Here’s My Story to Those Who Are Panicking or Giving Up On Their CFA® Exams

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By Brosephstalin

I’ve passed Level I a while ago, and wanted to post some words of encouragement to those that might be struggling, panicking or thinking of giving up, since I went through the whole spectrum of those feelings and managed to overcome them when I thought there was no point in trying anymore. 

As a procrastinator by nature, I’ve improved on my time management skills considerably as I’ve continued to grow up, but I still get myself into predicaments sometimes and procrastinating my preparation for Level I was my latest episode. 

Signing up, slow progress, and giving up

I signed up for the exam on the last deadline date for the December exam (here’s why this is not ideal), and started studying that week- somewhat. In short, I started studying sometime in September, but not the way I should have been. By the time October rolled around, I wasn’t even done with Schweser Book I (Quant), and it was sometime around this point when the true panic and feelings of hopelessness started kicking in. 

I had a study plan (you can get one for free here), but I was moving at a crawling pace and as I compared my progress to where I needed to be, thoughts of doom and failure started to pollute my mind and soon enough they became the only thing that occupied it. What I was doing wasn’t working and if I had not changed my mindset and my approach I would have surely failed, so one day that is what I did. 

For me it happened on the day I truly gave up – it actually happened a few times for me during that month, but this was definitive moment of surrender. One of my roommates found me sleeping, or more so just curled up in the fetal position, in my bed – at 7PM on a weekday. I didn’t want to study, i didn’t want to relax – I didn’t want to do anything. This was my rock bottom during my studies for Level I – I accepted failure, was depressed and had given up entirely. 

Attacking with new motivation and plans

My roommate talked me out of bed after a while, and restored some faith in myself. I didn’t study that night, just tried to relax with my roommates and have a good time. I decided that night though, as I was falling asleep, that I was done with my theatrics, self loathing/pity, and negative thoughts in general – going forward I was just going to focus on what I had to do and give it all I had. Whatever happens, happens. No more excuses. No more giving up. Ultimately, I passed, and this is exactly how I did it:

At this point, I had a little over 6 weeks left and I still had Schweser Books 2-5 to cover, plus all of the practice questions. I prepared myself mentally by accepting the fact that the next six weeks of my life will be absolutely grueling and exhausting – I also accepted the fact that this was my fault and was deserved. I got myself there, now I had to get myself out of it. 

I created a new Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. 

Plan A: Blast through the material

Plan A was to read through and digest the entire Schweser study material that I haven’t covered yet. My work schedule was 8AM to 6/7PM, and I wanted to get a solid 6 hours of sleep every night, so I averaged about 6 hours of study on weekday after work, until about 1AM. I took small breaks to eat, shower, laundry etc. Weekends, I studied a minimum of 12 hours a day. 

It was brutal and I was dreadfully tired, but I stuck to the plan relentlessly. I didn’t go out or drink at all for the most part (mainly because I was afraid it would affect my retention of the information). My roommates barely saw me outside my closed door. My GF missed me, but would sit in my room all day on weekends and support me. She gave me the best study breaks you can ask for throughout the day – those do wonders for motivation and morale.

I didn’t take extensive notes – I only highlighted the key points in the text, and took some notes on the book as I went along. I decided to get through an entire book each week, and hopefully finish with a week to two to focus on review and practice. I did all the EOC questions, and made sure I understood each concept clearly before moving along, even if it took longer than I had liked and would require me to stay up and study longer. 

Plan B: Testing myself as I went along

As I was going through the second book, I realized I must quickly move to Plan B – test myself on the material on each book once I finish studying it. I used the Schweser question bank to test myself on every single LOS from a given book, until I answered ~75 percent of the questions correctly for each LOS. 

This helped me truly understand the concepts and material I read through, and definitely helped me retain it better – I chose to follow this plan because passively reading the material did not work well at all for retention. Also, truly understanding the material and answering boatloads of questions correctly does great things for your morale and confidence and serves to increase your momentum. 

Plan C: Re-skimming the material, and practice exams

I got through all the material with 6 days remaining until the test. It was time for plan C. I definitely did not have enough time to thoroughly read the material again. Instead I skimmed each book, by reading only the highlighted writing and notes in the books – this refreshed many of the concepts in my head, and even helped to connect some concepts together from separate books. I really felt like I learned a ton by this point and was happy with just the fact I managed to get through so much material and understand it. 

