I help people memorize CFA exam material and prepare for the CFA exams. I’ve been through the program and am a CFA® Charter holder. Having been through the program I realize how difficult it is but I refuse to accept that only half of the people passing is a good thing.
I’ve failed my fair share of exams and it’s devastating. I’ve never experienced stress like this in my life and everyone in my life suffered because of it. I’m not the only one who goes through this. Almost all people who write the exams feel like this.
My goal is to raise the pass rate and help as many people as I can pass the CFA exams.
- Who I am
- What is the CFA program & CFA exam pass rates
- Why I decided to Pursue the CFA designation
- Career advancement & CFA exams
- Starting in the CFA program
- Setting up a study schedule
- Why I studied so much
- CFA exam Levels 2 & 3
- Current CFA exam prep courses and providers
- Benefits to using the CFA books and CFA questions
- Major ares for improvement in CFA exam prep providers
- The 3 best ways to improve CFA exam studying
- What Memory Major does
Who I am
My name is Trevor Dale and I’m a CFA charter holder. I’ve spent almost 15 years in the investment and banking business in various positions.
I’ve worked in retail banking in bank branches where I started out as a teller when I was in university. When I graduated I got a promotion and I started selling accounts to individuals and companies. I sold debt products such as mortgages, credit cards, lines of credit and small business loans. I’ve also sold investments to individuals such as GIC’s and mutual funds.
From there I moved to the trade floor of a major Canadian bank and worked in the prime brokerage. The prime brokerage, or PB for short, is where hedge funds, pension funds and family offices go when they want to borrow money to invest and use margin and it’s also where they go when they want to short or borrow stocks and bonds.
I worked in the prime brokerage during the credit crisis and when you’re lending people money based on their portfolios, a credit crisis that causes the portfolios to loose value very quickly is very scary.
When the value of the collateral (the account) continues to go down so quickly and volatility is everywhere, you don’t know what to expect. The primary concern was making sure that clients didn’t go in to margin calls and if they did, I was the one making the phone call. The calls always start out friendly at first but if we had any resistance it changed to “either you sell the investments to raise enough money or we will do it for you”. Unfortunately those were the days and procrastination only made things worse. The quick selling of everyone in the market also made things worse.
This is when a lot of investors realized what leverage can do in negative markets and quickly found out that a lot of “hedge funds” were really just leveraged long only funds.
I’ve facilitated trades in equities, fixed income, repo, options, futures, swaps, foreign exchange, currency forwards and securities to name a few.
There’s nothing more stressful than entering a trade and realizing that it was done wrong. Once trades are executed, that’s it. There’s no going back and you have to eat the cost. Some people get lucky and accidently make a profit but I was never that lucky.
Most recently I was a Director of Client Services, Chief Compliance Officer and Portfolio Manager. It’s a big title for one job but it was a smaller firm and in smaller firms you have to take on a lot of responsibility.
I was responsible for managing our client relationships, navigating the ever-changing regulatory environment and also designing portfolios for high net worth individuals.
I’ve always been told that I’m a good teacher. I’ve been told that I’m patient and listen well. I like to think that I try to understand people so that I can actually help them. I guess those are the qualities that are required.
I’ve helped CFA candidates with all three levels of the CFA exams by simplifying explanations, using real world examples and helping them relate and memorize the CFA material.
I’ve helped someone with epilepsy who was in a medical program and has a difficult time memorizing. She had over 2,800 medical terms to memorize and failed her first quiz. I sat down with her and had a couple of memorization sessions to teach her some memorization techniques and by the end of the term she got 75% as her final grade. Not bad.
If you want to get a taste of the techniques that I use you can follow the link at the bottom of this page to download my book on formula memorization for free.
What is the CFA Program & CFA Exam Pass Rates
The CFA program started issuing credentials in 1959 and has been the most sought after designation in the field of investment analysis. It was said that having the CFA designation was the golden ticket to your job of choice. It is an extremely prestigious designation and highly respected in the investment industry.
The CFA Institute’s mission statement is “To lead the investment profession globally by promoting the highest standards of ethics, education and professional excellence for the ultimate benefit of society”. I may be a bit biased but I think they do an excellent job of that.
How? By keeping extremely high standards, almost unfairly so.
There are currently more than 130,000 CFA charter holders in over 150 countries. That’s a lot of people but compared to the 100,000 who wrote level 1 in 2015, you have to ask why aren’t there more charter holders.
After all 100,000 people attempt the first exam each year and there are only 130,000 active charter holders? Either people quickly get the designation and then stop using it immediately or there is an incredibly low CFA exam pass rate and drop out rate for the program.
Unfortunately for many aspiring CFA charter holders, known as “candidates”, the reason is the latter.
In 1964 the overall percentage of people who passed the CFA exams was 84%. Since then the overall pass rate has steadily declined. It has declined so much that in 2004, only 40% of the people who wrote the exams passed.
In 2015 only 46% of the people who wrote the exams passed and of the candidates who wrote the CFA level 1 exam only 42% passed.
Let’s look at the probability of a candidate passing all 3 levels on their first try. If they started their journey in 2013 and passed CFA level 1 in 2013, passed CFA level 2 in 2014 and passed CFA level 3 in 2015, the pass rates were 38%, 46% and 53% respectively.
