The Battering Ram: how to prepare for your next CFA exam

This is the method I used to pass each CFA exam on the first try each year for three years. As I was living in Iceland,  I had very limited access to test prep seminars and extras, so it was necessary to really knuckle down and make it happen all on my own.

I’ve since advised other candidates on how to pass, and one of them inspired me to write this down as an article. (He also gave the method its name.)

So here goes:

  1. Start your studying process at the beginning of September for the test the following June.
  2. Take out a calendar and count the number of weeks between your start date and the end of March. Give yourself 1-2 weeks off for December holidays and maybe a week off for your birthday if it falls in this window. Account for other vacations as well. Now you have the total number of study weeks.
  3. Tally up the total number of LOS (with sub-parts) in the CFA curriculum. So, 23a-j would count as 10 LOS “quanta”, for example.
  4. Divide by the number of weeks. Now you have the number of LOS quanta you need to cover each week.
  5. At the beginning of each week, make a study plan for how you will cover that week’s allotment of LOS. 2-3 hours after work each day, plus all-day Saturday at the library (and some of Sunday) usually was sufficient for me. Make sure to plan time for exercise and breaks, like on Sunday afternoons for example, too!
  6. Buy a big stack of notecards at your local stationery store.
  7. For each part of each LOS, make one notecard.
    1. At the top of the notecard, write out the LOS in your own hand. (e.g. “23a. Explain the three factors of …”)
    2. Below that, answer/demonstrate the LOS in your own words. If it’s a list of items to memorize, write them down. If it’s a formula write it out and explain the components to yourself.
    3. Third-party study guides, like Kaplan Schweser, can help get you faster to the kernel of each LOS, but beware: sometimes they have errors and the CFA curriculum itself is always the master source.
    4. Each notecard is now your personal reference: once you have it made, it will be your working knowledge base. You can let go of all the books.
  8. At the end of each week, you will have added to your stack of notecards. You should also complete enough example problems for each LOS during the week that you feel good about it.
  9. At the end of March, you will have a notecard for each part of each LOS, in your own words!
  10. Now the fun begins: on each Saturday morning in April and May, take a half mock exam (3 hours). It’s time to train your brain to take the exam, and don’t worry if you feel shaky on some of the material.
  11. On Sunday, grade your exam and highlight the questions you didn’t know or want to review. Each question will link directly to one LOS.
  12. The following week, return to the corresponding notecard for each question you highlighted. Revisit it and see what you didn’t get, do some new practice problems and update the card with your new understanding.
  13. Keep going like this, a half mock exam a week and then notecard revision during the evenings the week after. Turn the crank.
  14. By the time June comes, you will have a really solid feeling about most of the LOS. And taking exams each Saturday will be old hat.
  15. Spend the final week before the exam reviewing the areas you know are most problematic. And making sure you know the formulas by heart. But also rest a lot during this week: you are ready. Take some walks in the nature and fresh air on the days before the exam. This will serve you better than cramming.
  16. In the actual exam, skip areas where you know you aren’t as strong, based on what you learned about yourself in the practice tests. Focus first on what you know you do well, then come back for the other stuff.

And now, for some testimonials:

“The CFA program is daunting. It requires candidates to learn and apply thousands of pages of materials in three six-hour tests. To tackle this material, I found the Battering Ram method to be extremely useful. It encourages discipline with a set plan that has enough flexibility to account for breaks and unexpected curveballs. Writing notecards and problems in my own words ensured a deep understanding of concepts and problem-solving capabilities. They were also great for reviewing. And prepping with practice questions and exams reinforced my command of materials. I passed each exam on the first try.” — Meghan Orie, CFA

“When written out like this, the process gave me confidence: it looked doable and sounded simple. However the power of putting it into practice is hard to overstate. I sailed through my second level CFA exam after using this method.” — Jeet Das, CFA Level III candidate

That’s it! Batter away … and good luck!

Photo by Jorge Fernández on Unsplash

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