4 Simple Steps to Effective CFA® Exam Study During the Working Week

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By Christine

When is the best time to hit the CFA exam books?

It is possible to study for the CFA exam mostly on the weekends – you may have to start earlier, but definitely possible. But if you had to study during the work week, how would you do it?

For this I turned to work-week-study experts. I discussed this with several candidates and charterholders that have successfully integrated workday studying into their lives, including Sophie. The general pattern (besides studying during office hours, which is a luxury only some job roles can afford) is to set aside some time either in the early hours of the morning, or a block of time at night after work.

Every workday routine is unique to each individual, so let’s explore which strategy would work best for your case.

Step 1: Find out if you study better in mornings or evenings.

Deciding whether to study in the morning or evening is unique to each individual based on their daily schedule and commitments, and has less to do with whether you’re a morning or night person.

Experiment and find out early in your study effort and this will pay off beautifully in the long run.

How is it like to study in the morning?

  • Gives you a clear start – morning routine generally disciplined, and your brain is less cluttered.
  • Can be easier as you may feel too exhausted from a trying day at work if you study at night, but you’re always fresh in the morning
  • Can be more difficult as it takes a strong commitment to wake up significantly earlier in the morning to study before work
  • However, trying to maintain enough discipline to study at night, after an exhausting work day, may prove even more challenging

How is it like to study in the evening / at night?

  • It’s more flexible for work –  you can study more or less depending on how early you get back from work
  • However, if you’ve had a long day at work it can be difficult to muster the focus and willpower at the end of the day. This was continually my issue with workday studying.
  • Research done by various studies conclude that the brain learns more effectively just before sleep. Quoting Jessica Payne, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame. “The sleeping brain decides what to remember and what to forget. By placing sleep close to learning, there’s less conflicting information to process.”
  • However, improper management of sleeping times can lead to sleep deprivation, which will have a much heavier and adverse effect on your studies

Set aside some time to experiment – try out a few days where you wake up at a set time to study before work, and another few days where you start your studying after work. It takes time for your body to adjust so assess yourself towards the end of each week.

Here are 3 points to grade yourself:

  • How alert and motivated you felt during your study sessions
  • How effective you thought you were in your studies
  • Whether you got enough sleep

Step 2: Set a firm start time, but with a ±15 mins flexibility.

Setting a start time is important for both morning and night students. 

You need a crisp, clear start time in the morning, otherwise you’ll never get started. Since there is usually a clear cut-off time (e.g. time to go to work) you’ll need to be very disciplined with the start time. If you’re one of those whose snooze buttons are lovingly worn out, you may consider studying at night then.

Setting a start time for night studying is equally important – it’s very, very easy to say “I’ll get to it later, I’ll just stay up a bit later” and continue playing Call of Duty. That is not an option – getting enough sleep is crucial. We suggest setting a target time (e.g. 7:30 pm) and giving yourself a ±15 minutes flex (e.g. 7:15 pm to 7:45 pm), with the understanding that over time your start time should average out at 7:30 pm.

Step 3: Set a firm end time.

Setting an end time is important for both morning and night studies. As you have daytime commitments such as work, you can’t study too late into the morning or work will start to suffer. It’s surprisingly easy to drift later and later into the day and start to continually be late for work.

If you’re studying at night, setting a firm end time is absolutely critical to ensuring you get enough sleep. Procrastination is the true enemy of the night student – because candidates end up putting off starting, and delaying sleep because they think they should be studying a while longer.

Step 4: Remember that getting enough sleep is still crucial.

Almost all studies unequivocally agree that getting enough sleep is crucial in ensuring you study effectively. Chronically pushing yourself towards less sleep to get a bit more study time is risky at best and counterproductive at worst. When setting your schedule, make sure your bedtime still gives you enough time to sleep.

What works for you?
Do you currently study on workdays, or struggling to stay motivated? Share your strategy with us below!


13 thoughts on “4 Simple Steps to Effective CFA® Exam Study During the Working Week”

  1. Hi there, I’m struggling with practice exams since beginning of March already. Some times I can score around high 70s % or even low 80s % , but lately the percentage falls (sometimes it falls to low 60s %) and I’m quite sure I was fully focused and trying my best. I know there is still much time but I’m afraid of running out of practice tests without improvements. What can I do to improve my scores? (I have run through Schweser notes like 3 times and currently review again the notes at work while doing questions in the evening). Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Hung, It’s normal to have volatile scores. One would normally hope they are upward trending the more they do. Did you analyse where your mistakes came from? Were they stuff you knew before and have forgotten by now? Or careless mistakes? Anyhow, it seems you are doing all you can in terms of reading notes and trying practice exams. I wonder if you are just slightly burnt out and need a little break?

      • Thank you Christine, Unfortunately they are both carelessness and forgetting the materials. My problem is it takes me a “mental lag” to switch between subject to subject on the practice exams. When I do those item-sets separately, my scores are pretty consistent. I am re-doing EOCs and will study some previous past mock exams to see how it goes. Maybe more practice/recalling would help. Thanks again.

        • Sounds like some practice on practice exams (i.e. exams that incorporate all subjects) would help a lot. Practice on mixed subjects as the exams will not tackle topics individually – you’ll get a mix sometimes within the same question. Good luck!

  2. I try to study as much as I can during work hours (I’m fortunate to be able to do this) and depending on how much I studied, I finish of my goal of 3 hours per study day. The hardest thing is getting started, but knowing that once the 3 hours are finished I can do whatever I want without feeling bad, keeps me motivated to do it asap. On weekends I usually take one of the two days off to rest, and the other one to get aprox 5 hours of study

    • Wow interesting schedule. Mine were full days on both weekend days, with the occasional day off. No weekday study – like I mentioned I couldn’t make it work. Following up on the study organizer tool – we might try and develop it into a community study logger that everyone can use and track together – keep your eyes peeled! (if there’s nothing it means we couldn’t make it work, haha)

  3. I took the level 1 in December and failed level 10. I’m thinking about retaking in June and signing up today. Think it’s enough time to study and pass this time? Thanks for the helpful articles/post.

    • At a Level 10 last Dec, I think you have a fair chance! 2 things to watch: 1. make sure you’re aware of what syllabus changes have taken place since the December exam: http://www.elansguides.com/docs/Los-changes-2018-2019.pdf 2. You’ll need to work hard. There’s only 3 months left – it’s possible because you’ve just read this in December and you nearly passed, but you’ll still have to put in the hours to do this properly. Good luck!

  4. I think this will be great to try it and I would recommend that at least one need to do this exercise for the next 21 days and from then all will be well since the body system would have adjusted by then….

    • To be honest I think 5 working days should be more than enough to adjust. Even 12-hour-difference jetlags largely go away after about a week. 21 days might be a bit too much – you don’t want to waste time doing something that isn’t working for you.

  5. I currently squeeze in a bit of time during the commute, but it’s not very effective. I’ll try experimenting with the morning and evening sessions, and try dozing during the commute instead. Good stuff, keep it coming!


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