How I passed the CFA Level 1 exam in 6 weeks: a study plan
I took the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Level 1 exam right out of university, in the summer before I started grad school. During my preparation, I often fell behind schedule, and felt that I’d never finish on time. However, with the following strategies, I passed on my first try! If you are in the same situation with a tight time constraint, don’t worry! I hope this study plan can help you with your preparation.
Exam date: June 21, 2017
Materials used - overview
Disclaimer: I used the 2016/17 versions, but the links below will have the latest versions (as of now, 2020).
- Schweser Notes 2016
- Mark Meldrum YouTube videos
- QBank 2016 (33% completed)
- FinQuiz mock exams 2017 (3/6 completed)
- Wiley mock exam 2017 (1 completed)
- CFA Institute (CFAI) Topic tests + Official CFAI mock exam, included with exam registration (100% completed)
Materials - be thrifty!
If you checked out the links you might have noticed that many of the materials are quite expensive. However, you might also have noticed that even though I was studying for the 2017 exam, some materials were from 2016. Here’s the thing: I found those 2016 materials, in physical book form, for super cheap on Kijiji or university book sale groups. Just make sure that you check the official CFA site for the year-over-year changes in exam topics. Wiley maintains a curriculum change list which I used as well, to compare which chapters had been changed. I made sure to check this thoroughly before making the decision to save money by using previous materials - the responsibility of preparing for any discrepancies would be mine alone.
I also shared some materials with fellow undergrad students to save costs, like borrowing books and mock exams from each other.
The 6 week study plan
Please note that I was studying for the CFA full time, meaning that I was not taking other courses or working during that time period. If you have other commitments during your preparation period, the same efficiency-boosting strategies can still be applied.
6 weeks away:
I made a rough study schedule, which listed
- All topics, with grade weighting - full details on the CFAI site
- e.g. “Quantitative Methods (12%)”
- Materials I planned on using
- e.g. “Mark Meldrum videos + take notes”, “Schweser QBank”
- Rough timeline, estimating how many days/weeks to allocate to materials and mocks
- e.g. “All videos + QBank after each topic – 2 weeks”
Before anything, I made sure to watch several videos on the BA 2 Plus calculator, which is what I’d purchased. This took me about an hour, including initial set up. I did all future questions with it, apart from some parts of Quant which I did by hand just to learn the concepts better. Starting early with the calculator was crucial to beating the 6 week deadline - getting direct practice helped me be much more at ease during exam day. Here is one of the videos that I used, though I did skim several more.
The first 2.5 weeks I focused on doing a “first pass” of the content. This meant skimming a lot of it, but I was determined to have exposure to all topics. This was so when I did questions, even if I lacked depth of understanding, I could identify sections and areas to improve on.
I used the Mark Meldrum videos heavily for my first pass, watching them at x1.25 to x1.5 speed. If I couldn’t understand something at that speed, I would turn it back to normal x1 speed. An issue I ran into was attention span, as I historically disliked studying from videos. There were many days when my goal was N amount of videos but I would fall short, or not absorb what I had watched. To make up for that, if I still didn’t quite understand a topic after the video, I would look up the corresponding section in Schweser Notes.
Initially I was ambitious and wanted to watch all videos + read Schweser notes back to back + do Schweser blue box (in text) questions, but in reality I completely fell short of that goal.
What I really ended up completing in the first two weeks
- Mark Meldrum videos for most topics, starting from heavily weighted and unfamiliar. I skipped Economics (undergrad major), and Ethics (short term memory, to study closer to exam), and barely watched the lower weighted topics (Derivatives, Alt. Investments, etc.)
- Partially read Schweser notes for weight-heavy topics (Quant, FRA) and did their blue box questions. I barely read anything else but a couple sections that I didn’t understand from Mark Meldrum videos.
4 weeks away:
I started watching videos of lower weighted topics that previously, I had barely watched or skipped altogether. I continued supplementing with Schweser Notes if I really didn’t understand something.
One important thing I did was that I kept updating my study schedule (from the rough study schedule made in the very beginning). This really helped me budget my days, and keep track of what I was taking too long to do, or should spend more time on. Quick iteration on the study plan was key to dealing with such a tight time constraint.
3 weeks away:
I did my first mock (FinQuiz). At this point I had a decent understanding of Quant, but only the minimal “first pass” of the other topics. I’d spent much time on FRA, but the sheer amount of content made it seem like I barely remembered anything. I hadn’t started reading Ethics yet at that point.
