How to Prepare Better If You Have to Take the CFA Exam Again

pass cfa examIt has happened to the best of CFA candidates: The passing score for the CFA exam has been missed by an inch. While this is annoying, please don’t lose heart. You are given a second chance to master the study material and remember it even better for future levels. Get up on your feet again after the initial depression and start preparing for the exam again. But how to do this best? The following post is a collection of the three most important ideas and tips that I emailed to test takers in the past when they asked me this question.

cfa exam results

Missed the passing grade by an inch? Don't lose heart, get up on your feet and prepare again!


  1. Analyze your test results, but don’t neglect the topics where you excelled. Make sure you find the holes in your previous exam preparation by looking at your test scores. However, don’t focus on those areas too narrowly. You should really know your way around the entire syllabus, instead of being really good at some of the topics and neglecting others. It’s still better to know the most important points about each topic on the surface than not knowing anything about some of the topics.

  3. Focus only on the original CFA books and make summaries. That’s right, loose the Schweser and other third party prep material and read the original books again. If you have made summaries already of these books, then update them with the information that you find lacking. These summaries are essential for both the review stage of your preparation as well as brushing up on previous levels once you advance to level 2 and 3. Remember: There are no shortcuts to the CFA exam.

  5. Solve all the practice questions in the original books. This can’t be stressed enough, the lure of QBank is just too big. Each and every question in the CFA exam is in some form or another a derivation of the questions in the CFA books, and not something out of the QBank. So if you really, thoroughly understand these questions, then you will pass the exam. Attempt them again and again, perhaps make a separate “question book” with just the questions at the end of each chapter (either electronically or hardware by copying them and making a binder). Once you solved them a few times you will notice that there are certain question types that you have to master, which is the point where you really begin to understand the underlying concepts. I would argue that it’s much more helpful to really solve these questions than reading and reviewing the material over and over again. Also see: Why you should use the original books when preparing for the CFA exam.


OK, that’s it already. If you really focus on these point I am sure you increase your chances of passing the exam the next time around dramatically. Let me know how it goes in your CFA exam preparation! I wish you all the best.

What To Do After The CFA Exam

Relax after the CFA ExamIf you just took one of the CFA exams, you must be feeling tremendous relief that it’s over (for now). Unless you sat for level 3, there may be a nagging feeling in your mind that the next level is just around the corner and the ordeal with working through the syllabus and practice exams will soon start anew.

First of all, congrats for taking the exam. I keep my fingers crossed for you that you passed! It’s definitely time to celebrate after the exam, but make sure you don’t kill too many brain cells in the process: In my level 2 and 3 exams there was one question each from the previous level, and the material will build on what you learned the past year, so make sure that you don’t completely forget what you crammed for the previous levels. Here’s what I recommend you do to optimally kick of your learning for in the next level and keep the previous material fresh.

  1. Start at least six to eight months before the next exam with your preparation. Level 2 is much more difficult than level 1, and level 3 is more difficult than level 2. Some disagree on this and think level 2 is the most difficult, but I thought level 2 was very quant-based, while level 3 involves more guess work because of the exam format with essays. If you took level 1 in December and plan to sit for level 2 in the following year, then you must start immediately with your level 2 preparation, otherwise you will fall behind. Level 2 exams only take place in summer, unfortunately. It’s also perfectly fine to wait 18 months for level 2, especially if you’re busy at work. Many candidates do this.

  3. Review your summary notes for one week before starting with the next level. I assume you made summary notes of the original CFA syllabus. This is very important not just for the level you are sitting for, but also for future levels. It will speed up your revision tremendously. So if you missed out on this in level 1, definitely make your own summaries of the original CFA books for level 2 and level 3. If you want summary notes to prepare for or review level 1, feel free to check out my CFA summary notes in question and answer format. I would also recommend you stick with the original CFA books and not third party study material as your main reading. I explain why here: Why You Should Use The Original CFA Books.

  5. Review the summary notes when you’re in the middle of your learning session for the next level. Each level builds on the knowledge of the previous level, so this will reinforce what you are learning and review the basic building blocks of the syllabus. You only need to review your old notes twice (once before starting your learning and once in the middle), and you will be optimally prepared for the next level.