Using those numbers, this would imply that that there would be a 9.3% probability of a candidate passing all three levels on their first try.
So do they keep the standards extremely high? YES. However, I have never heard anyone who wrote the exams say that they were unfair or that they were just out there to trick you. The feedback that I’ve heard and my own opinion is that the exams are just challenging and they test you in ways that require such a deep understanding of the CFA material.
Besides being challenging, the knowledge that I’ve gained has been extremely valuable. I have such a broad and deep knowledge base in a diverse set of topics in the investment industry and have been able to apply it in so many ways.
Why I Decided to Pursue the CFA Designation
I was working in the prime brokerage at the time and read the book The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the business of life by Alice Schroeder. This book was a great read and described all the passions of Warren Buffet and his business ventures.
It got me hooked on learning about investment analysis and left me with a thirst to find knowledge and act in ways that other people weren’t brave enough to do and to avoid the pitfalls of behaving like the crowd, although admittedly I still fall prey to that sometimes.
It talked about how Benjamin Graham was an early influence in the CFA Institute and the CFA program. His goal was to set a professional level of competence for people in the investment industry and hold investment professionals to a very high standard. After all, investment professionals are responsible for people’s life savings and a lot of destruction to real people can be done when the standards aren’t kept to very high levels.
It talked about Buffet’s education at Columbia University and how his teacher was Benjamin Graham who had written the books The Intelligent Investor and Security Analysis. The Intelligent Investor was a great read on asset allocation and about keeping investing simple. Security Analysis on the other hand was more of a text book but was amazing as it discusses some excellent views on value investing.
They are both excellent reads and I highly recommend them to anyone looking to start out in the industry as the lessons that were written so many years ago are still extremely important today.
After reading these books and working in the industry for a little while, I was left with a desire to gain this knowledge that I felt I could only get by taking the CFA exams.
It was about getting the knowledge base that regular investors weren’t privy to or weren’t willing to dedicate more than 300 hours per year to write these exams. Besides, if I didn’t pass CFA level 1, then I couldn’t write CFA level 2 and then I wouldn’t have gained the knowledge that I have today. If I hadn’t passed CFA level 2, I couldn’t have gained CFA level 3’s knowledge.
It was truly a desire for knowledge and I believe it was that desire that kept me going through the hard times. If I had decided to pursue the CFA designation purely for job advancement and hopes of a marginal increase in pay then I don’t think it would have been enough to utilize all my free time for studying and the courage to re-write an exam after failing.
Those are truly tough moments to get through but I had a higher purpose and that purpose was arming myself with knowledge.
Career Advancement & CFA Exams
Aside from just purely looking to better myself and my knowledge of investment I also hoped that the program would help in career advancement.
I’ve seen a lot of job postings for junior and intermediate positions that ask for completion of CFA level 1 or to have the CFA designation. I knew that getting this would set me apart from other job applicants.
When I was hired on for my most recent position as Director of Client Services, Portfolio Manager and Chief Compliance Officer the CFA designation was definitely a consideration. The employers were both CFA charter holders and they know that I was in the program and about to write level 3. They were very supportive of giving a little extra study time around the exam and knew what they were getting with someone who had the charter.
Further in Ontario, Canada (where Toronto is located) in order to register as an “Advising Representative” with the Ontario Securities Commission, OSC, which in common terms is a portfolio manager, one option is to have the CFA designation.
Also, the first exam of the CIPM designation is also waived for candidates who have passed CFA Level 3 and they can move directly to the second level.
After I had passed level 1 while I was still working at the Prime Brokerage my CFA knowledge came in handy. At the time we were primarily an equity shop and were starting to take on more fixed income clients.
When some clients started to buy pooled bonds such as mortgage-backed securities, MBS, I was able to help with implementing the necessary technology and credit requirements. Even though I had worked primary with equities, foreign exchange and options, the CFA material had given me an excellent and current understanding of what pooled products where, what tranches were and what pool factors where.
This was great because I was able to help with any technology changes we had to make and how to look at them from a credit perspective.
Starting in the CFA Program
The stigma and stress was enough for me to ask for help in preparing for the CFA exams. I asked my friends, looked around the internet and went to a couple of free trial classes. Most of it was overwhelming and it didn’t seem like there was a clear choice in who was the best to get help from.
I ended up going with an in class weekly session and paid for a final review weekend for my level 1 exam. I tried pre-recorded classes that I watched on my own time for level 2 and I studied on my own for level 3 but did a final review with a provider.
My experiences have taught me that even though CFA exam prep providers can be helpful, the best resource is the CFA material is in the form of the CFA textbooks that you get when you sign up.
These are comprehensive books that have a huge number of questions. The books are written in a way that is consistent with the exams and so are the questions. Questions you see in the text will be of similar language and will bring a sense of familiarity on the exam when writing.
I truly believe that these are one of the most overlooked resources available to CFA candidates. They are excellent books and are an excellent resource.
I started in university in aerospace engineering, decided I hated doing math problems all day and switched to something that I enjoyed more. I finished my degree in political science and had only completed a couple of business courses when I graduated.
I had taken a one-off fourth year course when I was working in the retail branches on financial statement analysis because I knew that understanding and working with businesses was where I ultimately wanted to go.
