Posted by: Richie Owens, CFA
Updated: August 6, 2020
For candidates enrolled in the CFA® Level I exam, time can get away from you. An effective review strategy can help. Ideally, the preparation phase of the journey should be finished about three months before your exam day, and the last three weeks before your day, at least, should be set aside for mock exams. Kaplan Schweser, for example, provides six full six-hour mock exams in many of their review packages. Local CFA societies also offer a live proctored mock exam which provides an essential “dress rehearsal” preparation for the real thing.
In the period after preparation is finished and before mock exams, your study strategy should be: question practice and debrief. For too many candidates, this means taking a quiz of 10 questions for 15 minutes, marking it, and moving on. Don’t make this mistake. When practicing questions, you should spend an average of 90 seconds answering the question. But you should spend significantly more time thoroughly debriefing it.
Start your debrief by making sure the questions you got right were correct for the right reasons. Guessing right on exam day is a bonus. Up until then, it’s just another question that you need to review. For all wrong answers and guesses that resulted in a correct answer, it is crucial to find the area of the curriculum that let you down. If it’s a missed calculation, find at least five examples of that type of calculation. CFA Program Examiners are masters of hitting calculations from every angle. Just correcting the single instance which that question hit may not address the deeper issue. Your aim is to repeat the calculation multiple times until you can do it backwards (which is incidentally a popular CFA examiners’ trick).
If it’s a narrative point, find the explanation in the curriculum and see if it’s an isolated fact, part of a list, or a piece of analysis on a calculation. Isolated facts need learning. Little and often is the best way. Five minutes a day, squeezed in whilst lining up for your lunchtime burrito, can make a huge difference.
Lists are more common. Most relate to a model or a theory. It’s much easier, therefore, to learn them in the context of that model. For instance, low barriers to entry in perfect competition? It means zero economic profits in the long run. Tie facts together where you can, your brain is wired to remember stories. Cause and effect will stick a lot better than disorganized memorization.
Finally, what if it’s a piece of analysis on a calculation? The very beating heart of the exam. Go back and find an example of the calculation. Make up your own numbers if you need to. For example, I’d recommend always having a simple balance sheet and income statement handy to help with ratio analysis. If you can’t figure out why the answer was an increase, decrease, or neither, put some numbers through your simple statements and calculate the result. This approach fits with the classic definition of analysis: a detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion. You can’t hope to get the discussion questions right if you don’t do the detailed examination.
Taking this approach to question practice will result in a better understanding of how the answers were derived, and put you in a better position to answer similar questions going forward. If you’re using something like the SchweserPro™ QBank, then you’ve got thousands of questions to attempt to cover the whole syllabus. It’s a big ask to do that, but an effective use of the questions should ensure you cover the majority of every CFA exam topic.
When deciding how much time to allocate to the different topics, each candidate will have strong and weak areas. Dedicate time to each area accordingly, but don’t lose sight of the syllabus weightings. Two topics, Ethical and Professional Standards and Financial Reporting and Analysis, are worth more marks on the day of the exam than Economics, Derivatives, and Alternative Investments combined. As interesting as the world of derivatives is, you can’t afford to wallow in it for weeks on end for only 6%.
To conclude, set your aim on enhancing your understanding of all the topics through question practice and debrief. You will put yourself in a strong position to hit the mock exams in lay.
Ready to enroll in a CFA Level I Review Workshop and Mock Exam? Choose from Kaplan Schweser’s 3-Day or 5-Day Review Workshops and Live or Online Mock Exam options now.