The mock was an absolute disaster, as to be expected. I got 30% or 40%, which absolutely terrified me, as the clock was ticking with only 3 weeks until exam day! I spent two full study days just going through each question that I got wrong and reading the detailed solutions on the answer key (most mock providers will have a paragraph explanation for each question). This would prove to be a highly time consuming, but extremely important study method.
2 weeks away:
I kept hammering mocks, making sure to time myself. This included the FinQuiz 2017 mocks I’d bought, and the official CFAI mock. Each mock would take me a full study day to finish (AM + PM), and for each I would spend another full study day going through the detailed solutions on the answer key. This helped me identify commonly tested formulas and topics. I would go back to watch Mark Meldrum videos or read Schweser Notes if I still couldn’t understand the answer key explanation.
At this point I was worried, as I was still scoring only 40% to 60% on the mocks. In addition, I felt like I was spending excessive time – 2 full study days – to write and review one mock.
I did not end up reading Ethics from the Schweser Notes at all. The mocks were giving me a good idea of the questions. I did listen to Mark Meldrum’s Ethics podcast though (basically audio from his Ethics videos).
1 week away:
I redid the official CFAI mocks, and did the online CFAI topic tests. I also went to a in-person mock session with a Wiley mock, which was timed and was meant to prepare you for the atmosphere of exam day.
The day before:
I stayed at an Airbnb, a 10 minute Uber ride away from the exam centre. (It took me 3 hours to get to the Airbnb, so I’m really glad I did the travelling the day before and not the morning of the exam.)
Items I brought to the Airbnb:
- Printed sheet of all formulas
- Printed sheet of IFRS vs. GAAP
- CFAI official mock (just to skim questions I’d gotten wrong, not to redo)
- Snacks! And lunch for exam day (apples, crackers, Redbull)
- Essential exam items: Printed exam ticket, passport, pencils, calculator
I packed up all my belongings and checked out of the Airbnb, making sure my “exam day kit” was ready - exam ticket, passport, writing materials etc. I packed my food separately in an easily accessible backpack compartment to avoid any spilling or leakage (Murphy’s law!).
I took an Uber (scheduled the night before), to the exam center. I budgeted a lot of extra time (30+ minutes than I thought I’d need), which ended up being a wise choice - the driveways into the exam center parking lot were clogged to the point people were just getting out of the cars and walking. In addition, the extra time allowed me to find my exam hall, place my stuff away safely, and snack on an apple and granola bar. If I hadn’t allocated that time, I would have been scrambling and flustered, and might even have had to write the morning session hungry.
I brought a light jacket in case of any unexpected discomfort in the hall, for example if the AC was too cold. Some sort of button up shirt as an extra layer works too. During the exam, I wasn’t actually all that nervous, because I had practiced so many mocks under time constraints and thus knew how to pace myself, and to mark down questions to come back to later if I was getting stuck for too long.
During lunch, I snacked on the crackers and fruit, and drank a Redbull. I suggest to bring bland foods, or foods that you know for sure you’ll be comfortable with. Exam day isn’t the day to experiment! Same with caffeine - only drink a similar amount to what you normally would, to avoid unexpected jitters or bathroom breaks.
Overall, I think that despite the short 6 week preparation, several things helped me keep calm and perform at my best during the exam. Making sure all logistics were taken care of, and making sure I would have a comfortable exam environment and be well fed, is just as important as the preparation. Don’t let all your hard work go to waste because of some logistics or digestive problem!
Summary and advice
- The best thing that I did was allocating 3 weeks to doing mock exams, given that I only had 6 weeks.
- Starting with the calculator early, and timing myself, helped mimic exam day and accelerate my preparation.
- Doing the mocks and going through the answer keys afterwards, contributed almost just as much as reading the material.
- Make a study plan, and ruthlessly prioritize and re-prioritize.
- I focused on heavily weighted topics first and foremost.
- I’m glad I didn’t focus on understanding everything with 100% depth on my “first pass” - the “first pass” was for breadth, and doing mock exams helped me find weaknesses where I should drill down.
- Do Ethics last, low-weighted topics after high-weighted topics, and [the topic you know most about] with low priority. (For me, [the topic] was Economics, which was my undergrad major.)
- Materials-wise, I highly recommend Mark Meldrum videos, CFAI mocks and topic tests.
- I made sure my exam day logistics went smoothly (transportation, food was planned for).
- Managing stress before and during the exam helps ensure that all the hard work pays off!