Aside from that course, most of the CFA material was new to me. As a result I had to learn EVERYTHING and I couldn’t just glance it over.
Most people I’ve come across with a bachelor of commerce or bachelor of business say that level 1 is just a bit harder than what they’ve already learned in school but for me it was all new.
Might I add that since 2001 there hasn’t been a CFA exam level 1 pass rate above 50%. I have a feeling that of the 100,00 or so people that write CFA level 1 every year that there are a few people who find it a tad challenging.
Setting Up a Study Schedule
Organization is key and sticking to a schedule is important. Every candidate runs out of time for studying and feels like they are unprepared. It’s just a reality and you will feel that way to.
It is important to get to a quick start and study EVERY day from the time you decide to start. It’s hard to get in to the swing of things and like most people we start slow and accelerate as we go along. By the time we get to the exam we are running full tilt and are only studying for the CFA exams and working.
Setting up a consistent study schedule is easier said than done. It’s easy to write down on a piece of paper or type it in to your calendar, however implementing the plan is tough.
Every day should consist of something CFA related. Whether it’s a full 2 hour study session or even just squeezing in 15 minutes of reading, something every day is better than nothing some days.
I’ve heard the analogy that you need to build a chain. This is done by drawing an oval on a calendar ever day that you work towards your goal. This oval should be wide enough that it goes in to the adjacent days a bit and when the next day is achieved, the same time of oval is drawn in that day. Because each oval is wide enough to cover some of the previous day, they overlap and start to look like a chain after enough days. It is important to build this chain and to NEVER break it.
Habit forming and building is crucial here. This type of studying and level of commitment is new to candidates and most people work full time while preparing for the exams. Time is limited and efficient good habits need to be built right away. There is no time to waste. To paraphrase Tony Robbins, if you need to do something now, when is now a good time? The best time to start studying is now.
Another quote I like is: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
As these new habits start to wrestle for a place in your life, they inevitably get rid of some other habits. After all, time is a commodity and there is only a finite amount of it. Unfortunately this comes with some negative consequences.
Some things I dropped the ball on were my wife, my mom, my stress levels, my friends, my sleep, my personal time and basically everything. I completely underestimate how much this program would completely take over my life. I wanted to be successful and prove to myself that I could get the CFA designation. I had to do what was necessary in order to get a pass.
I was learning as I went along. I had to learn to properly communicate with my wife about the time I needed to study, what I would and wouldn’t be able to do around the house and to also be honest with her and myself about the time required. I had to learn about the actual time required and not be ashamed to ask for another day alone to study. This took some time and practice, it wasn’t easy.
Phone calls to friends and family slowed to none in the six weeks prior to the exam. Every waking moment was spent studying. I would get up early at around 4:30 or 5am while the house was sleeping and study until I had to get ready to go to work. Then I would study for 45 minutes on the train on the way in to work, study for 45 minutes on the train on the way home from work and then spend a little time with my wife before going back to studying after dinner until bed time.
On the weekends in the early part of studying I would take an hour or two per day on the weekend but in the 6 weeks prior to the exam I ended up putting in 10 hour plus days on the weekends and any days I took off from work to study.
I wasn’t getting enough sleep which affected my quality of studying and didn’t allow myself a chance to refresh mentally. Taking a quick nap here and there may have helped but fear of taking a break stopped me from trying that.
Six weeks prior to the exam I had filled any free time I had with studying.
Why I Studied So Much
The reason I studied so much is because of the volume of material that is covered and the level of understanding required. There are 10 topics on the CFA exam level 1 and I like to think of each of them as an equivalent of a university course. The topics cover a huge range and amount of material and the outcome required is mastery.
There is no question about it. You must know each topic and learning outcome REALLY well. A mastery of the material is required. Studying and preparing like you did in university won’t cut it.
Aside from there being a huge amount of material to learn and master, the exams are ONLY 6 hours on exam day. While 6 hours of examination may sound like a lot, there is no way to be tested on everything you know to see how much you have memorized and can apply.
The reality is that there is a relatively small sampling of material. There is no way to know what will be asked on the exam and it is all fair game. They can ask you anything from any textbook.
If you don’t know an area very well, too bad, you’ll likely fail that section. Don’t know the areas that you got asked on the exam and you’ll likely fail the exam.
They can only test you on so much over the course of those six hours so if all the lucky stars align, then you will be asked about areas that you know well and as a result will do well.
Just being able to recognize and recall the information is only the first step in writing the CFA exams. Being able to apply and understand the affects of the questions that you are being asked is a second level thought and that is what is required.
It’s not enough to know what the Sharpe ratio is, but if can you derive standard deviation from a different set of numbers, plug it into the Sharpe equation and then explain based on your answer what that means when choosing one portfolio over another, you will have proven that you have a solid understanding of the material and are resourceful enough to do the appropriate problem solving.
The world isn’t perfect and if you’re only given partial information, you have to know how to use it to find the right choice. Sometimes, this type of problem solving is required on the exam. Is it challenging? Yes. Is it being tricky? No. It’s just testing your level of mastery. If you’ve written the exams, you’ll likely agree with me.
It truly requires mastery and this goes to show that the bar is kept high. This is why the designation is so valuable.
