate it.

CFA Study Plan: The Practice Stage

The second stage is Practice. This is when you actually apply the knowledge from the prepare stage by working on practice problems. If you are supposed to calculate NPV, the best way to learn how to do that is by doing 10 practice problems that ask you to do just that. Our experience is that most candidates spend too much time preparing and not enough time practicing.

CFA Study Plan: The Perform Stage

The third stage is Perform. This is when you simulate actual exam conditions by taking a mock exam, assessing your performance, identifying your strengths and weaknesses, and going back to do more practice where you think you need it.

As you develop your calendar, make sure you plan to spend 30 to 40% of your time preparing, 40 to 50% practicing, and 20% performing.

Assess your baseline knowledge of the Level I CFA Program curriculum with a free CFA diagnostic exam

3. Review regularly.

The material you learn when you begin will not stay with you until exam day if you don’t go back and revisit it once in a while. Plan to spend a few hours each week going back and reviewing material you think you’ve already mastered. Do some CFA practice questions and, if you make any mistakes, dig into those concepts again until you know them.

4. Cover all of the material.

Don’t play the prediction game by guessing at which Learning Outcome Statements from the CFA Institute won’t be tested and then ignoring that material. Every LOS is fair game for the exam, and you have to be ready for anything to be tested.

5. Study Ethics and Professional Standards last.

We recommend studying Ethics and Professional Standards after you are comfortable with other CFA topics because preparing for these questions mainly relies on using the ROTE learning method, which is the process of memorizing information based on repetition.

6. Reserve the last month for CFA Mock Exams.

During the last month or so before the exam, begin to take practice and CFA mock exams in realistic settings. Take the exam on your own with no notes, and be sure to block off at least 3 hours to simulate one session. The key is to use the exams to identify how prepared you are by assessing your areas of weakness and addressing them. If you get a question wrong, note whether the issue was the application of your knowledge to the question, or a fundamental lack of understanding of the concept. Keep track of your scores and look for an upward trend…by exam day, you should be scoring above 70% consistently.

7. And finally, reward yourself.

Make a plan to do something fun and relaxing on the day after the exam…golf, hiking, time with family, video games, or simply sleeping. You’ve earned it!

Start Creating Your CFA Study Plan

As you get ready for your CFA exam, consider making Kaplan Schweser’s CFA study materials—complete with classes, study tools, and mock exams—the centerpiece of your mission to earn a passing grade.

Free eBook: Before You Decide to Sit for the CFA® Program Exam

Free eBook: CFA® Program Fundamentals, 2nd Edition