The most important advice is definitely to start early enough. If you were pressed for time in level 1 I am sure you will appreciate this. There’s nothing worse than feeling unprepared for the CFA exam, so don’t say you didn’t know! I wish you all the best for your next level of the CFA.

Why You Should Use The Original CFA Books For Your Exam Preparation

original-CFA-booksAll the time in forums and Facebook groups about CFA exam preparation the question about third party learning material arises: Which is the best? Is it worth to spend X on this or that product? Has anybody used QBank? Who can share Secret Sauce with me?

My answer to all these posts is always the same: Don’t use any of these products, really master the original CFA books and the questions in them that you received for free with your registration. This will save you a lot of time and money. I will explain exactly, why.

When I prepared for CFA level 1, I went ahead and got the full set of S******* learning materials, all the books, QBank, and the videos (I changed the name of the learning material provider, but you can guess, which one I mean). This CFA exam was really important, so I should prepare for it in the best way possible, right? The arrival of the original CFA books had been a shock, and they just seemed too much to digest at the time. I was secretly hoping for a shortcut, which that expensive third-party learning material implied to deliver (also read: There are no shortcuts to the CFA exam).

The second shock happened when the S******* material appeared in the mail: The books were about the same size as the CFA books, and the videos would have taken days to watch. The formula Quicksheet missed half the formulas… So where exactly was the shortcut I had hoped for? I had paid an arm and a leg for this study material and was now in a dilemma: Should I read both (doubling my study time), or just choose one? I opted for the latter, and read and summarized the original CFA material only. Boy was I glad, I did! Sometimes, I would take a cursory glance at the S******* books and few of the videos, which confirmed my choice. There was really not much different in S******* , other than that they had reformulated every sentence of the original readings in heir own words (sometimes adding confusion and even mistakes). Who needs that? The exam will be written in “CFA language”, so why not also study and practice in this language? The videos also seemed weird: In one of them a somewhat disheveled lady with a bandaged hand (I’m serious!) eagerly explained the efficient frontier in what appeared to me as kindergarten language. All candidates to the CFA have at least a bachelor’s degree, so I doubt we need anyone to explain the material in baby language to us.

My advice to CFA candidates is simple:

  • Start early enough with your exam preparation so you build enough confidence you can do it (also read: The Three Things I Wish I Had Done Differently In My CFA Exam Preparation).
  • Be original: Stick with the original reading material and practice questions.
  • Solve and re-solve each of the practice questions in the original reading material until you completely understand them. They will prepare you for the exam in the best way possible.
  • Take notes while you read the CFA books that you can review later. Ideally, in question-answer format.
  • Make your own formula sheet to memorize in the review process.


However, I really doubt that many candidates do that. Most will just read the CFA books once, and then go on to solve S******* practice exams or QBank. I think this is exactly the wrong approach. Better master the original readings and practice the original CFA questions. It’s not quick, and it’s not easy, but this is the most effective and least expensive exam preparation you can get.

“But what about the S******* Practice Exam? I need to prepare for the exam somehow!” True, you need to prepare for the exam, but don’t use those practice exams for that. As you will see, the real CFA exam questions are completely different. The only thing that the S******* practice exam can teach you is exam strategy (not spending too much time on one question). If you really want to practice realistic exam questions, then solve the questions in the original readings until you completely understand each and every one of them. To solve a S******* practice exam in order to review the material can be fatal. Better do a real review with your own notes that you took when reading the material. CFA Institute has mock exams available on their site, which can be used to familiarize yourself with exam timing. Also read: Exam Strategy: Go for Speed.

The question that then comes up is: “You sell your study notes on your site, but diss other learning material! Isn’t that contradictory?” I don’t think so. My study notes are the notes I took when I studied for the exams. They are my personal review tool that summarizes all the CFA learning objectives (LOs) in question-answer format (also read: Active Recall: How to retain information for the CFA exam). If you have your own notes in question-answer format, then you don’t need mine. But you definitely need to practice what you have read and take notes when studying for the CFA, and if you’re not yet familiar with active recall, then my notes can complement yours. It’s an entirely different approach from traditional learning material that seeks to replace the original CFA books. You don’t need a regurgitation of the original readings which you already have in your possession. Just get over the intimidation the CFA books exude at the beginning, and most third-party learning material will be redundant.

