We spoke to our community of CFA students and our team of CFA qualified tutors, and asked for their thoughts on the biggest mistakes CFA Level 1 students make. It turns out, there’s a lot. If you want to pass CFA Level 1, you’d do well to avoid these mistakes…
20 Mistakes CFA Level 1 Students Make
#1 – Not leaving enough time
This has got to be one of the biggest mistakes CFA Level 1 students make. Human nature dictates that you’ll be less productive than you think you’ll be – so allow for that. Don’t schedule in just enough time to study – allow more time than you need. 300 hours is the minimum: if you allow for more, that can only ever be a good thing.
#2- Not using your time efficiently
It’s not just about the time you have; it’s about how you use it. Reading the curriculum for 300 hours isn’t the most efficient study technique. It’s fairly passive, which makes it an ineffective way to learn. Instead, focus on proactive study techniques that force you to actively engage with what you’re learning. Self-testing is ideal, using flashcards, quizzes, or practice questions.
#3 – Not using ‘dead’ time
If you can only study when you have large blocks of free time, you’re going to struggle to fit your CFA studies around your life. Especially if you’re working at the same time. Instead, learn to make the most of small chunks of time. Look for ‘dead’ time where you could slot in a small study session: your commute; cleaning your teeth; eating breakfast; your lunch break.
That’s one of the reasons we’ve made our online CFA revision courses bitesize. It might seem counterintuitive, but learning in small chunks has been shown to be more effective than trying to maintain focus for hours on end.
#4 – Not making a study plan
This one is self-explanatory. If you don’t make a comprehensive study plan, your studies will lack direction. You’ll likely wind up covering some areas in too much detail and others in not enough. The very first thing you should do to prepare for the CFA Level 1 is make a study plan from Day 1 right up to Exam Day.
#5 – Not using the right study materials
Choosing the right materials is one of the three fundamental elements of passing the CFA, but so many students get this wrong. The most common mistake CFA Level 1 students make is either to rely on the curriculum completely, or not to use it at all. The former is inefficient, as it’s not condensing your knowledge. The latter means your study is unrooted, and you can’t be sure you know everything you need to know for the exams.
We recommend students familiarise themselves with the curriculum and then use a condensed study guide to help them progress. LearnSignal have designed our online CFA revision course to compliment your work alongside the CFA curriculum, distilling your knowledge and testing you on core concepts as you progress. For only $39.99/month for access to our entire online training library, it’s also hundreds of dollars more affordable than other providers.
#6 – Studying without revising
One of the most common mistakes CFA Level 1 students make is to assume they only need to cover material once to have learnt it. That’s simply not the case. It’s the process of going back over information and distilling core concepts that allows you to truly embed knowledge.
Approach your studies like a spiral instead: you want to cover each area multiple times, but in less detail each time until your knowledge is as condensed as possible.
Your CFA studies should be a spiral, not a straight line.
#7 – Making your study plan too rigid
Good sense dictates that you will end up skipping a study session at some point. If your study plan is too rigid, you’re going to struggle to schedule them back in. If you don’t, though, you’ll get to the exam and Murphy’s Law dictates the first 120 questions will all be on the topic you missed out.
Make your study plan flexible enough to accommodate changes comfortably. For instance, you could leave 1 in 5 study sessions open rather than allocating a topic. For instance, you might schedule in Ethics on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and Equity Investments on Thursday, but leave Friday open so you slot in any missed sessions from during the week.
#8 – Not finding your optimum environment
Many CFA students study where it’s most convenient, rather than where it’s most productive. It might be simple to roll out of bed and sit at your desk in your PJs, but if you spend half the morning blinking sleep out of your eyes and sipping tea then maybe you’d have been better off heading out to the library.
Everyone works differently, so this comes down to knowing yourself. Don’t compromise on productivity because staying at home with the radio on is the easy option.
#9 – Avoiding difficult topics
It’s human nature to avoid the things we find difficult. You see a lot of students who don’t have a maths or finance background pushing back FRA or Quantitative Methods, for instance. You might not even realise you’re doing it, but you’re likely to be bias towards subjects you find easier and enjoy. Which is fine, until you get closer to the exam and realise you still haven’t got to grips with a huge area of the curriculum.
Avoiding this mistake comes back to your study plan (there seems to be a trend emerging here…). Be strict about scheduling in time for each area of the curriculum, and ensure you stick to it. I always prefer to get the most challenging areas out of the way first instead of letting them loom over you.
#10 – Avoiding Ethics
We’ve written a whole post on CFA Ethics that goes into this in a lot more detail, but suffice to say avoiding Ethics is a really common mistake CFA Level 1 students make.
Learning Ethics now pays dividends later because the material is so similar from level to level – plus, the Ethics Adjustment dictates that a borderline paper can be passed or failed depending on how well the student has done in Ethics. Basically, there’s nothing else to say except put time into Ethics.