CFA Levels 2 & 3
For me, CFA exam levels 2 and 3 were just as hard as level 1. I found them all equally challenging and they are all just as hard but in their own ways.
Each exam requires a new way of thinking so whatever worked for you on one exam won’t work on the next exam.
I like to describe CFA exam level 1 as getting to know everything about the investment industry. It’s like a meet and greet. You get to know a little bit about everything and have to know a lot of definitions. What are different types of markets, what are the ratios, who is responsible for what. What does an auditor do and the objectives.
You get a thorough introduction to ethics and a wide range of other topics such as quantitative analysis (statistics), economics, financial reporting and analysis, corporate finance, equities, fixed income, derivatives and portfolio management.
Now when I say it’s an introduction it doesn’t mean it’s easy. That is backed up by the 50,000 plus people who fail level 1 each year. You still have to have a mastery of the material and even though it is learning the basics, you still need to have a high level of understanding.
CFA exam level 2 for me was about applying concepts and judging the affects of those decisions. Again, this requires a high level of mastery and the exams only present a relatively small sampling of material on the exam.
CFA exam level 3 for me was about applying the investment decisions to real life situations and being able to create portfolios. Can you create an investment policy statement for a family who has just sold their business after running it for 30 years while understanding their investing biases and coaching them through their biases? Can you run a pension fund and know when to immunize the portfolio? How about synthetically changing the exposure in a fund without actually making any trades with the underlying investments.
These exams are no joke, but the knowledge and skill set you gain is so beneficial. You may not be able to do these things now but by the end you’ll be able to know exactly what goes on in so many areas of the investment world.
People think the CFA exam level 2 is the hardest and I believe the reason is because it has a lot of concepts that most candidates haven’t seen before, whereas level 1 may contain material that they’ve seen in their undergraduate studies.
Level 2 requires a very high level of competency and people underestimate this.
Level 2 questions are given in an item set which can be about a page in length and the reading isn’t straight forward. For example you need to read a section and then answer a set of questions. Level 1 is about reading a short part and then answering a question that directly related to it.
Level 2 requires a new way to learn. It requires a different exam and reading strategy than level 1. It also requires you to manage your time on the exam differently than level 1.
CFA exam level 3 is just as hard as level 2. There are a lot of lists and characteristics to know. You then have to use that information to make decisions that are specific to a particular scenario, whether it be an individual client or an institutional client.
Level 3 is very logical. It goes back to the basics but applies what you’ve learned so far. The fundamentals of investing are built around simple objectives. For example that person who just sold his business is a simple and common scenario in real life but the decisions contain a lot of factors and while implementation of a financial plan can be fairly simple using hindsight, the process can be complicated as there is a lot to consider.
One of the major considerations is investor psychology. How does that psychology play in to the role of the investment advisor and how should the advisor act once they’ve uncovered those biases.
This is a completely different mindset that is required than that of the CFA exam level 2 candidate. It is for these reasons that once you’ve passed one level of exam that the next is so difficult. You can’t take the same methods that you’ve just used to pass an extremely difficult exam and use it for the next.
For CFA exam level 3 the essay portion throws everyone off. As much as there is published about it, people are still unsure about what to expect. What to expect and how to formulate a proper answer usually eludes people.
The essay portion isn’t much of an essay in the sense that there is no essay structure. There is no introductory paragraph, no body and no concluding paragraphs. There are no introductory sentences, main arguments and a concluding or recapping sentence.
It IS an essay in the sense that you use a pen and write the answers on lined paper.
You have to be straight to the point and point form answers are okay. This goes against what one would imagine when you hear the word essay.
We all have a tendency to describe what our point is and like to write in the same way as we talk. The problem is that you can’t write an exam like that. You will run out of time. You must be clear and to the point. Give them exactly what they need to see and nothing more or less.
There’s no bluffing, hedging or guessing on a written answer. Your words describe what you know. If you don’t know an answer then guess what goes down on the paper? Nothing.
If you draw a complete blank then I guess something is better than nothing. In this sense you can’t bluff your way through the exam. You have to know the answers.
However if you are unsure about an answer and you say you should add and also one sentence later say that you should remove, hedging your answers and arguing for both sides of the argument will only show that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
You can’t bluff, hedge or guess in CFA exam level 3 like you can on a multiple choice or item set answers.
Current CFA Exam Prep Courses and Providers
The current CFA exam prep courses and providers is that they do a good job of covering the material however the CFA textbooks are amazing resources and often do a better job of providing real life examples.
I have tried three different types of exam prep and was only a big fan of one type. I tried in-class courses, take home instructional DVD’s and a seven day prep.
CFA Exam In-Class Courses
Instructional videos and classes do a good job of keeping you on a schedule. If you’re in a class of 50 or 100 people you may be able to ask a question but you won’t be able to take the full class time to sort out your problems.
This means that you are left to figure it out on your own, which is the same as if you hadn’t taken the class in the first place and was studying on your own.
When some people get stuck on problems that they have they can take up a lot of class time and aggravate the class. After all you did pay a handsome sum for that education.
Most of the teachers in the prep courses are pretty good. There are some people who hold very prestigious positions in industry and are very good at their jobs. The reality is that not all of them are meant for teaching. It’s fantastic that they try to teach and contribute to the up-and-comers but they aren’t always the best fit. When this happens you’re stuck with them for the three hour class and potentially multiple classes.
