How to Prevent the CFA Exam from Slowly Killing You

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By Greg Campion

My back was killing me. I never had migraine headaches before in my life, and here I was battling them on a regular basis. I even started having chest pains. Chest pains!

No, I wasn’t suffering from a terminal disease or undergoing chemotherapy, I was studying for a test—or more precisely, Level II of the CFA exam.

Yes, studying for Level II was literally killing me. I had never felt worse in my life.

As we all know, studying for CFA exams is a brutal process. Most candidates already have lives that are full of responsibilities and time commitments, including work, school, and keeping up relationships with friends and family. Adding 300 hours of studying to an already full schedule can be downright disastrous if it isn’t planned wisely in advance. 

Throughout my Level I studies, I was generally able to keep up a good performance at work, and while I was seeing friends and family a lot less often, I avoided major blowups there as well. 

But when it came to studying for Level II, it seemed like a whole new ball game. The material was more difficult, the concepts more complex, and for me, the stress level started to go through the roof. Inevitably something had to give. I was bound to drop one of these many balls that I was juggling. And that ball turned out to be my health. 

After one too many visits to the doctor, only to hear that nothing was physically wrong me—that I probably just needed to take a break—I finally decided that I needed to do things differently.

You see I had been so focused on the goal of passing Level II that I wouldn’t allow myself to come up for air. That meant working a full week at a demanding job only to come home and study the evenings and weekends away without really taking a break. You can do that for a week or two or maybe even a month, but six months? No, that’s when things start to break down. 

So to help you manage this process better than I did, I thought I’d share a few tips that ultimately helped me get things back in balance:

#1 – Sleep
I really can’t stress this one enough. Everyone is busy and adding CFA exams to the mix can make it seem like getting enough sleep is downright impossible. But it’s just so critical that you can’t ignore it. Eight hours is ideal but if you can’t swing that, at least try for seven. Get to bed early and your brain will be that much more refreshed.

Read our articles for CFA-focused sleep management:

#2 – Eating
Studying for the CFA exams is probably not the time to try a new low-carb diet or go on some crazy green juice kick, but you should at least be watching what you eat. If you consciously choose healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, your energy levels are going to be much higher than if you’re hitting up the pizza and burgers all the time. 

Read our article on the best superfoods to be having when prepping for the CFA exam:

#3 – Exercise
Again, the six months that you are studying is probably not the best time to train for an Ironman or try to become a world-champion weightlifter, but you need some kind of exercise everyday. Running, swimming, yoga… heck, even if it’s just a 15 or 20 minute walk and a little change of scenery, it can do wonders to refresh your mind. 

Read our articles on how to use exercise to make you a better CFA candidate:

#4 – Downtime
Everyone needs to recharge their batteries sometimes, even CFA candidates. So make some time to do something completely stress-free—whether it’s reading some fiction, going to the movies, or watching your favourite sports-team—you need to work this into your schedule because your body and mind need the break.

Here are several effective ways to reduce CFA stress and prevent burnout:

#5 – Family & Friend Time
It’s really hard to keep up relationships while you are in the midst of studying, so you’ve got to be creative. I always tried to go for a half-hour walk (see #3) with my wife after a long day of studying. Your family and friends can be great support during what is an extremely stressful time, so get smart about fitting them into your schedule. 

Here’s several popular articles on how to balance the CFA exams with everything else going on in your life:

#6 – Study Oasis
You need to set up your study oasis so that it is quiet, comfortable, and easily accessible. If you get any of those wrong, it can be a major source of stress.

Here are two articles to help you set up your perfect study spots:

I’m realistic. I realize that you have ten million other things to worry about. I realize that you might think you don’t have the time to focus on anything but the CFA material. But I also realize that letting your health and mental state deteriorate can make for a brutal six months of studying. 

The good news is that you don’t have to let that happen. All it takes is a little extra planning. Be smart about planning every week of your study time so that you factor in time to exercise, see friends and family, and maybe even some time to do absolutely nothing. 

Planning ahead and taking these things seriously can take at least some of the stress out what is likely to be one of the trying six months of your life. 

If reading this article makes you think even just a little bit more about paying attention to your health while studying for these exams, I’ll be one happy charterholder. Share your ideas with me in the comments below!

Greg Campion, CFA is a Wall Street veteran, financial writer, and author of the book: CFA Confidential: What It Really Takes to Become a Chartered Financial Analyst®. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his family.


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