Obtaining Your Charter: A Principled Approach to Success
Hi. My name is Ben, and I’m a CFA charterholder. And the fact that you’re reading this blog means that you’re at least curious about becoming one too. As a charterholder, I understand what it means and what it costs to make that commitment—both in dollars and in your personal life.
Maybe you’ve been browsing the internet for study tips. If so, you’ve likely uncovered some of the more popular “secrets” to success, which probably look something like this:
Study for 300 hours (or more)
Tell your family and friends you’ll see them on the other side
Participate in study groups
The point of this blog is not to refute the usefulness of the above as a guide, but prescriptive statements alone are too shallow to be of any real use. The idea that there is a secret to success or “secret sauce” a candidate must follow only creates noise in an already stressful process.
However, there are a few things that I've learned throughout my academic career that have helped me obtain my charter and balance my responsibilities as a husband, parent, and employee. To keep me on track, I employed a more principle-based approach by identifying a balance of rhythm, responsibility, and relevance.
It's not the quantity of study hours that matter as much as the quality of study and the rhythm you maintain throughout the process. Taking the time to think through the concepts is better than merely burning through the seemingly endless amount of text and formulas in a hopeless attempt to memorize the curriculum. By the time you get to Level 2, rote memorization is a recipe for failure.
My approach was to spend about 7 to 10 hours each week studying to understand the subject matter and build a foundation. Then, 30 days before test day, I ramped that up to four hours a day to increase my memorization, hoping to pick up the details that would likely gain me a few extra points per section.
In addition, to create a safety net and objectively gauge my progress, I gave completely random answers for about 20% of each practice exam—I figured at least two topics might leave me dumbfounded on exam day, and if I could factor that in and still pass my practice exams, I was in good shape.
When you create a study plan, take into account your responsibilities in other areas of your life. This helps you set aside the time to create and sustain the quality of study needed to pass the exam. Scheduling an hour or two a day a few times a week to concentrate and methodically get through the curriculum is better than using the “here and there” approach to obtain an arbitrary benchmark of minimum study hours. The relentless pursuit of quantity of hours versus quality only distracts from other important areas of your life—which, when neglected, can derail your study time (and potentially, your success) altogether.
In setting up your plan, there will always be higher responsibilities that will never relinquish their place at the top of the list. As for me, I have a wife, three kids, and a full-time job, so there were many hours I couldn’t devote to study. A big part of this process was sitting down with my wife to discuss things; she would also have to make the commitment with me. After all, I would need her support in getting and maintaining the quality study time needed for success.
I know many of you also have jobs, as well as people who depend on you. The key here is to leverage that support network to help you re-prioritize the remainder of your time. In my opinion, this is where you truly decide to set yourself up for either success or failure. If you can’t or won’t make this time available to study, then you need to ask yourself if you really want to be a CFA.
There are a few ways to get connected with others to commiserate and help each other get through the curriculum. However, I often found that these groups could become a distraction when conversations turn philosophical and take the CFA Institute's learning outcome statements to places they shouldn't go. If it's not in the books, then don't worry about it. The last thing you need is more to think about.
If you should find yourself in one of these groups...run! They are a huge “time suck” and your time is better spent with the books. Also, if you are a serial poster on any message boards and find yourself still failing after multiple attempts, maybe you should reassess the value of these forums as a tool for passing.
Even if you use all of the above, passing the exams still takes grit and determination. But identifying your personal critical success factors is a methodical and principled decision that, when executed, correctly will lead to success and, hopefully, your CFA charter.
About the Author
Ben Boulris, CPA, CFA, is a risk advisory consultant with DHG in New York City. He advises global banks in areas including restructuring, simplification, consolidation, and comprehensive capital analysis and review (CCAR). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Prior to entering the consulting and financial services industry, Ben served six years in the U.S. Navy.
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