The other downside is that because the classes try to cover all of the material they often don’t work through enough questions. I’m not talking about the easy questions such as definitions but the really hard ones that make you think. These are the multistep questions that draw on multiple sources of information to answer one question.
These are the questions that make you think “I did all that work for just one mark?”. Those questions. The hard ones.
Instructional videos and classes should be reserved for higher level thinking, tips and tricks and also alternate wording. It is an inefficient use of time to go over the material which can be read in a book. All memory major courses come with a complementary course on speed reading and memorization.
These skills should be used to get through the CFA texts and your money should be spent on adding value to your studying. While some people can be more auditory or visual learners, speed reading will get you through the material very quickly and efficiently.
Class time and study groups can then be spent working critical thinking, problem solving and application. Alternatives to the text can be discussed and alternate ways of thinking about a problem can be discussed… and they should.
I don’t know about you but every time I spend three hours in a class cramming all new material into my head, I always feel completely exhausted. I end of taking notes and often miss some of what is being said. Further, because so much is being covered, I would forget what was said except for a handful of concepts. Most of the material was familiar but any deep level of understanding and memorization was lost.
How much is retained out of a three hour fast paced class? Sure the major topic points might be remembered but the details are often forgotten.
Three hour classes are too long and don’t focus on the higher level thinking. The grunt work should be done quickly on your own time.
A lot of classes are held after work. Most people in the investment industry are very hard working people with extremely stressful jobs. After running like crazy at your 9-5 job, which somehow is usually 9, 10 or 12 hours without breaks or lunches, people are exhausted. This makes learning more challenging and it is for this reason that classes need to focus on high quality studying.
Take Home DVD’s
The instructors for the take home videos and online courses are usually pretty good. They have to be – as this is the face that will be distributed to everyone who buys these courses.
The nice thing is that you can watch the videos on your own time. The downside is that people will procrastinate and end up running out of time to watch them all. Life happens, it’s just the way things are.
The pressure of knowing how much you need to cover however helps to keep you on track but it’s different than being forced to go to a class.
Finding something with accountability to yourself and other people will help.
7 Day CFA Exam Prep
The seven day CFA exam prep course that I went to was an amazing experience. It covered the majority of the material, was well organized and had fantastic instructors. I took the seven day review for my level 3 exam.
Being totally submersed in the CFA exam material was a real benefit. The setup was that you travelled to a place where you stayed overnight and all you do is get review classes for 6 days. Half a day on either side is spent doing registration and checking out.
All meals were provided for, snacks were provided and if you drank coffee, there was always a place to grab a free coffee.
It was really well organized and that allowed us to focus on studying and nothing else.
Since you lived there for seven days, there was no family or job to tend to and the majority of distractions had been removed. It is fairly expensive so there’s the cost thing motivating you to get the most out of it.
Also it was a great networking opportunity. I met so many other people in the industry and from all different jobs. You won’t be able to find common ground with as many analysts, traders, portfolio managers and every other job in the industry that you can think of and find them all in one place.
I was able to help people study and they helped me. We got to know each other, share our struggles and understand that even really smart people fail the exams. A LOT OF PEOPLE FAIL THE CFA EXAMS. It’s nothing to be ashamed about. Remember the 9.3% probability of passing all three on the first try?
I tried to exchange business cards and get set up on LinkedIn with as many people as I could and it has proved to be a great networking source.
I still talk with a lot of them and have a huge network of people that I wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to meet. They are all bright, ambitious and like-minded people.
The things I learned about the CFA exam by going to the seven day course is that there are no shortcuts. You need to learn the material and practice applying it. It’s as simple as that.
While those are the two elements to doing anything (1=learn how, 2=practice until you go live), there are ways that you can improve how you learn and improve the efficiency of practicing.
The other things that I learned was that I’m not stupid. I found out that almost all of the candidates struggle with prep and that it’s just a really hard exam.
I found that many have failed an exam at some point. It’s not a big deal.
I also found out that in this industry, many people have been laid off at some point. This is also nothing to be ashamed of. The investment industry expands and contracts like the sun rises and falls.
Again, while it may seem like a big deal at the time, in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t a big deal. Assuming that you weren’t laid off in the “great recession” when there were just no jobs, minor recessions and the desire for companies to reduce costs will cause companies to expand and contract.
These contractions in one company may be offset by an expansion in another company. Hopefully you’ll land on your feet quickly but it isn’t anything to be ashamed of.
Takeaways from CFA Exam Prep Courses
The main take-aways from CFA exam prep courses are that it can keep you on schedule, lower your stress, make you not feel alone and usually get extra questions to practice on.
By putting some reliance on a prep provider can rightfully or wrongfully give you feeling that you have some guidance that you need. This will lower your stress and make you feel like you aren’t going through the process alone.
Some prep providers will provide extra questions or mock exams to do. I feel that the best questions and mock exams are the ones produced by the CFA Institute.
The one problem that some prep providers have is that they are just regurgitating the same material in the text. This is the “talking head” format. Value needs to be added here for the courses to be worthwhile as reading the texts will sometimes give the same outcome.
The benefits to having a professor is that the material can be discussed in multiple ways or just different ways than the CFA textbooks provide. While the CFA textbooks are excellent examples, having more can be helpful.
