The CFA Level 1 curriculum seems like a daunting amount of material when those books arrive at your door. More than 3,000 pages spread across six textbooks is a lot to get through, and you need a plan if you want to make it through all that material and retain enough information to pass the exam. The first part of building your plan is to allocate enough time to study the material and work on practice problems. The common rule of thumb is that it takes 250-300 hours of studying time to be fully prepared for a CFA exam. Obviously, that cannot all be done by just cramming at the last minute, so it’s very important to have your plan in place in order to make sure you can stay on track and get through everything before test day.
We want to help you succeed in passing level 1 of the CFA exam, so we’ve outlined a strategy for success below to help you make the most of your studying time. We have built our 6-month study plan around the following guiding principles:
Three Principles of this Study Plan:
- Spaced repetition
- Practice, Practice, Practice
I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of people barely glancing at the books and still passing, or even signing up for the test at the last minute and breezing through the exam. The odds of passing in situations like that is astronomically low, which is why it’s so amazing when it actually happens. It’s very important that you file those stories away in the same mental categories as hearing about lottery winners. Planning to wing it on test day and use luck as a passing strategy is like planning your retirement strategy around the hope that you’ll hit the Powerball just before you retire. In the same way that you need to be consistently putting away money over time for your future, you need to be putting away CFA materials into your brain steadily over time.
The keystone of any successful study plan is consistency over time. The old cliche “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” is very applicable. It also makes for a good mindset here, because not only do you want to keep making progress over time, you also want to avoid trying to go too fast and burning yourself out. A marathon runner can ruin their race plan by going way too fast in the early miles, and you can sabotage your own progress by trying to push yourself way too hard in the first few months.
You need to some self-analysis at this point to determine what kind of daily goals and limits you want to set on your studying. In a six month period, you will have 182 days to get through the 250-300 hours of study time. It is up to you to determine how best to distribute that time based on how you work best. Only you will know whether you need lots of small chunks every day or certain days off. The key to focus on is to keep making consistent progress over time.
On the other hand, don’t try to start too slowly and expect to have all-day study sessions later on to make up for it, either. There is a limited amount of active learning that you can do in a given day, and you’ll only hurt your chances if you think you’ll be able to go way beyond those limits repeatedly before the test. The work you put in on making progress early in the study process will pay huge dividends later on when you’re not adding the stress of falling behind on top of the usual stress that occurs as test day approaches.
Due to how personalized your ideal study schedule should be, you’ll notice that the study plan outlined below does not specify which days are for studying or resting. It is laid out so that you’ll know how your progress compares to the ideal track for spending the right proportion of your overall time on each subject. The subjects are allocated study time based on their weight in the overall exam. For the level 1 exam, the CFA Institute specifies the exact percentage of the exam dedicated to each topic, so it makes sense that your study time is allocated using the same percentages.
|Ethical and Professional Standards||15%|
|Financial Reporting and Analysis||20%|
Source: CFA Institute
To know more about topic area weights, read How I Passed the CFA Level 1 Exam on the First Attempt.
While the primary keystone of any study strategy is consistency, it’s also important to use what we know about how the brain stores information to make studying as effective as possible. The review process of our study plan is based on the concept of Spaced Repetition (SR). SR takes advantage of the fact that the more times you see something, the longer you can go before seeing it again without losing recall. We incorporate this by bringing back previous topics into periodic reviews based on how long it’s been since you last studied that section. It ensures that you’ll have reviewed each topic, especially the early ones, multiple times before you begin your final review in the weeks leading up to the exam. You’ll see each topic with less frequency as time goes by, which also ensures you aren’t trying to cover too many topics during each periodic review.
Compared to many other study plans, we allocate slightly less time to the final review period. There are only three weeks instead of the typical four or more. This is because the periodic reviews throughout the study plan reduce the need to spend as much time catching up on earlier material late in the studying process. You’ll remember all the earlier sections much better than if you went months since you last saw them. By not having to spend time relearning things that have faded from memory, you can spend your final review time focusing on shoring up your remaining weak points.
Practice, Practice, Practice
A common pitfall that hurts candidates on test day is having spent too much time reading the material and taking notes, and not enough time working through practice problems. The problem with spending too much of your overall study time reading through the material is that because reading is a more passive activity than answering questions, it can create a false sense of mastery with the material. As you read and review, you’ll recognize the information you’ve seen before and your brain will feel confident that you could have recalled that information even without the text. This phenomenon is called the Illusion of Knowing. It’s very important that you are testing yourself frequently with practice problems, as that is the only true way to know how well you know the information.
Spending a lot of time on practice problems is also very effective because it is a more similar activity to what you’ll be doing on test day. The test itself is not just measuring how well you know the material, but how well you can answer questions about that material. You should be spending lots of your preparation time doing that activity specifically to make sure you are as comfortable as possible when you get to exam day. Many candidates try to put off doing practice problems until they feel they know a subject area pretty well, but you should be jumping into the problems much earlier. There will definitely be questions on the exam that you don’t feel confident about, and you’ll want to make sure you are able to keep going when you encounter that through practice.
