Should You Study CFA Topics in Their Given Order, Or Decide Your Own?

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By Mike

Is there an ideal order of studying CFA topics?

Do you approach your CFA topics in the given order, or skip around as you like?

For some of you, this may be something you never really thought about. Some of us, like me, simply took one approach because it seemed the most natural to us. But is there an advantage to one method over the other?

After seeing quite a lot of similar-themed questions posed by candidates, i thought I’d do a bit of digging into this and share my findings.

What’s the official CFA topic order?

CFA Institute Study Session Order (Level I Example)

  • Ethical and Professional Standards (Ethics)
  • Quantitative Methods
  • Economics
  • Financial Reporting & Analysis
  • Corporate Finance
  • Portfolio Management
  • Equity
  • Fixed Income
  • Derivatives
  • Alternative Investments

This is also the order that’s followed by providers such as Kaplan Schweser

On the whole, there is a reason to this order: it starts with the basics (Quantitative Methods, Economics, FRA) then goes on to the meaty stuff (Corporate Finance, Portfolio Management, Equity and Fixed Income) then ends with some of the fancier topics (Derivatives, Alternative Investments). 

In general, this is a very sensible way to approach the CFA topics.

Are the topics co-dependent on each other?

CFA topics (especially in Level I) can mostly be learnt independently of each other. The exception to this would perhaps be Quantitative Methods. I would recommend to approach Quant Methods early, as many mathematical concepts learnt there will be useful in the later chapters. 

So, why studying in any other order?

Helps retain attention. Sometimes you know when a particular topic’s had you beat – no matter how hard you try, nothing is going in. It may make more sense at that point to hit another topic (perhaps a favourite or easier one) and come back to the challenge later on.

Hit the easy ones first. A huge part of the CFA studying challenge is getting started in the first place. It helps tremendously to start with a topic that is easy for you, or something that’s highly relevant to your day job. Needless to say, this is different for every candidate.

Save the memorisation topics for last. Some topics, such as Ethics, are heavily dependent on memorisation rather than a fundamental understanding of concepts (such as Quantitative Methods). In these cases, some may choose to leave these ‘memorisation topics’ for last. The reasoning behind this is that by leaving these topics till the end, the memorised concepts will be fresher in memory for the exam.

However if you aren’t careful in tracking topics, you may end up missing entire sections. There’s nothing more panic-inducing than finding out that you missed out on studying an entire CFA topic especially approaching the exam. So if you do decide to study topics in your own order, make sure you have a foolproof system of ensuring you cover all topics.

My personal approach: use given order, except for Ethics

When I approached my Level I, I took an approach that made the most sense to my situation. Ethics was completely unfamiliar to me and looked very memorisation-heavy. I opted to leave that for last, as I didn’t see how Ethics would help me understand the other topics well. However, I approached all other topics in the given order.

This approach worked quite well for me for Level I. For Level II, I started with Ethics and went in the given order, but also polished it off with a second round of Ethics in the end before hitting practice exams.

I’ve also opted to go in the given order for my Level III this year.

My advice: default to given order, flex as needed

If there isn’t a good reason for doing so, I would recommend sticking to the given order. The order is there for a reason: as I outlined earlier, it has a good ascending order of complexity. 

However, if you must jump around a bit, by all means do so: I wouldn’t worry about it throwing you off. Just remember to keep track of what you’ve covered and remember to go back to areas you’ve skipped. 

Good luck to everyone for their exams – just shoot me a comment or two if you have any questions!

Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan


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