Also, there can be comfort in getting the material in a different format than text only. People will have to learn to learn from the text and with a little practice you’ll become an expert at extracting information from a textbook. I find that most people take comfort in learning from a person but the same outcome can be learned from a textbook with a little effort.
At the end of the day, a class is someone just reading you the material – but it shouldn’t be.
There will be people in the class that ask questions that should be asked. There will also be people in the class that will ask questions that shouldn’t be asked.
Some parts of the classes you will find that they spend too much time on and others that they don’t spend enough time on. If you are reading the textbooks at your own pace then you will naturally spend more time in areas that you need more work on and move quicker through areas that you lock down right away.
One of the biggest drawbacks to a class is that it breeds complacency. Some people think that the courses are enough when they need to be doing questions… a lot of questions.
They need to take time to make mind maps and memory systems. If you don’t take time to learn and memorize it in the first place then you really didn’t learn it at all. It may feel like you learned it because it is familiar but if you don’t know it really well then you can’t say that you truly learned it. This is where knowing a memory system is so valuable.
Part of the complacency is that they wait until class to see the material for the first time. Without doing pre-reading for the classes, the classes will be too much to absorb and much will be lost.
Part of the job of pre-reading is to setup a series of mind maps and memory systems that relate to those mind map nodes. Then when you get into class you can fill in and strengthen the mind maps with more memory systems.
After class it is crucial that you do questions. It is the best way to find out what you do remember and what you don’t remember. This way you can go back and strengthen the memory systems that are weak. The questions will also cause you to think of the material in a different way.
If you were doing the pre-reading and doing questions both before and after class, wouldn’t you be better off spending those three hours doing more of that?
CFA Exam Prep Course – What’s gone wrong
There are many ways that CFA exam prep courses can improve their products.
One way is to change the delivery. Delivery is often very similar to the CFA textbooks but just delivered by a human.
Second is that the material is taught in a traditional sense which is similar to a university lecture. There are many ways that this can be improved on in order to help people actually remember the material. More examples, having class participation and encouraging problem solving and critical thinking are a couple of ways that this can be achieved.
The volume of material is huge and speed reading is a must. Talking out the CFA textbooks as you read is a really slow way to read. Every candidate should learn how to speed read and practice it.
Tips for memorization are not usually given. The occasional acronym that is chunked into segments is sometimes mentioned but aside from that, not much is given. People need to memorize everything they come across.
Not enough focus is placed on doing questions. More emphasis needs to be placed on working on questions. With those questions, problem solving needs to be emphasized. Through problem solving, the material will be solidified and confidence built.
At the end of the day the material just needs to be memorized and the problem solving can be taught.
Benefits to using the CFA Books and CFA Questions
There are some major benefits to using the CFA books and doing the CFA questions.
First, there is the benefit of the books and questions being written by the same institution that produces the CFA exams. This should be comforting as it is closer to an apples to apples comparison than a third party creating their own questions.
The language used in the CFA textbooks and questions should be very similar to what you’ll see on the exam. If you get used to reading and writing in a similar language to the exams, then that should help and be less of a transition on exam day.
There are a huge amount of questions in the CFA textbooks at the end of every chapter. There are probably at least a thousand questions in the books so once you finish those and if you’re still hungry for more, you can either do them again or go to a third party for more questions. I recommend doing the questions at least twice.
There is a good variety of difficulty levels in the CFA textbook questions. They range from the very basic definitional questions to extremely challenging. This is excellent, as the exams will also likely have a broad range of difficulties.
The questions are located at the end of every chapter. If you do the questions before moving to the next section, you will have had an opportunity to reinforce what you just read.
If you don’t have time to do all the questions then do all the odd numbers right away and do the even numbers at a later time.
Doing questions reverses the flow of information. It changes the flow from moving inwards while you are digesting the material to an outward flow. Being forced to write down and manipulate data with what you know is an outward flow from your brain and will reinforce what you’ve learned. If you don’t know the information then you can go back and reinforce the memory systems that you’ve hopefully put in place.
By finding out where your weak spots are acts as a check for what you read. As mentioned it presents the ability to reinforce the memory systems.
Further, the questions in the CFA textbooks will be current and will help to reinforce some of the information that will be covered in the exams.
Lastly, you have already paid for these questions. If the above reasons weren’t enough to convince you to do all the questions in the CFA textbooks then the price point should be one more point to make sure that you do all the CFA textbook questions.
You’ve paid a lot for the privilege to write these exams and they came with a free set of high quality questions. Use these questions first and do them one to three times. If you have free time and are looking for more than by all means go and pay for supplemental questions. But start here.
You’ll be amazed at how much you can gain by doing the same questions twice or even three times. This solidifies what you’ve learned and really shows you what you’ve forgotten.
Major Areas for Improvement in CFA Exam Prep Providers
There are many areas for improvement with CFA exam prep providers. Memorization, problem solving, speed reading and teaching by doing questions are some of the main ways.
Focus on Memorization
One area that is seriously lacking is helping candidates memorize the material. For teachers, covering the material is one objective but they need to go one step further so that they help them retain the material and focus on memorization. This will allow the candidate to focus on problem solving and critical thinking.