I hope this article helped you make the right choice when preparing for the CFA exam! I wish you all the best for your exam preparation.

There Are No Shortcuts to the CFA Exam

Shortcut to the CFAWhen studying for the CFA exam, everybody wonders whether there wouldn’t be a faster, more efficient way to prepare other than slowly reading through the required study material and painfully learning learning objective by learning objective. The phone books we receive with our exam registration from CFA Institute are not exactly encouraging, nor is the recommendation to spend at least 250 hours per level in preparation for the exam. Unfortunately, there really is not much you can do to take shortcuts in your learning process. Certainly, third party learning material providers make their money with the promise of a quick fix, but this is really mostly snake oil, in my opinion. You need to work hard in order to be awarded the CFA charter, period.

The number one thing you can do though is improving your learning efficiency and preparing smarter. I already wrote an article about this subject (How To Master The CFA Exam In 10 Steps), but here are the no-frills cornerstones of effective CFA exam preparation:

  1. Start early, at least six months before the exam. If you have started way too late, you will scramble just to read the material, let alone practice it. Sure, you may be able to somehow wing it, but if you have to honestly  admit you started too late, then delay the exam by one period. This will save you a lot of headaches.

  3. Read the original books from CFA Institute, and don’t bother with other regurgitated material that simply restates what’s already written in these books. Most of you will know what I mean, and which learning provider is addressed here.

  5. Take notes while you read that you can look at later in your review phase.

  7. Make your own formula sheet while you read.

  9. Solve all the practice questions in the original books. The exam questions will be similar, so if you completely master these questions, you will be prepared well for the exam.

  11. Regularly review your notes, the practice questions, and the formula sheet in the last month before the exam. If you’re unclear about some of the questions in the book, solve and re-solve them again until they become clear. you really need to understand each learning objective to do well in the exam, and this is how you can ensure that.

That’s it! I followed these steps and did pretty well in each of the three levels of the CFA exam. It’s by no means easy, but if you systematically approach the exam, this is how it can be done. I wish you all the best for your CFA exam reparations.

What To Expect On CFA Exam Day

CFA exam hallWhen I was enrolled for CFA Level 1, I had no idea what to expect on CFA exam day. I had studied intensively for the past six months and felt somewhat confident with the material and the exam structure, but the one unknown variable was the exam conditions. In this article I describe how I experienced the exam conditions and the setting of the exam center. I will not describe contents of the exam here, that would be in violation with the CFA professional standards (which one? Just kidding!).

Pretty much all of the exam centers around the world are set up in a similar way. In my case, I took the CFA level 1 exam in Zurich/Switzerland. You should research where exactly the exam center is located beforehand. My impression was that there must have been about 1,000 candidates sitting for level one alone. In other professional designations I prepared for there were a total of 100 candidates, so a crowd this large was unexpected. I arrived about 2 hours before the actual exam and this was not too early, as there was already a large group of candidates gathered outside the locked doors. When they opened, everybody streamed inside the exam center to secure one of the lockers. I definitely recommend you also scramble for one as soon as the doors open, as you cannot take anything into the exam room. I then locked my belongings and took pencils, a pencil sharpener, an eraser, the calculator, my identification and CFA exam confirmation and my earplugs with me. That I was wearing a track jacket with pockets was valuable in this case, as there were no plastic bags allowed into the exam room. I had also wondered whether to bring drinking water, but luckily, this was provided in the exam room courtesy of CFA institute.

CFA Proctor vestAfter an ID check we were admitted into the exam room. “Exam hall” would be a more apt description, as this was just a huge hall otherwise used for trade shows where tables and chairs had been installed. Normally, there are two candidates seated next to each other on each table. Some of these tables are a little shaky, so if there’s an issue, immediately alert a CFA proctor. Proctors in yellow vests were hovering about the place to ensure adherence to CFA exam rules. In front of the room was a podium where the head proctor was seated, giving instructions, like “Do not stand around the water tables! Go back to your table and sit down!” This seemed comical at first, but CFA Institute takes exam rules extremely serious, so you better obey whatever a proctor demands of you. My advice would be to use the restroom before the exam begins, as there may be a line and about 15 minutes before the exam begins, no one will be admitted to the restrooms which left some candidates in a bind. Don’t drink too much water before the exam, otherwise you lose valuable time with bathroom visits.