I got through all of the material again in this fashion, and at this point I had two days left. I took the two days off from work and decided to dedicate them to practice problems – I did not have time to simulate a formal test experience. I assembled a practice problem set from Schweser from all the topic areas, to gauge where I needed the most review. Then in order from weakest to strongest, I began to knock out as many practice problems as I could. I made it a point to get through all topic areas and I did. The last thing I did was review the dry rules that simply need to be memorized and hoped that I retained a good majority of them (i.e. IFRS/GAAP accounting rules differences, etc). 

CFA-day, and results

Finally it was the day of the test – I stopped caring about the outcome on this day. I just relaxed as best I could, trusted my memory and ability, and paced myself with my watch to make sure I was making good time on the test. The morning section I found much more difficult, probably because it was my first experience actually working under time constraints. 

With the experience from the morning section, I proceeded to breeze through the second session and even finished early. Felt great. I left the building and just felt amazing as if I walked out of a prison. I felt like I knew at least 70% of the questions but most importantly it was over – I could finally be a real person, with a life, again. I ended up passing with flying colors with most sections over 70% correct and only one (the one I spent the least time on at below 50%). 

Lessons learnt

What I learned from this ordeal I put myself through:

  1. Trust and believe yourself – your mind likes to play tricks on you and create hurdles that set you back. When doubt fills your mind, cast it aside and keep focusing on what needs to be done. Think back to times you accomplished something extremely difficult that you thought you couldn’t do to give yourself the confidence and morale you need.
  2. Sitting down to study is the hardest part, once you sit down and get started the ball is rolling and the rest comes naturally.
  3. Little study breaks are key – I was marathoning for weeks in terms of studying. I got up just to walk around, go outside to breathe for a few minutes, grab a snack, watch a 20 minute Netflix episode to let my brain rest – it NEEDS it.
  4. Practice problems do wonders for your morale – once you get the material, and you start getting question after question right on the topic you feel great and it helps you move forward.
  5. Learn how to use your calculator to the fullest – there are tons of great shortcuts you can find and tutorials that are geared for using your calculator for the CFA. It was a lifesaver because it saves tons of times for some problem types. I will try to post this on the forum once I find it again.
  6. After I got used to the hours, I actually started to enjoy what I was doing – I knew the mission, I felt accomplished for managing to stick to the plan, and I was genuinely interested and happy that I was learning so much – at the very worst, I got to learn a ton of fundamentals for investment analysis, which is the reason I took the test in the first place (isn’t this a main reason why you’re taking the test?). To expand further on this, if you find most of the material boring, extremely difficult to understand, and you’re just not that into it you really need to ask yourself why you are taking this test and if its really for you. I had a friend going through this with me and he decided he may have chosen a path that was really not for him and reevaluated; sometimes you just have to start down a path to realize it isn’t the one you really want to take and there’s nothing wrong with that. 
  7. DON’T EVER GIVE UP!!! I’m sure glad I didn’t, even though I was so close to doing it. You never know what’s going to happen until you get there and try.
  8. Start EARLY!! Everyone has different study habits, but know what yours are and be honest with yourself. Don’t put yourself in my situation and strive to have a calm, comfortable studying experience.
  9. Enjoy the learning experience – just to reiterate again, this CFA path is a huge undertaking. Hopefully you are taking it because you truly want to learn the material, concepts and formulas and how you can use them in your job and career. I started trying to recognize and think about the concepts everyday as I was learning them to identify them at work and in the financial publications – this helped reinforce the knowledge a great deal. Once I recognized, understood, and applied the concepts I learned in this curriculum, this is when I started to truly appreciate the reason I did all of this.

What I originally intended to be a short piece, ended up as a verbose rant, but I hope some of you found something helpful from my experience, or at the very least I prevented at least one person from giving up on this difficult task.

If you have any questions or need any help, let me know in the comments and I’d be glad to help where I can. Thanks for reading!


3 thoughts on “Here’s My Story to Those Who Are Panicking or Giving Up On Their CFA® Exams”

  1. A relatable, informative, and enjoyable read. Thanks. I’m planning taking Level 1 in December and have been struggling to get ahead and study early. This gave me some extra motivation today after work.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience…. Thank you. For Sure, it was Helpful for the best. I have a work schedule from 7 to 7 and straight 28 days without day offs at mining. After working 12 hours, sometimes Its terrible to find time after work,, especially when I not seem to have any more energy or motivation after those long days. But your experience was a clear warning on how I should keep going … Yes, I will try to keep doing everyday after work. /English is my second language 🙂 but its okay./ Loved reading your motivation. Thanks, Ankha


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