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Studying for the CFA Exam: The Final Countdown

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CFA San Francisco You’ve studied diligently for the last several months, plowing through endless pages of material, answering countless practice questions, and meeting weekly with your study group. Now what? With less than a month to go before exam day, what is the best use of your time?


Up to now, you have most likely been studying study sessions individually. It is time to bring everything into focus by taking full length practice tests. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University states “…testing yourself repeatedly before an exam teaches the brain to retrieve and apply knowledge from memory. The method is more effective than re-reading a textbook.”

In the last few weeks before the exam you should set aside time to take at least two full-length exams, more if you can. Taking tests builds your confidence and gives you feedback on your strengths and weaknesses, which you can use to refine your studying strategy.

Remember, you are training for a marathon, not a sprint, so be sure to take practice exams in realistic conditions. Check your local society or prep providers to see if they hold live practice exams in your area. Taking in-person mock exams not only gives you practice and feedback on how well you know the material, but you also learn what to expect. By going through the hoops of getting to the test center, checking in, and sitting with a room full of candidates for the whole day, you will learn how well how you cope with exam stress and what you need to do to be successful.


Your practice exam scores give you valuable information on how to refine your studying in the remaining time before the exam. A couple key points to keep in mind:

  • Striving for perfection is not a good strategy.
  • Not all sections of the exam are weighted equally.
  • Ethics is always important.

70-80% Is Good Enough

Your goal is to get 70% or better in each section. If you find you are consistently achieving that in certain subject areas, move on. If you don’t, you will be wasting valuable time that would be better spent on subjects where your results are less than stellar.

Identify those topics where you consistently test in the 50–70% gray zone and ask yourself:
With my remaining study time...

  • In which topic(s) do I think I have a realistic chance of increasing my score to over 70%?
  • And, conversely, for which topic(s) is that not a reasonable goal?

Also ask the same questions about any areas where you are failing to achieve 50%. Time is limited and you can only do so much, so you may have to make some choices. Allocate your time accordingly.



Source: CFA Institute,Graphic by Linda Lam.
Weights are intended to guide the curriculum and exam development processes. Actual exam contains 240 questions; exam weights may vary slightly from year to year.

Remember—CFA Exams Topics Are Not Created Equal

When allocating your study time, you need to factor in the topic area weights. The graphic above shows that 50% of the exam is comprised of Investment Tools questions (Financial Reporting and Analysis-20%, Quantitative Methods-12%, Economics-10%, and Corporate Finance-8%), but Portfolio Management only commands a 5% weighting at Level I. Also notice that while Asset Allocation topics have a 30% weighting overall, Alternative Investments, a sub-topic, has a 3% weighting. This equates to approximately seven Alternative Investment questions in the whole exam.

Plot this information along side your practice exam results and it should become clear where you should focus your efforts in the remaining weeks leading up to the exam.

Ethically Speaking…

One last thing – despite having only a 15% weight, Ethical and Professional Standards should not be taken lightly. It is the topic that can make or break you. If your real exam score is close to the minimum passing score, a high Ethics mark has the power to push you into the passing group. But conversely, if you’re on the borderline, doing poorly on Ethics can be your undoing.

Remember: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.

Tell us what "down-to-the-wire" study strategies you are using to prepare for the December exam.

–Linda Lam, CFA Society of San Francisco

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