Then the exam started. I hope you have solved enough practice exams to know what this part looks like. At any time, make sure you never give the impression of cheating or looking at someone else’s answer sheet. This will be noticed by the proctors and get you in hot water or even get you banned. If you need to use the bathroom during the exam, raise your hand and wait for a proctor. Tell them you want to use the restroom. They will then take your answer sheet and wait at your table until you return. My advice is to strictly obey by what the head proctor says. When he announces “Stop writing now!”, immediately lay down your pencil and sit back in your chair. This may sound funny, but you really want to avoid any issues with the proctors at any stage.

CFA exam bento boxAfter the morning exam there was a lunch break. There was a small cafeteria in my exam center, but I brought my own lunch. I was glad I did, as the cafeteria was quickly sold out. I saw some candidates scramble for food, and this must have been rather stressful during the short break. Definitely bring your own food, either sandwiches or a bento box, whatever you like. The lunch break is a good time to relax a bit. I would advise against engaging with other candidates and discussing exam questions, save this for after the exam. Just relax and get ready for the afternoon session.

The afternoon session was similar like the morning session. Strangely, about half into the exam session, the exam hall got extremely cold, perhaps because of a glitch in the AC. I put on the hood of my track jacket and continued, but saw other candidates visibly distressed by the cold. In general, modular clothing is useful, as the temperature in these large exam halls can vary.

I hope this gave you a perspective of the exam conditions. They are based on my own experience sitting for the level 1 exam, so this may vary from country to country, but you should get the general gist of it. I wish you all the best for your CFA exams!

The Three Things I Wish I Had Done Differently in my CFA Exam Preparation

Prepare for the CFA ExamWhen I took the CFA exams between 2009 and 2011 I was overwhelmed with each and every one of them like most candidates. The sheer amount of reading and practice questions, next to a demanding work schedule seemed almost too much at times, to the point where the well-meaning postcards that I had received from CFA institute along with the study material that stated “Coffee is a food group” seemed not so funny anymore.

I was lucky enough to pass each level at the first attempt, but the price for it was quite high. In those three years, all of my free time was spent reading and learning, with little left for my family and friends (other than my CFA study pals). At times I just wanted to give up and postpone the exam to the next year, but I somehow pulled myself together, stayed motivated and pushed through. I am happy I did, but there are a few lessons from my experience that I learned during this time that could help future CFA candidates in their exam preparation. Even though I think I approached the CFA exams quite well, there are a few things that I would change to increase my learning effectiveness. Here they are:

  1. Allocate more time. I reserved about six months practice time to each level of the CFA. As it turned out this is really the minimum, and I should have allocated at least eight (or even ten) months, including solving practice questions. So if you get started for the CFA, you can do it in six months (perhaps even less if you have a lot of free time), but for working professionals, eight months would be somewhat comfortable.

  3. Read faster. When I set out for CFA level 1, I took much too long to read the original material. In later levels I figured out speed reading and SQ3R, so this helped me tremendously to get through the reading material faster. While I read the CFA books, I simultaneously took notes in question-answer format (my CFA study notes), so this slowed down my process even more but was extremely useful in the review phase. Faster reading techniques helped me to have more time available for solving practice problems and to review in the later levels, so I think familiarizing yourself with cursory reading techniques can help you quite a bit in your CFA exam preparation, but also in other reading tasks.

  5. Solve all original practice questions in the CFA books before solving any practice exams. I figured this out in level three only. Before that, I was busy solving almost the entire Schweser Q Bank next to reading through the material. I should have spent much more time on those practice questions and my question-answer notes, as the exam questions will be written in that style. So for level three I copied all the questions out of the books and reviewed them periodically. This was excellent practice and repetition at the same time. I should have done this for all levels.


These are the main things I would do differently if I took the CFA all over again. I am actually studying for another finance certification now, and I am using these techniques to speed up the process. You can do the same to get through your CFA exam preparation faster and more effectively!