If you work hard enough you can definitely pass all three levels of the CFA program without buying a set of abbreviated study notes. The CFA Institute will only ever test you in material covered by the curriculum, so in theory all you need to do is to learn the curriculum inside out and you will be well prepared for the test.
But is it the best way to prepare for the test?
Reading the entire curriculum cover to cover is unlikely to be the best way to learn its contents. The printed curriculum contains more than 3,000 pages worth of text, so you will have to spend 100s of hours just getting through the material once, unless you are a speed reader.
Did you ever read a text book once and remembered every single concept? Similarly, there’s little chance memorising everything in these 6 oversized text books by just glancing at the information once: it just won’t happen. A range of providers offer a set of abbreviated study notes that will cut your reading time in half or less, allowing you to get through the curriculum much quicker and potentially cover difficult passages several times improving your comprehension.
The risk of not being able to finish the curriculum on time is very real. If that happens to you, it may very well end your chances of passing that exam cycle.
Time is money
Some candidates lose sight of this point, but your time is valuable, especially working in the investment industry. If a set of study notes helps significantly reduce your preparation time and/or helps you pass where you otherwise wouldn’t, then it was money very well invested. Imagine the opportunity cost in terms of wasted hours if you have to retake just one of these tests. I don’t know what you bring home in hourly wages, but 100s of hours of saved time does not come cheap.
That doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to abandon the CFA Institute curriculum completely. Being familiar with the underlying curriculum for Levels 2 and 3 is a good idea, as the exam format for Levels 2 and 3 includes vignette styled questions, as explained in the next section.
A calculated trade-off
Now the study note providers will likely cut out testable details as well, so you are running the risk that you have never come across certain details tested on the exam. You may lose a few points at level 1 for this reason, but it can become an issue at level 2 and level 3 when the multiple choice questions are organised in blocks of 6 called vignettes. Each vignette can and sometimes will focus on a small obscure corner of the curriculum unlikely to be covered in your study notes.
As a result you might find yourself completely unprepared for a block of 6 questions on a topic that you have otherwise spend a lot of time and effort on. There is obviously no guarantee that you would be able to remember these details even if you had glanced over them once when reading through the entire curriculum, but at least doing so leaves you with a fighting chance.
Pick your provider to suit your needs
The range of CFA providers has increased exponentially in the recent years. Not all study notes are created equal, so be careful which one you pick. An established name like Schweser might be considered a safe pick, but less established study providers are typically cheaper and may be as good if not better. We won’t get into an in-depth comparison of providers here, but if you are looking for one, have a browse around the Offers section.
Some of the study note providers will even offer you a free trial, so you can take the service out for a spin before purchasing.
Should I ignore the CFA Institute curriculum then?
No, the underlying curriculum does serve various purposes.
- It covers everything. As mentioned earlier, third party providers may cut out small sections of the curriculum to save candidates some revision time. This is a calculated trade-off that may sometimes backfire – if you’re using a third party provider, it is advisable to quickly look through the CFA Institute curriculum when you’re revising to see if there are any topics that you’ve not covered that you might want to quickly read through, as a precaution.
- Ethics. Studying ethics in the underlying curriculum is a great use of your time, as it is relatively brief (9.2% of the curriculum), but carries a 15% guideline exam weight. The majority of the ethics material will be repeated at all 3 levels, so it pays to learn it in details from the start. Lastly, the CFA Institute will pay special attention to your ethics score if you are a borderline pass, so it really pays to study this topic in detail in the underlying curriculum.
- End of chapter questions. I also recommend that you solve all of the end of chapter questions in the curriculum books and revise the answers until you are comfortable with all of them. These are a much underutilized resource amongst candidates.
- An authoritative source to clear things up. Also, if you feel the explanation of a certain concept is a bit fuzzy in your study notes of choice, you can always revert back to the curriculum for another perspective. The curriculum is also the authoritative source of the Learning Outcome Statements (LOS) that examiners will refer to during the exam creation and grading process.
- Learn! Last but not least, if you actually wants to learn the underlying topics in depth out of genuine interest, not just to stick the 3 letters on your business card, then there is obviously no better place to go than the underlying curriculum.
Bottom line: are study notes worth the price?
If you do not believe earning the CFA charter quickly is going to pay for the study notes many times over in terms of the resulting career boost, then maybe you should think back to your motivation for being in the program. The cost of provider materials goes towards boosting your chances of passing, which makes it an investment in your studies. So with study providers, you’re exchanging time with money – assess which you have more of to decide if third party study notes are for you, and if so, which provider.
I’d love your thoughts in the comments box below!