Hitting A Wall With Your CFA® Exam Studying: When Is It Time to Give Up?

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By Jim Moore | Professional Exam Tutoring

As a private tutor for CFA exam candidates in New York City (and around the world), I know first-hand how frustrating the studying process can be for the CFA exam. Whether you’re a candidate for CFA Exam Level I, Level II, or Level III, you’ll likely get to a point where you’re not sure how much more studying you can handle. 

Is there a real breakpoint where it’s reasonable to throw in the towel? In a word: No.

​Below I explain why.

What Do You Mean I Shouldn’t Quit?

If you’re like most CFA exam candidates, by the time the actual exam approaches, you’ve already put in a decent amount of study time. Whether this is more, or less, than you would have initially liked is no matter. It’s time to focus on what counts.

First, let’s take a look at your possible outcomes: 

  1. Take the exam and pass.
  2. Take the exam and fail.
  3. Don’t take the exam, and fail.

Unfortunately there is no outcome where you do not take the exam and pass. Immediately, you can see that taking the exam gives you the only non-zero probability of passing.

But if I’m not giving up, what should I DO? 

If you’re considering throwing in the towel, then you don’t likely feel that you have studied enough to take the exam and pass. Fortunately, if you have over a week or two until the exam, then you can still fit in a lot. Effective studying at this point is key. 

Concentrate on the largest sections of the exam. For Level I candidates, I encourage you to allocate your time to what matters most. For example, spend at least two days on FR&A, two days on Quantitative Methods, one day each on Corporate Finance, Equities, and Ethics

Note: By “day” I mean a full eight hour day of studying. Don’t think that two-to-three hours per day will cut it.

Fixed Income, Alternative Investments, Portfolio Management, and Derivatives should be reserved for if you have enough time. These are harder sections, so you might not be able to get through as much content in a limited time. The goal here is to maximize content coverage (practice questions are most important).

I recommend the same approach for Level II candidates. For Level III candidates, the focus should be much more on Portfolio Management (~50% of the exam!).

Next, consider taking a day or two off of work. Some employers are flexible (and sympathetic) when it comes to the CFA exam. If you’re in the financial services industry then your boss likely knows how hard these exams can be. Ask for a day off to study. Give yourself a long weekend, or better yet, an extra week. Time is a limited resource, and you’ll want to spend as much of it as you can studying.

Sunk Costs… and Opportunity Costs

The two main expenditures incurred when studying for the CFA exam are: 1) time, and; 2) money. 

If you’ve already registered for the exam, the money you’ve spent is significant. This includes the many hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars you may have spent on supplemental study material. In terms of time, you’ve probably sacrificed many nights and weekends to study over the last few months. 

With less than three weeks to go, you might see this time and money spent as a sunk cost – not to be considered when deciding whether or not to persist. Fair enough, but I encourage you to also consider opportunity cost. How little fun there is left to forego a few weeks out? The potential for improving your odds of a passing grade are worth the loss of a mere two weeks of social time, in my view.

A quick scan of the pros and cons might help make your decision easier. 

The Pros of More Study Time:

The Cons of More Study Time:

  • A Potentially Failing Grade (Despite More Study Time) Which Could Result in:
    • Missed Out Fun
    • Hard Work

In my opinion, even if it’s a long shot, a chance at the pros listed above heavily outweigh the cons. A couple of weeks of studying is a small price to pay for the potential of a passing grade. A passing grade after all, could be great for your resume, your career, and your own self-confidence. A failing grade on the other hand, just means that you are like the thousands of others before you that have also failed the exam. This says nothing about who you are as a person, and/or your competencies. I have seen many people much more intelligent than me fail at this exam, so fret not. 

Stay optimistic. Combined with what you have already studied for the CFA exam thus far, any prior knowledge accumulated from your education or work (E.g., math class from high school, college/university finance courses, etc.) may be enough to piece together a passing grade.

In a nutshell, even though you have already spent plenty of time and money up to this point, consider how much closer you are to the finish line than when you started. You might surprise yourself…like I did.

My Own Surprise CFA Exam Story

When I took the CFA Exam Level I years ago, I was only a couple years into my job as an Equity Research Associate. I was still learning a lot, and didn’t truly appreciate how much overlap the curriculum had with my work. For example, the Ethics section overlapped significantly with the compliance requirements I had to follow. Further, my actual work overlapped with the FR&A and Equities sections more than I realized. Discounted Cash Flows, P/E multiples, EV/EBITDA calculations, and even some CAPM calculations were all involved.

My past education also inadvertently helped. I was an Economics major in college, but took a number of classes on accounting and statistics in high school. This combination was extremely helpful for the FR&A and Quant sections. My Economics background was clearly helpful for the Economics section, and I was peripherally familiar with some Fixed Income jargon. Although, that section largely remained a mystery to me. 

Ok, so let’s cut to the chase. What happened?

Well, quite frankly I was working 12+ hours a day at my job and barely had enough time to study midweek. I spent many hours on weekends trying to make up for my weekday deficiencies, but had some weekend obligations too (weddings, family gatherings, etc.). 

In a nutshell, I was not confident going into the exam. After the exam was over, I was quite sure that I failed. Many candidates finished the exam well before me, and I spoke with others that sounded much more certain of their prospects of success than I felt. In short, I didn’t expect to pass.

Fast forward to July. I open the email from the CFA Institute, and it starts with “Congratulations…” I was elated, but in disbelief. I studied much less than I thought was necessary but clearly some prior knowledge helped me out. 

My point: Don’t underestimate your ability to pass. I certainly did, and definitely considered not going to the exam.

My Overall Conclusion 

In my experience above, I have no idea how close I was to a failing grade. I was definitely ready to quit with only a few weeks left. Studying felt like it had dragged on forever. In hindsight though (and with the experience of tutoring hundreds of students), I believe that had I stopped studying completely, there is a high probability that I would have failed the exam. In the end, you never know where those last few points needed to turn your exam from a fail to a pass are going to come from. Every extra hour of studying helps.

​Keep going, you’re almost there!

Hope this helps keep you going! If you have any questions or need help, let us know in the comments below.

Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan


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