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“Old-Fashioned” Study Methods a Hit

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A recent Internet search for “online CFA exam prep” yielded over a million results, and included a dizzying array of study options. Test banks, mobile apps, instructional videos, digital study guides, virtual study groups, and forums just to name a few. Trying to figure out what works best can make your head spin, so to help cut through the noise, I reached out to people who should know. I asked current exam candidates, as well as those who recently earned their charter, for advice.

And while some mentioned online courses and test banks as helpful, the overwhelming majority reported a few "old-fashioned" study methods as most effective. Participating in study groups and diligently working through problems were given high marks. But I was surprised to see that one "old-school"method made it into the top three on most everyone’s list. That method: FLASHCARDS.

You probably remember times when you were forced to write out history facts, math concepts, or vocabulary on index cards in grade school. You may have even considered creating flashcards a form of punishment. But it turns out teachers did not assign them just to keep the class busy. They did so because flashcards are a very effective study tool. Here are two reasons why:

  • They engage active recall (attempting to remember a concept from scratch), which creates stronger neuron connections.
  • They allow for a personalized study experience. Flashcards can be sorted in a myriad of ways based on how well you’ve mastered the topic. This makes it easy to revisit concepts a number of times. Repetition is also a key to learning!


Here’s how one person I spoke with used flashcards. (And he passed all three CFA exams in three years!)

  • Make a notecard for each LOS. Write down anything that helps you master the concept: examples, diagrams, mnemonics, etc.
  • Store your cards in shoeboxes or similar containers. Come up with a system to group cards into categories (by study session) such as ‘mastered’, ‘learning’, and ‘don’t know at all’.
  • Take time each day to flip through the cards; flag those that give you trouble.
  • A month and a half before the actual exam, begin taking full, simulated exams on Saturdays. Use Sundays to review your answers and fine-tune your cards.
  • Review your cards during the week to reinforce learning before taking your next practice exam.

A couple best practices:

  • Don’t use commercially made cards – make your own. Summarizing concepts in your own words or drawing your own diagrams is more effective than learning someone else’s version.
  • Write – don’t type – them. Tedious yes, but research shows that writing by hand reinforces learning in ways typing cannot.

There really is no secret sauce or magic app for mastering the CFA exam material. It takes diligence, hard work, and determination. But take a cue from your grade school teacher and create your own flashcards. It could just make all the difference on exam day.

–Linda Lam

Linda Lam is the program manager of the CFA Review Program offered by the University of San Francisco.

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