CFA prep providers don’t often focus on memorization and should put more of an emphasis on helping candidates absorb and memorize the material.
A lot can be learned by using the same techniques that memory athletes use. What is a memory athlete? A memory athlete is someone who competes at events that involve memory. It can be reciting the order of a shuffled deck of cards (or multiple decks), reciting pages of binary digits, recalling the names and faces of hundreds of people, reciting abstract poetry, reciting long strings of randomized numbers and remembering words that are not real along with the correct spelling as well as a number of other events.
The benefits to learning a memory system is that it makes recall a lot easier. You may not be trying to memorize pages of binary digits but it is those same methods that can help get you through pages of formulas, definitions, lists of characteristics and causal relationships.
The memory system helps you create simple mnemonics that make recalling these formulas, definitions and lists simple. When I used them on an exam, I would see a question and immediately know exactly what information I needed and would be able to recall it without questioning myself and do this in record time.
The added benefit to using a memory system is that you don’t have to go over and over the material. Repeating the material over and over again is called rote memory. This is similar to writing lines or trying to remember the spelling of a word by writing it 50 times.
What an inefficient way to learn.
The reason that candidates have to keep doing so many questions is that they are using questions as a form of rote repetition. This is method takes a lot of time and will take away from the time you can spend focusing on problem solving and critical thinking.
Focus on Problem Solving
If you can get the memorization done and out of the way early in the study process then you can spend the rest of your time focusing on tough questions. CFA prep providers need to encourage and focus on problem solving.
As mentioned, there is a diverse range of difficulty in the questions in the CFA textbooks. The easy definitional questions are quick checks to make sure that you memorized them as you were reading. The benefits to the CFA textbooks is that they also have a ton of difficult questions that will test you in ways that challenge you mentally from a problem solving perspective.
If you didn’t get enough in the end of chapter questions, there are a bunch of showcase questions sprinkled throughout the chapters. These show case questions also have a range of difficulty and they are often applied to real world situations. Further there are some in there that will be very challenging and it is the challenging questions that you want to be spending your time on.
Teach Speed Reading
Every candidate should learn how to speed read in one form or another. Now the goal isn’t to read 1,000 words per minute but it should be double what you currently read. Prep providers currently do not teach this to candidates.
The amount of material that needs to be covered is too much to go through at the pace you read at during university. You should look to double your speed as you progress through the CFA material.
Your time is limited and with there being about the equivalent of 10 university courses, you have no time to waste. Most educational systems would cover 10 courses over two semesters that would be eight months of total study time. Most CFA candidates complete the studying in five months. Needless to say, your time is limited.
The benefits to speed reading is that you learn to pick out what is important about what you read. If you mix speed reading with a memory system then you should be able to pick out the important parts and link them in ways that make them memorable for the long term. This is done as you read, the first time you read the material.
You also need to get used to reading technical textbooks. These aren’t novels and they shouldn’t be treated like them. These are technical textbooks and there are objectives to be met and points that are specific to the topics. It is your job to find out what these objectives and points are, understand them and memorize them.
Technical reading may seem challenging at first but with some practice it will become clear and very simple to digest. The CFA text are clear and to the point. They are very well written manuals.
Teach by Doing Questions
The majority of teaching should be done through questions and definitions and minor points can be taught through these examples. Going through all the definitions individually and then doing only a few questions at the end is an inefficient way to learn definitions.
The CFA prep providers that I’ve come across don’t teach enough by doing questions.
CFA material should be covered and taught with questions right from the beginning. By presenting questions and showing how they are being answered will provide an opportunity to both present problem solving and also to present simple content such as definitions.
In addition, if the candidates are pre-reading and creating memory systems before classes then time doesn’t have to be wasted on low level learning. The definitions that need to be memorized are stated in the learning outcome statements and can be easily found in the textbooks in both the printed versions and the electronic questions.
By focusing on the more difficult questions the candidates can get more out of the teaching. These higher level questions are what will add value to the classes. This is also where the teaching experience will really shine through.
By becoming familiar with the harder questions and just learning to expect and overcome them will help to lower the risk of shock when exam day comes. You will have already been used to seeing difficult questions in practice on a regular basis and will be the norm when you get to the exam. You will be used to searching for resources from various sources in order to answer a question. Two step questions will just be a part of studying and won’t be seen as hard questions.
The 3 Best Ways to Improve CFA Exam Studying
There are a number of ways that CFA exam prep providers can improve. These areas for improvement have been the building blocks of my courses and preparation for students.
Be being part of the business side of things, I am not a born and bread academic who is focused on traditional styles of teaching that are focused on mass producing slow courses and education.
My goal is to deliver courses that accelerate learning.
Whether it’s a course on memorization and speed reading or if it’s a weekly master class, weekly seminars or a final review – focusing on memorization, application of the material and problem solving are what will truly help candidates get through and retain the CFA material.
1. Focus on Memorization
For the students that I’m spending more time with, it is worthwhile for all involved to focus on developing memory techniques. Delivery of questions and material in a way that focuses on memorization is key.
I can do this by teaching memory systems and speed reading through the courses that are currently available such as our 30 Day Challenge. The 30 Day Challenge focuses on learning and memory system and teaching speed reading. Once candidates have completed the Memory Foundations course, they move on to the CFA 30 Day Challenge.
