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Overall, the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation is a daunting challenge, and the odds of success from start to finish are slim; less than 20% of those who begin this challenge reach the end. However, as one in five candidates have demonstrated, it is possible.

There is no secret code for navigating the CFA program and passing the test, but an organized, disciplined approach will help you pass each level of the program and ultimately achieve your goal. Find out what you'll need to make the cut and pass each level on your first try.

The CFA Program

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, it's important to understand what the whole program entails. The Chartered Financial Analyst program, offered by the CFA Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia, is designed to teach investment professionals a "candidate body of knowledge" (CBOK). The CBOK tests candidates on ethics, quantitative analysis, financial statement analysis, economics, portfolio analysis, corporate finance and the analysis of stocks, bonds, and alternative investments.

It consists of three levels, each of which culminates in a six-hour exam. The first exam is administered both in the late spring or late fall, (usually in June and December) and the Level II and III exams are offered only in the late spring (usually in June). After passing all three levels of the exam, each CFA candidate who has four years of professional investment experience is eligible to receive the chartered financial analyst designation.

Are you up for the challenge? The keys to success are to get organized, develop an effective study program and review.

Organization Is Key to Preparing for and Passing the Exam

Once you've made the decision to sit for the upcoming CFA exam, you need to develop a course of action. Here are some tips:

Start Early

The CFA Institute estimates that at least 250 hours of independent study is necessary to pass each exam, and the institute's survey showed candidates actually prepare for 322 hours on average across the exam levels. In other words, a candidate starting six months before exam day should plan to spend over 13 hours per week studying. Candidates spend the most time reviewing the CFA program curriculum and mock exam and utilizing independent exam prep materials.

Preview the Material Before Starting

After registering for each level, you will receive a curriculum divided into about 18 study sessions. Broadly preview each session to determine your familiarity with each topic. (Check out our exam prep page for a quick review of the CFA Level I exam.)

Develop a Game Plan

Get out your calendar and determine which weeks you will be studying which sections. Schedule your studying so you complete all the sections at least one month before the exam so you can review. Also, schedule in review days as you go along.

Select a Review Course

In no way should a review course substitute for studying the material. However, a good review course can augment your study program by clarifying or pinpointing concepts you may be having trouble with. The key is to pick only one course, so you can spend more time focusing on the CBOK.

Develop an Effective Study Program

An effective study program will make the difference between passing and failing. To develop an effective program, consider the following:

Study All "Learning Outcome Statements" (LOS) 

The CFA Institute defines LOS as "knowledge, skills, and abilities that you should be able to apply after completing a reading and all associated exercises and problems." To master each LOS, develop an outline and write down any important terms, definitions, and formulas relating to each one. You'll be more likely to remember these points later if you take time to write them down as you come across them.

Use Flash Cards

Homemade flashcards are an effective way to master the material. Flash cards are portable and can be quickly reviewed while commuting to work, during a lunch break, etc.

Use Memory Techniques

Mnemonic devices, such as taking the first letter of each word in a concept to spell one word, are helpful. There are other tricks as well, such as catchy slogans. For example, "SiP a CoKe" can be used to remind you of option put-call parity: The prices of a Stock + the Put = those of the Call + the present value of the striKe price. Also, don't fail to take the value of auditory memory cues into account.

Study Quantitative and Qualitative Material Differently 

When studying quantitative material, working on problems is important. First study the concept, then learn by doing these problems over and over again. Once you understand how to solve a problem, return to the material for further understanding. Read qualitative subjects, such as ethics or behavioral finance before working on any problems. Approach these readings as if you were enjoying a good book. Many ethical problems are scenario-based and easy to read.

Work Through as Many Practice Questions as You Can

Use the curriculum provided by the CFA Institute to determine what types of problems you need to work on. Enhance your studying by working on additional problems from reputable exam preparation providers.

Use Your Approved Calculator

Part of the challenge in passing the CFA exams is the ability to answer questions in a short period of time. Practicing with the calculator you will use on exam day will allow you to achieve the greatest efficiency with your device.

Stay Motivated

Focus on why you are earning your CFA charter and how you will reward yourself after you take the exam.

Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle 

Eat healthy meals, sleep right, avoid excessive alcohol or caffeine, and remember to exercise. People who are healthy are better learners.

Review

Hopefully, you have been reviewing the material as you progress. However, you will still need a solid month to review the material again once you have gone through all the sessions. Do not take this part of the study process lightly. Here are some helpful tips for your review stage:

Finish Early 

Finish covering all materials at least one month before the exam.

Use Practice Tools

Utilize tools such as online prep exams to assess your strengths and weaknesses. Find out where you need to build on your strengths and practice in areas where you are weak.

Work Problems Offline

Do your work like you would on the day of the exam – with a calculator and pencil in hand. If you get accustomed to solving problems in Excel, you might run into time management problems during the actual test.

Take Practice Exams 

Take these beginning on a Saturday several weeks before exam day and try to replicate the actual testing environment as much as possible. Time yourself and allow no interruptions. This will allow you to become used to writing two three-hour exams in one day. You might also want to invest in a set of good earplugs; these will come in handy during the actual exam.

Do a Test Run 

The Saturday before the exam, drive down to where you will be taking the test and check out the site. Determine where you will park and the quickest way to get from there to the exam room.

Make Time for Yourself 

If possible, take off the week before the exam. This will allow time for your final review and reduce stress levels before the exam. Stay home, study the material and allow no interruptions.

Sleep Tight

Take it easy the night before. Lightly review the material, brush up on weak spots and eat a nice dinner. Pack a lunch for the next day to eat during your two-hour break. Also remember to pack your calculator, pencils, erasers, required medications, exam ticket, photo ID, and earplugs. Get to bed at an appropriate time.

On Exam Day 

Wake up early and eat a good breakfast. Go over some broad concepts. Start with ones that are easy for you, then work a few problems. Don't go into the exam cold. Leave the house in plenty of time to get settled in once you arrive. Relax and take a few deep breaths. Avoid talking with others about the exam. If you see someone you want to talk to, try not to talk about the exam. This will only stress you out and hurt your performance. During the break between the first and second sessions, eat your lunch and go for a walk. This will help circulate your blood and keep you somewhat loose after staying seated for so long.

Then take (and pass) the exam.

The Bottom Line

If you're a candidate in the CFA program or are planning to register, you need to plan to succeed. Organize your material, study effectively and review to increase the odds of passing each level of the CFA on your first try.

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