8 CFA® Exam Candidate Mistakes You Might Be Making

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By Zee

Besides not studying enough, there’s a ton of things that could go wrong when you’re preparing for your CFA exam. These can stem from trying shortcuts when you shouldn’t, but also sometimes from just not knowing to watch out for a few things beforehand.

Here are 8 serious mistakes that CFA exam candidates tend to make – mainly aimed at Level I candidates, but candidates at subsequent levels can be guilty of these as well.

Mistake #1 – Starting prep too late

Most common among Level I candidates, this is mainly due to underestimating the amount of work needed. Too often candidates leave it till the last month to get started. It’s not that it’s not possible – it’s perfectly possible to start with two weeks to go and pass Level I (disclaimer – we do not recommend it at all!). 

We recommend that you start comfortably before the second registration deadline, and our free Study Planner will be able to pace you so that you get into a good place well before exam day. Starting late either requires a fairly good grounding in finance either by education or work experience or having a very well-advised study plan.

Mistake #2 – Studying too slowly

​When going through the topics, pacing is important.

You should be aiming to complete one read through your study notes when you’re halfway to the exam date. Don’t make the mistake of spending too much time with through and detailed note-taking. There is nothing wrong with being thorough, but spending adequate time in all topic areas is essential. If not, you’ll find yourself having a very good grounding on your early topics and a rushed, sloppy understanding of others without enough practice questions under your belt.

If you’re struggling for time, this guide may help: 

Mistake #3 – Skipping topics

​When either pressed for time or struggling to understand certain concepts, many candidates are tempted to just skip the topic altogether and hope it doesn’t get too focused on during the exam.

This is a big mistake for 2 reasons:

  1. You’re quite likely to get a fair weighting in Level I due to the volume of questions in the exam (so actually you’re safest with topic-skipping in Level I from that perspective), but in Levels II and III you can get stuck with a full item-set focusing on a particular concept. If that happens to be a topic you skipped, then woe is you. Woe to the max.
  2. As mentioned in the previous point, it’s probably safest to skip topics in Level I. However it’s still strongly discouraged, as Level I lays the foundation for Level II and III. You need a good understanding of all topics in Level I or your topic-skipping problems will be compounded in the subsequent levels.

Mistake #4 – Not enough practice exams

Some candidates go into the exam hall having only managed to do 1 or 2 practice exams, or none at all. And while that isn’t a guarantee of a fail result, to maximise pass changes, you should prioritise practice exams. You need to understand the format, type and number of questions you’re up against in order to properly prepare against actual exam questions. We recommend a minimum of 4 practice exams before exam day – well-prepared candidates should be doing 5-6 at least.

If you need more practice exams, check out our Offers section for the latest deals from providers. Also remember that we have free mock exams for our readers that you can take online:

Mistake #5 – Not getting familiar with CFA Institute questions

Also essential to prep is ensuring you have a good idea of exactly how the tone and focus of questions set by CFA Institute will be like. This means you need to mix in practice questions obtained from CFA Institute – not just your study provider. With exam registration you already get the end-of-chapter (EOC) questions at the end of each reading in the CFA Institute curriculum, as well as practice tests. Utilize them well – get a feel for how CFA Institute questions are like early in your prep process.

Mistake #6 – Not preparing for the actual day

​After months of studying, many candidates in all levels proceed to screw it all up by not preparing logistically for exam day. Do take some time as the exam day approaches to get full list of exactly what to bring, figure out transportation and make sure you arrive early. Failure to adequately prepare for any of these can have results-changing consequences on your exam performance.

Mistake #7 – Not managing exam time properly

In every CFA exam level, time-management is different. Candidates underestimate the volume of questions in Level I, the item-set format in Level II and the essay section in Level III. In each case this leads to candidates thinking they have more time than they actually will have, leading to hurried responses towards the end of the exam. Manage your exam time carefully.

Mistake #8 – Getting your exam invalidated

Perhaps the easiest mistake to make (and the most devastating!) is to give a reason for a proctor to report suspicious behaviour on your part during the exam. Looking around, speaking before, after and during the exams, writing after the exam has ended and writing on your exam ticket are common examples.

Being reported will raise a disciplinary case with the Professional Conduct Program (PCP). If found that you had the appearance of cheating (note that you needn’t be discovered cheating: just having the appearance of doing so is enough), your exam is invalidated and you may further receive a ban from taking the exam for several years. CFA Institute is prosecutor and judge on this – their word is final. Proctor strictness varies across test centres, but be on the safe side and don’t give them a reason to report you.

What other mistakes have you seen – or made? Let us know in the comments!


3 thoughts on “8 CFA® Exam Candidate Mistakes You Might Be Making”

  1. Not taking notes during studies with the assumption that CFA level 1 is objective questions with options but I realised early enough that not taking study note is a roadmap to failure

  2. Great advice! Just wish I’d read it 6 months ago! At least I now have over 6 months to put this into practise for my next exam. Many thanks.


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