If you’re looking for CFA level 1 practice questions, register for free at https://analystprep.com/cfa-level-1-practice-questions/
The Study Plan
Here is our guide to track your progress through each subject area over the 26 weeks you’ll spend preparing for CFA level 1:
For CFA level 1 mock exams, click here.
How the Plan Works
Our 26-week guide shows you how you should be progressing through each topic area to make sure you’re covering all the material prior to test day. We have time allotted to getting through each topic area and periodic review sessions between topics where you will revisit previous topics again. The periodic reviews will cement those materials more effectively by not letting them fade through from your memory.
The order of the topic areas aligns with the CFA curriculum itself. There are many opinions about what order to go through the curriculum to get the best outcome, but this is one area where trying too hard to optimize doesn’t make a big difference in the results. Going through the material in order also makes it easier to see how you are progressing simply by looking at where you are in your stack of books. The only subject area that is important in this regard is Ethics, which is already first in the material and so will already get the attention it deserves.
We don’t specify rest days from studying (and you should definitely have rest days from studying) because only you can know what works best for you. As long as you are averaging ~2 hours per day over this period, you should be progressing well through the material and will get everything in.
We also leave out the details of the exact hours you should spend on any given day because six months is a long period of time and many things can, and probably will, happen in your life while you are studying. Our plan is kept more general so that it’s not thrown into disarray by unexpected events that may take you away from studying for a day or more. It’s impossible to plan for everything that could come up while you are preparing for the exam, so make sure to have some flexibility built into your expectations. You don’t want to let one or two small issues derail your progress
As you can see, the total time to spend on each topic area is proportional to that subject’s weight in the exam. You may find that you can progress through some topics faster than others, but there is a lot to gain from following our strategy. If an area comes easier to you, especially one of the larger ones like Quant or FRA, you should still spend a good amount of time on it because using your strength there to boost your score in that section will help pull up your overall grade. The Institute is secretive about the exact passing criteria for any given exam, but your overall grade is what’s most important. Use the areas you are strong in to bring up your overall score so that it will help offset any areas that you think won’t go as well.
One aspect about this plan you may find surprising, if this is your first time taking this exam, is the large amount of time devoted to Ethics. Ethics is an extremely important part of the CFA curriculum and should not be overlooked if you want to be successful in passing this exam. Time spent studying Ethics is also very effective because that subject appears in all 3 CFA exams. It’s also an especially important subject when it comes to determining whether you pass the exam. The Institute uses the results of your Ethics section as a determining factor if your overall score is very close to the passing line. If you are right on the cusp, how well you do on Ethics could decide whether you pass or fail.
As we touched on earlier, you should be spending a large portion of your overall studying time on practice questions. This is not to say that you shouldn’t read through the material (you should), but to keep in mind that a minute spent answering a practice question or reviewing your answers will make a bigger difference in your recall than a minute spent reading. It’s worth your time to do all the “Blue Box” questions that appear throughout the curriculum and to do the End of Chapter review questions as well.
Don’t skip sections of the curriculum to save time, but don’t spend too much time on sections that are tricky, either. There will be parts of topics that you will struggle to get through and still won’t feel confident about when you finish them. You need to get comfortable with moving on to the next topic to stay on schedule rather than fall behind because there are sections that don’t make total sense. The curriculum is so broad that you can’t expect to be good at all of it.
Keep progressing through the material to stay on schedule, because you may find that getting away from a topic to focus on something may actually help you out. Have you ever lost something and couldn’t remember where it was until you stopped looking for it? Your brain likes to keep working on problems subconsciously when you are focusing on other things. It’s very common to move on from a subject area where some parts still don’t make sense, and then to have things click in to place when that subject comes up in the periodic review later on.
Just keep in mind that your goal is to pass the entire exam, not ace one specific section.
This is the heart of our study plan strategy for success. The periodic reviews are designed to bring back previous sections to keep them fresh in your mind. A common mistake candidates make is to work through all the sections individually and then review everything in the last month before the exam. The problem with this approach is that the first sections haven’t been looked at in months by then. I’m sure you could imagine how well you’d remember something after not seeing it for 3 or 4 months. By bringing up those topics repeatedly, it keeps that material fresh in your memory. It even makes it stronger because the more times you see something, the easier it is to remember it in the future.
The periodic review sessions should be focused on doing practice problems, not re-reading the curriculum or reviewing notes. Since the test is based around answering questions, we want the review time to be spent the same way. Rather than spend more time reading passively through material you’ve seen, work through a set of practice problems that includes all areas indicated for that review session first. Once you’ve done the problems, you can review some of your notes or the curriculum for questions that you missed. Use your question results to determine where you should be doing further review.
Bringing It All Together
You’ve already made the right decision by starting early and giving yourself plenty of time to prepare for the exam. We want our guide here to maximize your chance for success on exam day. By focusing on the principles of success and sticking to the strategy consistently, you are setting yourself up to pass level 1 and get one step closer to earning your CFA charter.
For CFA level 1 practice questions, register for free at https://analystprep.com
Good luck, now get started!
Anthony Dale Blair, CFA