From here, candidates will memorize over 60 formulas, lists of characteristics and definitions. Each day has a new set of formulas or lists that candidates need to memorize. The daily examples are presented in a way that helps them break up the formulas and memorize them. Detailed explanations are provided each day.
The majority of required formulas are covered and if a candidate does this at the beginning of their studies then they will be off to a fantastic start. They will have learned a memory system, learned how to speed read and will have learned a lot of formulas.
2. Teach Speed Reading
The CFA exams cover a lot of material and getting though it and remembering what you read is a serious challenge. A lot of candidates struggle with covering all the material at some point. Speed reading will improve the pace at which they progress and help with memorization.
Yes speed reading technical material is slower than reading a novel however speed reading is much better than not speed reading.
The benefit to learning a memory system and how to apply it while you read is that you will be able to memorize and remember what you read for a longer period of time and it will help you stay on point. Speed reading will help you focus on what is important and forget the things you don’t need to know.
Many people overlook the benefits of reading faster until they are forced to consume huge amounts of material. The CFA exams will do just that and if you haven’t taken a speed reading course then now is the time. It is a life long gift to yourself.
I’m not aware of any CFA exam prep providers that provide courses on memorization and speed reading besides myself.
3. Apply What You Learned
Similar to our 30 Day Challenge, our other courses like the weekly webinars and master classes are designed to have you doing questions and practicing as you go. We take the see, do, master approach.
If you see the material and memorize what you need to know, then practicing is the next step. It’s our belief that both of these first two steps should be done both out of and in-class.
Outside of class you should be working on memorization and problem solving. The memorization occurs by working on memory systems while the problem solving is aided by doing questions. This is the mastery part.
By the time you get to the final month of review, you should have a solid and well built foundation of the material. The last month should be spent filling in the blanks and keeping things fresh.
We like to send reminders that summarize the material and prompt you to think about it. This way if there is a weak link in your memory, you can identify it and quickly strengthen it.
We focus on efficiency so you can cover the most amount of material in the shortest amount of time.
What Memory Major Does
Memory Major is looking to roll out weekly webinars, a master class and review packages.
Our weekly webinars are designed to focus on the difficult concepts. We aim to focus on presenting you with those really difficult questions. The simple and easy questions can be seen in the end of chapter questions in the CFA textbooks.
For our master class, we like to keep the class sizes small. This fosters a more involved class environment and encourages a two way flow of information. It makes you not only observe and try to retain the information that you are hearing and seeing but you also have to reproduce it on short notice.
The environments are positive and encouraging. We are all in this together so we help each other.
Another way that we enhance weekly webinars are by providing details on what is being covered so candidates can speed read what is being covered prior to attending the webinars.
Being prepared is the best way that you can enhance your learning for a class.
Our review packages will be designed in the same manner: By focusing on questions and pulling on concepts and definitions by exploring answers to questions. We aim to use the pulling on a thread mentality. If we ask a question, what other material can be drawn on when answering it. This will help to link large chunks for material together.
One to one tutoring can be very beneficial. Personalizing your learning is the best thing you can do and will be the most efficient method to learning. Mass produced education is good for only so much learning.
At some point candidates may need to ask for help. A lot of time can be spent by focusing on a few topics that they get stuck on. As a result, I believe that candidates would be best served by finding a tutor.
The role of the candidate would be to tell the tutor exactly what items they are getting stuck on. From there the tutor can prepare a precise tutoring session that hits those points and works through any issues. By being focused and efficient this can be time well spent.
This is a highly personalized process and is the equivalent of using a surgical tool for studying. You don’t always need a surgical tool but at times it can be very helpful.
Plus with the technology that is available, jumping on a quick Skype call or Google Hangouts makes accessibility very easy. You can easily communicate and screen share so you can see what both people are working on. This makes the flow of information so simple and easy.
Truly Helping People
Because the CFA process was so painful for me, as it was with most other candidates, I find it very gratifying to help make the journey for CFA candidates easier. The satisfaction that a candidate gets when a concepts finally “clicks” is just awesome.
Having those breakthrough moments builds confidence for candidates and helps them move along faster. Achieving the CFA charter is possible and with enough hard work and a little help candidates can get the exams behind them and focus on career advancement.
I believe by doing something different and focusing on quality studying that I can do better than the other CFA exam prep providers.
A new way of learning is beneficial and will hopefully help to change the less than 50% CFA exam pass rates above that number.
The skills that memory athletes have are so useful and everyone should know them. Not just for passing exams but for performing better at their jobs and for use in everyday life. Everyone should know and practice these methods.
Thank you for reading this far
Thank you for reading this far. This is a truly long article and it takes some serious commitment to have gotten this far. Hopefully you’ve gained some insight into my career and path to being a CFA charter holder.
If you’ve gotten to the bottom of this article you deserve an award, or even better yet, a reward! As a reward, here is the link to download the formula memorization eBook free from our website.
- Free ebook: memorymajor.com/free-ebook
- Tips on how to track your time on the CFA exams: memorymajor.com/best-cfa-exam-time-management-tip
- Tips for the CFA exam in the final month: memorymajor.com/top-5-cfa-exam-tips-final-month
So thank you and good luck in your studies and your career.
Trevor Dale, CFA