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How to avoid cracking under pressure during the CFA exams

Stress investment banking

If you’re heading into the CFA Level I exams knowing that you only have a 40% chance of passing, it can be a stressful and emotionally draining experience. Six hours of exams in one day is demanding both physically and mentally. Candidates often flog themselves to death studying the course material yet fail to prepare for the impact of exam pressure itself.

The problem with anxiety

Many people struggle with exam anxiety and therefore under-perform in test conditions. Anxiety can be a great motivator as it gives us a kick up the backside to increase our effort when we’re down at the pub and know that we should really be studying. It alerts us to something important about to happen.

Problems arise when anxiety becomes excessive. The part of our brain we use to store and manipulate pieces of information, exactly what the CFA exam demands, is of limited capacity. Unfortunately, anxiety consumes a great deal of resources of this region, and too much anxiety simply shuts your brain down.

When this happens, the effects on performance can be disastrous: short-term memory deteriorates, you lose the ability to selectively focus on what you need to, yet you are more likely to become fixated on a particular issue. These are just three of the cognitive effects of anxiety.

Performing to your best under pressure requires precise execution of skills when anxiety is most intense. For CFA exams these skills are retrieving information from short-term memory and manipulating data. In turn, this involves being able to focus in the moment. It also means you need to learn how anxiety can help motivate you, rather than causing brain paralysis.

How to improve focus

Concentration doesn’t happen by accident. Novak Djokovic doesn’t just turn it on at will. He systematically practices at improving his ability to focus.

So how to do it? Consider concentration to be like a spotlight – a mental beam and you decide where it shines. Here are some suggestions how to do that:

  • Decide to concentrate. It may sound obvious, but you have to actually make an effort to concentrate.
  • Focus on exerting your energies and thoughts only on to things you have control over.
  • Have zones where you switch on and off. When you are studying, have a ‘quiet zone’, which is free from any distraction as soon as you enter it.
  • Have a pre-performance routine. The important thing here is to consider how you want to feel just before and during your exam (e.g., confident, energized, excited, calm). Then take responsibility for what you can control in order to achieve that mental state.

Preventing choking under pressure

How do you ensure you are able to perform when it really counts?

As mundane as it may sound, it comes down to planning and preparation. Good preparation enhances self-confidence. You can’t will yourself to think clearly.

The best preparation is simulating pressure. Rugby player Johnny Wilkinson would practice taking penalties from the corner flag in training. Michael Phelps’ coach would break his goggles before training so he would be forced to swim blind.

The aim was to create more challenging conditions in training than in competition. By doing so, they were more likely to be able to cope when really under pressure.

For the CFA exam, preparation is more than studying the course material and testing yourself. Planning is more than writing a revision schedule. To do both effectively, you need to put yourself under stressful conditions that will replicate your exam experience.

In practice, that means taking mock exams at the same time of day as the main event, wearing the same clothes, eat the same food, or possibly reducing the exam time to increase the pressure.

It also means planning well in advance what you will be doing in the lead up to the exam, especially on exam day. How will you minimise the likelihood of unexpected events causing you a problem? Don’t leave anything to the last minute as this will induce anxiety.


Simple breathing techniques will also help reduce anxiety. One effective practice is to breath in to the count of seven, and out to the count of eleven. This stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, reducing your heart rate, reducing vascular resistance and increasing blood flow to the brain. Focusing on your breath helps you learn to selectively choose where to direct your attention. Spend one minute doing this before every study session and any other time you wish.

The world’s best athletes and special-forces soldiers share a common factor – their ability to think clearly under intense pressure. They achieve this by a relentless attention to detailed practice and preparation, which involves simulating pressurised environments. To succeed in such a rigorous exam you would do well to adopt some of these practices.

Paul Berry is the director of Human Performance Science, a psychology consultancy that works with professionals in high-performance fields to help them think clearly under pressure. He previously worked as a derivatives trader at Santander. 

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