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Here’s what you need to know about the CFA exam with less than a month to go

Stephen Horan, CFA Institute, CFA Program, CFA exam, CFA level 1, CFA level 2, CFA level 3,

WIth the CFA exam date coming up soon, hopefully you've been studying for months and just need to fill in a few knowledge gaps.

Are you prepared for the June CFA exam? It’s less than a month away, so take a deep breath and work out how to best use your time and energy from now until exam day.

Stephen Horan, managing director of credentialing at the CFA Institute who formerly worked in the financial services industry and as a professor of finance, leads the development of the CFA Institute’s education programs, including the CFA Program. He agrees with the bare minimum of 300 hours of study to pass each of the three levels of the CFA exam line.

“Generally that’s what it takes for candidates to be successful, so you have to start early, create a schedule and a study plan and stick to them,” Horan said. “Presuming that’s been the case, it’s continuing on that and, when we’re about a month away, what you want to be able to do is start to wrap up your first curriculum run-through and revisions, because you want to leave time for practice exams.”

Here are Horan’s tips for getting through the exams.

Take mocks

There are plenty of mock exams online, either through the CFA Institute or one of the many companies that provide training for the qualification.

“A mock exam is going to surface the areas where you’re relatively weak, whereas if you just pick out some practice questions, you risk going to the areas that you’re comfortable with rather than the ones you really need to work on,” Horan said. “It simulates the natural test-taking experience – it is intended to replicate the actual exam as much as possible, right down to the two three-hour sessions.

“Once you know what your areas of weakness are, you can drill back down into practice questions in that particular area,” he said.

Harumi Urata-Thompson, the chief operating officer of the New York Society for Security Analysts (NYSSA), suggests taking a mock exam exactly one week before the date of the actual exam.

“That will give you a feel for the stamina and the pacing you’ll need,” she said. “At each level, you know what types of problems you will have to answer, and your performance on the mock exam will let you know if you have to review certain topics more than others.”

Get the right prep 

While other materials and courses may help, it’s important to realize that everything you will see on the exam comes directly from the curriculum that the CFA Institute provides. Look at the exam prep materials and study tips on the institute’s website thoroughly.

“We recommend private test prep for people who respond to live instruction, and we have a list of recommended instructors, but it’s not necessary,” Horan said. “Candidates should be able to study and pass the exam based solely on the curriculum that we give them, which is the best place to get inside the head of the question writer.

“That said, sometimes candidates benefit from getting a different perspective on the material and live instruction, and we absolutely encourage candidates who want to study that way to do it,” he said.

Don’t poo-poo the ethics section

Get the ethics portion of the exam right, because it can make or break your chances of passing the CFA exam.

“Ethics is important to becoming an investment professional – we take this seriously,” Horan said. “The ethics section is not based on the candidate’s intuitive sense of right and wrong – rather, questions are based on what the CFA institute’s code and standards say and how they might be applied to behavior in various situations.

“Try to take your own sense of right and wrong out of it, which is important because it can make the difference between passing and failing,” he said. “If candidates do well on ethics who would have been just short of a passing score based on the rest of the exam will pass and candidates who would have passed just barely based on the rest of the exam will fail if they bomb the ethics portion.”

Don’t try to cram until all hours the night before

Prioritize a good night’s sleep the night before the exam rather than staying up late studying.

“Do something relaxing almost all day, and don’t go out and party or cram too late,” Horan said. “The actual exam ends up being an endurance event, with two three-hour sessions, so if you go into it tired or drained because you were pulling an all-nighter, you’d really be doing yourself a disservice.

“See if you can go to the test center at some point before the day of the exam to get the lay of the land, figure out the best route to the test center, get a feel for where you can park and where you will eat lunch,” he said. “It provides a sense of comfort if you’ve been there before, because you don’t want to have to make small incremental decisions on things you haven’t experienced yet on the day of the exam.”

Sweat the small stuff

Some people are more organized than others, and Urata-Thompson stresses the need to think through details in advance, even if they seem insignificant.

For example, make sure you have the right calculators, double-check your tickets, make sure not to write anything on your tickets, and either pack your lunch the night before or scope out a lunch spot within walking distance of the exam center in advance.

Also, plan on the exam center being either too hot or too cold – usually it’s too cold, Urata-Thompson said.

Photo credit: demaerre/GettyImages

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