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Two Ways to Take Studying for the CFA Exam to the Next Level

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What? Why should I construct my own questions when there are plenty of study banks and practice exams out there? Here’s why. Constructing your own multiple choice questions:

  1. Shifts your focus from memorizing facts, definitions, and formulas to a deeper understanding of the material.
  2. Requires that you have a conceptual foundation of the material and therefore gives you insight to how the LOS can be asked. If you can’t write a question about a topic, how can you answer one?
  3. Forces you into an active study strategy. Relying on practice exams is a passive and less useful strategy. Writing your own forces you to engage with the material.

Tips to writing your own questions:
  • Read exam questions from test banks or practice exams. Get a feel for how questions are asked.
  • Note that questions can and often do contain more information than is required. For example, questions can include multiple interest rates. How does that affect question writing?
  • Including more than one interest rate in a question means you have to know which one to use and why. And it sets up the obvious answer choices doesn’t it? You’ll see the right answer and two wrong answers using the incorrect rates.
  • Also note that command words can dictate how a question can be asked. Take the command word “DEFINE.” You’ll never be asked to regurgitate a definition on a multiple choice question—it can’t be done. The question will more likely ask which of the following is or is not part of the definition. Understanding the concept behind the definition allows you to both write and answer this type of question. Review other command words for similar hints.
  • Devise questions that include plausible wrong answers—ones that include common mistakes like inverting rates or using incorrect time frames (annuity due versus ordinary annuity).

Now what? Time to Take it to the Next Level!

Used within the context of a study group, the strategy of constructing your own questions can be very powerful.

Each week, every study group member should construct three to five questions on the following week’s topic.

When you meet next, put the questions together—you’ll have a topic-specific mini-test. Take it at the beginning of the meeting. You should get at least all your questions right!

Then take the remaining time to discuss the questions and answers. While knowing how to derive the right answer is important, it is also important to know why the wrong answer choices are, well, wrong. Reverse engineering really takes your studying—and understanding—to the next level.


Typical study strategy: Read, highlight, read more, highlight more.

What does this accomplish besides creating large blocks of yellow on the page and possibly releasing a multitude of toxins into the air? Not much if that’s all you do. That’s because the last time I looked, those yellow pens did not have a direct plug-in to your brain.

Here’s a better approach: create summary notes.

Step One:

  • Read the material. Highlight only those parts that 1) you have difficulty remembering, 2) are confusing or 3) you feel are really, really important.
  • Then get a notebook and write out a summary of everything you highlighted. The first benefit: You focus on the important stuff and highlight a lot less!
  • Note: For this to be effective you must handwrite, not type, your notes. Muscle memory plays an important part in this strategy!

Step Two:

After you’ve gone through the material for all study sessions in this manner, you are ready for the next step. Go through your first hand written summary notes and highlight those things that:

  • you still have difficulty remembering,
  • are still confusing, or
  • you still feel are really, really important.

Then get another notebook and—you guessed it—write a summary of everything you highlighted in your first set of notes.

What have you accomplished?

  1. You have written out everything you have difficulty with or feel is important at least two times. It’s hard to forget things if you’ve gone through this process.
  2. You have two sets of summary notes which you can take with you to the exam. (But don’t bring them into the exam room! Leave them in your car or the storage area at the exam.)
  3. At the lunch break, you can use these summary notes to refresh your memory. It’s so much easier than flipping through the six curriculum books.

You’ll have a real advantage over other candidates who haven’t gone through this process.

–Linda Lam is the associate director of the CFA Review Program at the CFA Society of San Francisco.

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It should work however it will exceed the required 250 study hours...

250 'required' hours of study is really an average. The actual time you put into studying depends on our background knowledge and the rate at which you can learn new concepts. This is different for every person. Yes, writing things out or creating your own questions can take more time initially. But doing so also reinforces learning the first time you see the material making it less likely you'll have to go back over the same material again and again. In this case it is a more efficient, strategic way to approach studying the material and and in the end, not add any significant time to your overall studying.

Just a couple of fixes to my previous comment - sorry for the typos! ~ Linda

The actual time you put into studying depends on *your* background knowledge and the rate at which you can learn new concepts.

strategic way to approach studying the material and in the end, *may* not add any significant time to your overall studying.

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