#11 – Not working enough
Making a CFA study plan is one thing; sticking to it is entirely another. This is a question of discipline. It’s important to have a social life too but if you’re consistently sacking off your studies to do something else, you’re going to struggle to pass.
It’s more likely you’ll stick to your plan if it was realistic in the first place. Don’t schedule in weeks and weeks of solid study without allowing yourself time off – but do stick to your plan once you’ve made it. If you’re not putting in the time, you’re not likely to earn a CFA pass.
#12 – Burning out
This is another major mistake CFA Level 1 students make. It’s natural: you start studying and you’re all shiny with good intentions, and you really want to pass. You spend every spare moment studying diligently and you become a CFA hermit. Next thing you know, your concentration dries up by the time the exams come around and you end up failing anyway.
Studying for the CFA is a balancing act. You need to look after yourself mentally and physically, and that means taking time for yourself too. Whatever it is you enjoy, make time for it on a regular basis. You can’t survive without soul food.
#13 – Not bringing the right materials
After all the work you’ve put into studying for the CFA, you’re majorly letting yourself down if you turn up to the exam without everything you need. Make sure you bring your passport, your exam admission ticket, an approved calculator (see the CFA Institute’s guidelines) and No. 2 or HB pencils. Don’t forget to check in advance that your passport name, number and expiry date match those on your admission ticket or you won’t be able to sit the exam.
You’re also going to want to bring water, and some students prefer to wear earplugs for the exam to muffle the hum of the exam hall. Whatever it is you need to make yourself most comfortable, make sure to bring with you.
#14 – Not knowing how your materials work
I’m talking about your calculator. Familiarise yourself with all the functions of your calculator, please. I know it seems obvious, but time spent faffing about is time spent not answering questions. And time is very limited on the CFA Level 1 paper. It’s such a simple mistake to avoid; there’s really no excuse.
#15 – Arriving late
Every year, there are students who turn up to the CFA exams late. Every year, those same students were convinced it would never happen to them. Doors close half an hour before the scheduled start time, and check-in starts an hour before. If you arrive more than half an hour past the scheduled start of a session, you won’t be allowed to enter at all.
It sounds trite, but do a practice run to the exam centre beforehand. Or allow double the travel time you think you need. This matters too much to take any chances.
#16 – Not pacing yourself
CFA Level 1 consists of 240 multiple choice questions split into two papers of 3 hours each. That leaves you 1.5 minutes per question, including reading and thinking time. That’s not a lot of time.
Practice a mock exam in full exam conditions before you sit your CFA Level 1. You need to know how to feels to work to that sort of time limit. Most CFA students are surprised the first time they sit a practice paper and don’t get anywhere near the end before their time is up. You don’t want to experience that feeling for the first time in the exam hall.
#17 – Cramming during your 2-hour break
I’m actually talking about two types of cramming – physical and mental. On the physical side, please don’t go away and eat a huge, heavy meal. You should eat something, but keep it light if you want to avoid potential stomach ache and almost-definite post-lunch drowsiness.
On the mental side, there’s no point in trying to cram in your study notes. It’s a long, mentally exhausting day anyway, without you trying to force yourself to focus during the two-hour break as well. Be kind to yourself; try and let yourself relax as much as possible.
#18 – Letting other students psych you out
This is another mistake CFA Level 1 students make during the 2-hour break. Don’t let other students get inside your head. Any discussion of the morning paper will only make you doubt your own performance, and self-doubt will only undermine you in the afternoon session. Block everyone else out.
#19 – Succumbing to stress
A common mistake CFA Level 1 students make is to succumb to the pressure of the environment, to the extent they can’t perform to their best. Stress can be partially mitigated by having had previous exam experience. And no, I don’t mean if you’ve already failed. I mean by sitting a practice paper in proper exam conditions.
There are also other more holistic techniques you can use if you suffer from stress. This might not be your ‘thing’, but seriously think about learning some basic meditation or yoga. You’d be surprised how much difference they can make – and what have you got to lose?
And the biggest mistake of all…
#20 – Underestimating the CFA exams
Look, I know we’ve said a lot that the CFA Level 1 isn’t that difficult, but that’s not to say that it’s easy to pass. Average pass rates for CFA Level 1 hover around the 40% mark, so it would be a mistake to underestimate how easy you’re going to find it.
I’m sure we’ve all known someone who boasts endlessly about how they studied for the CFA Level 1 in 2 weeks, or by just reading practice questions, or by walking on water blindfolded with their arms tied behind their back… let them get on with it. Keep your head down and work your way steadily through the material and you’ll be heading in the right direction. Theatrics and posturing won’t help you pass the CFA; only hard work will.
LearnSignal offer tailored online CFA revision courses to help you pass CFA Level 1. Written by a team of qualified CFA professionals and designed by best practice educational designers, our courses are designed to be easier to engage with, easier to learn from, and easier to pass with. Try your 7-Day Free Trial Here.