The CFA program can feel costly at times, and a fair question we get all the time is whether third party CFA prep books are necessary.
Isn’t the CFA curriculum itself sufficient, especially since CFA Institute will only ever test the materials covered in the curriculum?
While the CFA curriculum is a fantastic source for learning, the issue for most candidates is the sheer volume of pages it has.
Having gone through the CFA program myself, my view is that good third party study materials do add value, and should be part of your CFA exam preparation plan if budget allows. Here’s why.
Time is money
One of the biggest mistakes CFA candidates make is spending too much time reading, and not enough time on practice questions (which is one of the most effective study methods for CFA exams).
While making a study plan may help alleviate this, having to sift through the lengthy CFA curriculum pages – especially if third party alternatives can explain and summarize topics more succinctly – may take up your precious time which could be used for doing more practice questions.
Third party CFA prep books tend to be more succinct whilst covering what you need to know from the Learning Objective Statements (LOS), therefore significantly reduce your reading time.
Another factor to consider is the opportunity cost in terms of wasted hours if you have to retake just one of these exams. Having the muster the motivation and discipline to retake exams is itself a challenge.
That said, it doesn’t mean that the CFA Institute curriculum should be completely abandoned though. In fact, the CFA curriculum is a great reference book especially at the higher levels of CFA exams, with lots of case studies and examples that you can refer to for extra clarity and practice (see later section on this).
A calculated trade-off
Now the third party CFA prep books 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 4-6 questions called vignettes. Each vignette may focus on a small obscure corner of the curriculum unlikely to be covered in your third party CFA study materials.
As a result, you might find yourself completely unprepared for a block of 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.
A good way to minimize this risk of omission when using third party CFA prep books is by doing lots of practice questions to identify any knowledge gap. Then, you can close that knowledge gap by referring to the CFA curriculum for that particular section. This – in my view at least – is a far more effective way to prepare for the CFA exams.
Pick your prep provider to suit your needs
The range and quality of CFA prep providers has increased exponentially in the recent years, which is great as it offers CFA candidates more choices to suit their needs, budget and study style.
That said, not all study notes are created equal, so be careful which one you pick.
An established name like Kaplan Schweser might be considered a safe pick, but less established study providers are typically cheaper and could be better.
Some of the CFA prep 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 CFA curriculum is actually pretty useful in your overall CFA exam preparations, especially in Level 2 and Level 3.
- It covers everything: As mentioned earlier, third party CFA prep providers may omit or simplify small sections of the curriculum to save candidates some revision time. So if you have identified any weaker topics when you’re doing practice questions, it’s worth checking the CFA curriculum for a more in-depth review of that particular topic.
- Ethics: Studying ethics with the curriculum is a great use of your time, as it is relatively brief, yet carries a significant 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 from CFA curriculum itself.
- End of chapter questions (EOC): These are questions written by CFA Institute peppered across the whole curriculum. I highly recommend that you use these EOC questions as practice and revise the answers until you are comfortable with all of them. This is actually one of the most 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 CFA curriculum.
Bottom line: are third party CFA prep books worth the price?
There certainly are CFA candidates who passed the CFA exams with just the CFA curriculum (especially Level 1 and 3). This may be doable if you’ve a lot of time to prepare, with relatively light work and life commitments.
For most of us who are finding it tough to juggle work, life and studying, I would say that any study materials that can save time and boost your chances of passing the exam is overall a good return on investment.
Whether it is saving reading time via more succinct books, or getting more practice questions for testing – good third party prep materials do add value, and there are more high quality choices now, which is good news for candidates!
What is your choice of study material for your CFA exam preparations so far? Do you study exclusively from CFA curriculum / third party study materials only, or a bit of both? Share your experience with us below!
Meanwhile, you may find these related articles of interest:
- Get and customize 300Hours’ free CFA study planner
- How Much Does CFA Exam Cost? A Detailed Breakdown
- Check out 300Hours’ Offers section for the latest deals from CFA prep providers
- How to study effectively: Proven strategies that work for CFA, FRM and CAIA exams
- CFA Level 1: How to prepare and pass CFA in 18 months