Why You Won't (or can't seem to) Pass the CFA Exams

Joe Hogue's picture

In the tradition of Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, I thought I would start a list outlining the habits of highly ineffective candidates. While I’m pretty sure the list will never make it into a multi-bajillion dollar book deal, hopefully it will help a few of you understand the things that are keeping you from succeeding on the exam. Having been through the exams and talked to a lot of candidates, I can tell you two things:

  • All three levels are extremely tough and will tax even the best students
  • It is extremely easy to adopt bad study habits and not even realize it (even after you’ve hit that fail band a few times)

If you see your study habits in this list, don’t think you can’t pass the exam just as you shouldn’t hit the rage button and dismiss the entire post. Step back, think about the study habit and whether your strategy is the best fit for you as a candidate. Maybe its not a make-or-break habit, maybe you will do just fine with one or many of these habits. Just remember, half of the people in that room with you on June 2nd will not be happy come mid-August. Do not let old study habits sabotage your chances because you’re too proud to reassess your strategy.

  • You know that practice problems are the key to learning the material but you always seem to run out of time after reading

You have to take an active part in the learning process to get this stuff down. This isn’t the good old college days of open-book or take-home tests. Continuously testing your retention of the material is the only way to know that you will take it to the exam with you.

  • Your week-long study plan always seems to get pushed back until you have to study 10 hours on Saturday to make up for lost time

 Trying to cram your studying into one sitting each week is a recipe for failure. Your brain gets tired after more than 50 minutes without a small break or more than 5-6 hours without a rest. Study session marathons have their place in your strategy, but not in your weekly core.                   

  • Curriculum? What’s that? 3rd party study guides and notes are all you need.

I used study guides and notes for each level. They are an indispensible tool for passing the exam but they are just that, a tool not your whole toolbox. You may not need to read the entire curriculum, but you do need to use it as a resource. Each year I heard candidates complain that there was material on the exams that was not in the curriculum. What they meant was there were exam questions that were not in the study guides (the only resource they used). Do all the end-of-chapter questions and blue-box problems in the curriculum and at least review the key concepts in the Institute books.

  • January is a good time to start studying. Wait, February is ok. I’ll wait until March, then really kick it into gear. Can I still pass the exam if I start in April?
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  •  I’m constantly amazed at the forum posts asking, “I just started studying in April (or May, etc), can I still pass the exam?” Don’t let a late start discourage you from studying, just realize that you will probably be studying for next year’s exam because you failed the upcoming one. Unless you don’t mind taking a few years for each level, you need to give yourself the time to study this material. Start early so you do not have to stress yourself out and cram everything into a couple of months.

      • 300 hours studying divided by 20 hours per week is 15 weeks which means I can start in late February.

     I can tell you, I spent WAY more than 300 hours studying for each exam. Now, I wasn’t the smartest guy taking the tests and I’m sure many of you will do well with fewer hours of studying. I looked at it this way, if candidates are studying between 200-300 hours for each exam but only half are passing then I want to study more than the average candidate.

    There’s two issues with this habit. One, planning to study 20+ hours a week while you work a full-time job and have a family is unrealistic. Second, waiting so late to start where you must keep to a tough schedule is going to mean lost study time. Don’t think that because you have just enough time to meet your study goals that nothing will come up during that period. You have to leave some extra time for LIFE! Life is that business trip you have to take or extra hours at the office for 1st quarter reporting. Life is your son’s little league championship series that takes you to every field in the state and every pizza place afterwards. Life is that amazing date you’ve been waiting for and cannot pass up on the opportunity. You don’t have to sacrifice your life to pass the CFA exams, but you do need to plan ahead of time.

    Anyway, now that half of you hate me now and think I’m a a*hole, honestly re-evaluate your own study habits. Hopefully, you can say that you are on track to pass the exams. Seeing some of your study habits here isn’t the end of the world and there is still time to reassess your strategy.

    ‘til next week, happy studyin’

    Joseph Hogue, CFA

    P.S. Any habits I missed? What have you caught yourself doing that wasn’t helping you pass the exams?

    SYDNEYROCKS's picture

    Great Article! I think you missed track your hours. It is easy to cheat yourself into thinking you did more hours than you actually did. I track every hour, every minute so I know exactly where I am.

    SYDNEYROCKS's picture

    Great Article! I think you missed track your hours. It is easy to cheat yourself into thinking you did more hours than you actually did. I track every hour, every minute so I know exactly where I am.

    passme's picture

    love this

    vivian911's picture

    SO true!! Especially the part about. I gotta stop doing that!!!
     

    Trying to cram your studying into one sitting each week is a recipe for failure. Your brain gets tired after more than 50 minutes without a small break or more than 5-6 hours without a rest. Study session marathons have their place in your strategy, but not in your weekly core.   

    Eltomzo's picture

    in·dis·pen·sa·ble/ˌindiˈspensəbəl/
     

    Adjective:

    Absolutely necessary or essential.

    “I used study guides and notes for each level. They are an indispensible tool for passing the exam but they are just that, a tool not your whole toolbox.”

    Whilst I agree with your point, I think you are taking it a little far. Are you saying it is impossible to pass the exam without a study guide?

    brokecfa's picture

    I am going to prove that it is possible to pass this exam with one month of prep, nobody say anything that will demotivate me know, we will all celebrate my accomplishment or laught at my foolishness soon enough.

    mansoor08's picture

    Loved the article, and it is so true. I have been there and know how you keep pushing the start date until you find yourself a month before the exam date, then you start thinking about the next exam date and you keep telling yourself “I am working and my life, work, social life, friend, etc. is going very will, CFA is just an additional thing I am doing” and years pass by. 

    Thank you for this wake up call. 

    Jehanzaib Zafar's picture

    I am going to prove that it is possible to pass this exam with one month of prep, nobody say anything that will demotivate me know, we will all celebrate my accomplishment or laught at my foolishness soon enough.

    Audacity of the highest quality smiley

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