There’s more to passing the CFA exams than setting aside time to study. Mastering new material as an adult takes a different skill set. Some candidates seem to know this intuitively and set up their lives to win. If you want a brush up on how to fit CFA prep into your already busy life, this post is for you.

I’m Smart How Could I Lose?

One thing most candidates fail to consider is that everyone who takes the CFA exam is smart. Unlike past school settings, the bell curve with the CFA exam is distributed among those usually only included in the right tail. So you have to be the best of the best to pass.

There are four key questions you want affirmative answers to before you register for the exam. We share these here after observations of hundreds of candidates. Those who pass exhibit distinct patterns.

  1. Can I sustain disciplined action toward a single goal?

  2. Am I willing — and able — to commit to a minimum of 300 hours focused study?

  3. Is my knowledge of finance up to date?

  4. Do I have a support structure that will applaud my discipline and help keep me on track?

Answer “No” to more than 1 of these? You can still pass the exams but you will work harder and likely not pass on the first attempt.

There is nothing wrong with undertaking this journey without expectations of taking each exam just once. With the new schedule of multiple exam windows each year you can still complete the program in a reasonable length of time.

Is the Secret More Time in Study?

Short answer “partially”. There is a correlation between how many hours a candidate puts in and the outcome. But other factors are far more important than number of hours.

You must understand that the structure of the CFA program is difficult. Self-study is difficult. Mastering high level investment knowledge is difficult, let alone trying to master it after a full day at a demanding job.

You can see by now, right, that the secret to passing is in the way you set up your study plan AND in the mindset you have about the study itself.

Do you wonder if your current study plan will get you over the finish line? Take a 2-minute survey and get your score!

How Do You Think About How You Think About Your CFA Prep?

That’s a serious question. You’ve heard of metacognition, or thinking about how you think.

Imagine how much you would be learning while you read if the answer to this question is “I hate to study”, or “I’m not smart enough to pass this exam”, or “I failed once and I’ll fail again”. Every hour you spend answering this question of how you think about how you think about your study with any of these three phrases is maybe 15 productive minutes. Maybe. Which means you’re like a salmon swimming upstream.

How you want to study is with the flow. Going with the flow means you are fully engaged with the material, even enjoying yourself. This concept of flow comes from a book of the same name authored by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He describes the state in a a 2004 TED Talk. “There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback.”

Why Does Study Seem Harder Now Than Formal School?

Honestly this is the most important question. And there are 2 answers.

  1. You are an adult. Your brain has changed from being a learner to being a do-er. You have to re-learn how to learn.

  2. What makes you good at your job makes you bad at being a student.

We hope those answers are good news for you. Now that you know WHAT to do to make study better you can easily shift right? If you’re like most adults, no. Answers are pretty easy and clear but switching from work and life mode to study mode is not easy.

But the switch is not rocket science either. It takes discipline.

There it is again. Discipline. Really that’s the only secret to success in the CFA exams. Discipline to find and spend the time at study. Discipline to get back to school-level study focus and engagement with the material. Discipline to keep a mindset that works for you so you can be productive in all your hours of study.

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