Wading Through the Sea of CFA Blogs, Online Groups, and Books

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By John Bowman, CFA, former managing director & co-lead of Education and managing director of Americas, CFA Institute

As members of the Education team at CFA Institute, we are in the privileged position to be able to evaluate the various candidate preparation resources in the marketplace.  

Technological advances and a much larger global candidate footprint (not to mention over 100K motivated charterholders!) have made offerings of all flavors and mediums ubiquitous.  

Unlike my experience many years ago where a few large training providers dominated the live instruction business, candidates have access to countless online tools, social media communities, blog sites, practice tests, and even two recent book publications.  Preparation has truly democratized.

Want engaging CFA-related reading? Here’s an extra-curricular reading list that we developed with CFA Institute.

My goal in this post, however, is not to review the merit of any particular product or medium but rather provide you with basic principles to enable you as candidates to do so.  You will be barraged with “secret sauces” and “fool proof strategies” and it’s critically important for your success that you are able to navigate your way through this sea of confusion.  

To be clear, my focus will not be on the traditional training providers that many candidates (as I did) take advantage of in supplementing their study; our Prep Provider Guidelines Program (PPGP) has tremendously improved the collective quality of these prep programs over the last decade and I would encourage you to use this counsel when selecting a provider.  I am also not endeavoring to provide an exhaustive list of test taking tips.  

Rather, the following four principles are meant to assist you in filtering through the more modern social sites and online products as well as recent publications. 

1. Be alert to Supplement vs. Substitute positioning

Contrary to popular belief, there is no magic bullet or trade secret to passing the exams.  The only proven strategy is to master the material in the CFA Program curriculum from which the exams are directly written.  If you have a strong grasp of the material, can apply it in appropriate practitioner settings, and have demonstrated this through strong practice exam performance, you are very likely to pass.  It’s really that simple. 

As a result, don’t be distracted or tempted by claims of high pass rates through primary use of supplemental material.  Avoid resources and digital congregations that seem to disproportionately push alternative approaches.  Preparation tools like online modules, flash cards, formula sheets, and practice exams (even ours) are helpful, and sometimes necessary, elements of any good study plan but should always be supplemental to very careful study of the primary material: the CFA Program curriculum.  

Mastery is very different than rote memorization and in order to earn your charter you must exhibit proficiency in applying concepts across multiple investment environments and scenarios.  Consider using our study planner to create a disciplined, realistic schedule to ensure you start early and schedule time every week to read, study and practice.

2.  Act the part

As I’ll discuss more in #4, the CFA Program is about developing ethical professionals.  As such, congregate and seek guidance from those that behave and model professionalism.  Resources or forums that focus on claims of CFA Institute conspiracy theories, daily “airing of the grievances,” or simply engage in unnecessary profanity or childish language is not worthy of your time.  

As our industry faces its worst crisis of trust since the Great Depression, it’s more important than ever to exercise integrity in all facets of life.  The blurring of social and professional online profiles places increasing pressure and scrutiny on all of us to ensure our online brand and virtual “company we keep” are professionally mature; the restoration of trust and the future of finance rests with each of us doing our part.

3. “Level” your study plan

Perhaps the most common mistake I hear from candidates and training providers is the assumption that what got you through Level I will be sufficient for Level II or Level III.  The CFA Program progresses in complexity and orientation of learning as you move through each level.  Level I focuses on basic knowledge and understanding of tools; Level II asks you to assess those tools more deeply and apply the concepts; and Level III requires you to synthesize the various concepts and methods you’ve learned in a variety of portfolio management and wealth management applications. 

The obvious implication here is that each Level requires a carefully tailored study plan to meet the objectives of the Level and match your learning style.  You will need an array of different techniques and products on this journey to help bring the curriculum to life and judge your comprehension.  For example, I’m a visual learner and therefore benefitted most by diagramming and drawing concepts and flows whereas others would benefit from heavy note taking/highlighting or audio books.  

In summary, there is no “best” or “right” way to prepare as a function of each of us being different and the evolving demands of each Level.  Therefore, be wary of resources and commentary that seem dogmatically attached to one method.

4. Why are you here?

Most importantly, and as I alluded to above, the CFA Program pursuit should never be primarily about passing three tests. 

Rather, becoming a charterholder is fundamentally about joining a global community of investment professionals, over 100K strong, committed to shaping an investment industry where client interests come first, financial markets function fairly and efficiently, and economies grow.  There is no doubt that we have lost our way in recent years with the parade of public scandals, corruption, and malfeasance.  It is therefore more important than ever for charterholders to be heralds for this great mission in rehabilitating our reputation with the public back to our industry’s origin…to serve the greater good. 

I realize as much as anyone that preparing for the CFA exams requires discipline and singular focus, but don’t lose sight of the ultimate purpose. Preparation for the CFA Program is a test in time management and priorities as much as competency.  So invest your time in the resources and communities that consistently wrap their advice in the most important outcome: waving the flag for ethical, trustworthy, and highly competent investment professionals.  

Because candidates, completing the three exams is the beginning of a life-long commitment and passion, not the end.

Do you have any questions? Drop them in the comments box below!

Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan

300Hours founder

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