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Are Your CFA Study Strategies Working against You?

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CFA San FranciscoIn order to pass the CFA exams, you must show you’ve mastered the material. Unfortunately many candidates follow a study strategy that severely hurts their chances of passing the exams.


  • Plow straight through the material, happily highlighting as you go.
  • Do practice questions, typically in small blocks of time and only on one study session.
  • Massive cramming in the two weeks before the exam.


The points above are not strategies—they are tactics. Using then results in:

  • A lack of a “big picture” understanding. Candidates do not master the analytical models behind the specific Learning Outcome Statements (LOS).
  • Detail overload. Candidates spend time memorizing lists and definitions rather than understanding material. Without that foundation, it is almost impossible to keep things straight, especially on exam day.
  • Formula fatigue. Candidates memorize formulas but do not take time to understand how they are derived. Nor do they practice using them in test situations. The result: An inability to recall the appropriate formula when needed on exam day.
  • Insufficient preparation. Candidates literally train for a sprint when they should be training for a marathon. This approach does not give candidates the stamina needed, time management required, or strategies necessary for extracting required information from convoluted word problems. Remember the exam is given in two three-hour sessions with a two-hour lunch break in between. This is not a sprint!


  • Develop conceptual frameworks. Create visuals, diagrams and mnemonic devices to summarize difficult calculations, formulas, lists, and concepts.
  • Write it out. Highlighting doesn’t help you remember. (Last I knew, that yellow pen did not have a direct line to your brain!) Write out—don’t type—summaries of the LOS material, and then summary of summaries.
  • Join a study group. Commit to a time and place each week. This provides the discipline required to stay on track plus many other benefits.
  • Construct multiple-choice questions. Constructing your own multiple-choice questions requires deeper understanding of LOS and focuses you on how LOS are likely to be asked. Going through professionally prepared practice exams is a passive exercise and is less useful.

How do you study? Think about it. Then make some adjustments!

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


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Great ideas. I have a blog about mnemonic devices. I have used them since I was a child. For example, I have used this phrase for the planets: My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. But, some people liked to use “My Very Easy Method Just Shows Us Nine Planets” or “My Very Energetic Mother Jumps Skateboards Under Nana’s Patio” (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto). The problem now is Pluto. It was reclassified as a dwarf planet.

Best regards,
John from http://www.mnemonic-devices.info/blog/

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