Goal Achievement – CFA Exams

On 01/06/2012, in Career, Informal Education, by Jordan Wilson

In the post, New Year Resolutions?, we looked at how to find free time in life.

Free time to achieve a resolution, perhaps related to a career or personal objective.

Then making the most of that free time by developing a structured game plan for success and focussing on attaining the goal.

Today we will use the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams as an example. 

CFA Exams Require Substantial Study

The time required to study for each exam is significant. Successful CFA candidates report that approximately 300 hours per exam is required. As a result, The CFA Institute recommends 15-20 hours of self-study per week for 18 weeks prior to the exam.

When we discussed finding free time to achieve a goal, I wrote of 30 minutes each night?

But the CFA exams are more like 2 to 3 hours per night, including weekends.

You need to be dedicated to get through the program.

“Substantial” Amount Depends on the Candidate

CFA exams require a fair amount of effort. But the exact amount varies between individuals.

The time you need to spend studying will differ from the next person. Some candidates are smarter than others, some are better are writing exams. Some candidates have stronger experience in the tested subjects. Some have full-time jobs, others may be free to focus exclusively on the course.

Each person is different in how much they need to prepare.

300 hours for one person might be 400 for another and 150 for a third.

This seems like common-sense, but I have found that it is a big reason for failure among students in many fields.

Be Your Own Judge

Do not let peer pressure, how much time a friend spent studying, or overconfidence dictate how much you study.

I have seen many colleagues fail professional exams because their buddies convinced them the golf course was more fun than a library. Or that the guy down the hall at work “only” put in 50 hours the week before the exam and still aced it (maybe he is brilliant or more likely he was just downplaying his efforts to come across as smart).

And some “friends” underreport their study time to try and get you to study less than they are. With CFA exam pass rates around 50%, if you pass the exam then the person next to you probably will not.

Better to err on the side of caution. Spending a little extra to get it right now saves you time and energy in the long run. Especially for exams that only sit once a year.

No Unlimited Time to Study

When I wrote my various CFA exams, I was working a full-time job. I could not dedicate 40 hours per week to learn the material.

That is a problem for many students writing professional exams. I knew many students in university that did extremely well. But they lived in the library when not in classes. When faced with working a full-time job and then squeezing in a couple of hours per night studying, they could not adapt.

In fact, when I interviewed for my first job out of university, I remember one accounting partner telling me that they wanted staff with strong extracurricular activities on their resume. The firm believed that university students that had lives outside school would better cope with less time to study than employees who were used to spending 10 hours a day learning.

From my time articling as a professional accountant, I agree with that view.

Be Efficient and Effective

The key to passing the CFA exams, or in achieving any personal goals, is to study efficiently and effectively.

Come up with a realistic game plan and then focus on achieving your objectives.

Make the most of your limited resources to achieve the most.

With the CFA exams, 300 study hours is suggested. It may be more or less depending on the individual.

Unless you are not working or in school, studying for 300 hours in one month is not practical. And even if you are free, 10 hours per day for 30 straight days is heavy. So you need to determine how much time you really have and work backwards.

In my case, I would arrive at my office at 5:30 a.m. or 6:00 a.m. and put in a couple of hours before work each day. Then I would spend 3 or 4 hours on Saturday and Sunday. Not too onerous.

Of course, if I started studying the month before the exam, I could never get through all the material. So I had to work backwards in my estimates. If I planned to put in 300 hours in total broken down into 15 hours per week, I needed to start studying 20 weeks before writing.

Also, 300 hours is enormous. You need to break down that volume into manageable pieces. Perhaps one learning outcome per study session. Or 5 outcomes per week to smooth out the individually harder and easier lessons.

Use Milestones to Track Progress

Set short, medium, and longer term milestones so that you can assess your progress along the way. As necessary, amend your scheduled study sessions so as not to fall behind.

Rely on others to assist in your study efforts. No, not your office colleague or boyfriend. But a professional. Consider taking one of the many CFA exam study courses that are out there.

Many courses are created by people experienced with the CFA exam process. Using their materials may – and I mean may – help you study more effectively and efficiently than you can on your own.

Knowing the Material Does Not Guarantee Exam Success

Many students learn the course materials for the CFA exams. But where they fail is in the actual exam writing.

Students are often unable to get through all exam questions. This may be due to being unable to recall information quickly enough. Getting overwhelmed by the size of the test. Not being quick enough in their reading of the questions. Being too slow in calculating results. And so on.

In any professional exam I have ever written – CFA, CA, CFP, securities courses, etc. – speed is crucial. And the way to become faster is to write lots of questions and practice exams. Not just write them, but write them under exam conditions.

Learning the course material is one thing. But make sure you do lots and lots of questions. That is the key to passing.

Some Good Specific Advice

If you do plan to sit the CFA exams, Investopedia offers some good advice on passing the exams on your first attempt.

Investopedia also provides additional tips in preparing for the CFA exams.

In my experience, I found that having a financial accounting background was an asset in passing the program. I also found that ethics is a key area on exams.

Finally, I do suggest you strongly consider purchasing study materials from one of the highly rated third party vendors. Vendors provide a variety of products, including: learning outcome summaries; questions and practice exams; flashcards; software; seminars.

You may not need everything, but a some of the products may significantly improve your study effectiveness and efficiency.

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