Successfully Completing the CFA® Curricula: The Psychological and Biological Trivia You Should Not Ignore

If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles.

The Art of War

I started the journey to becoming a CFA charterholder when I was a first-year finance doctoral student. Like all CFA candidates, I had strategically researched the topic area weights and allocated my study time. I had purposely put a hold on my social life and committed to the 300-hour study. I had carefully completed the assigned readings and attempted the practice questions. And so on. Just as I walked out of the test center planning to embrace my life again, I received the alert, "The next CFA exam registration opens in one month." 

Looking back at the days I was studying for CFA exams, it seems that passing is not only about hard work or temporarily leading an isolated life. How your brain and body function determines whether you can effectively grasp the materials and how much you can remember on exam day. Understanding the mechanisms behind these psychological and biological factors can probably save you some time and—more importantly—improve your learning experience.

The Facts about Declarative Memory

Declarative memory consists of facts (semantic) and events (episodic) that can be explicitly retrieved. When taking exams, the semantic memory about facts and knowledge is what we need to accumulate. I customized my study plan using the simple facts outlined below.

  • How well memory functions depends on how attentive you are when you are exposed to the new information. Therefore, it is less of a question of if you can or cannot study in the golden morning time (most of us can't), but more a matter of finding yourself a place and time that you can concentrate with little distractions.

  • The more memory you can associate with the new information, the more likely you are to remember it. This explains why some topics appear to be easy for you while others hardly seem to resonate. Therefore, you may want to repeat new materials more often to build the linkage. Finding the real-world applications can also refresh your memory and deepen your understanding.

  • Consolidation is the process that turns short-term memory into long-term memory. A solid review helps strengthen the neural pathways and makes the information more likely to be stored and later recalled. Part of my study routine involved making quick notes so I could revisit them the next day during my "here-and-there" time. The "here-and-there" strategy may not work well for acquiring new information, but it helped me preserve what I had learned.

So essentially, it is not about how much you have gone over, but how much you have retained.

To Sleep Or Not To Sleep

Have you ever sacrificed sleep to finish the required readings? Or stayed up late to further advance your progress? I did. I cannot remember how many nights I slept less in order to finish what I had planned to study that day. However, the next day I had an exhausted and distracted mind, which could barely remember anything.

The truth is you are not going any faster when you lose a lot of sleep, and here is why: While sleeping, your brain is filing away the day's newly formed memories and consolidating them into long-term storage. When you are sleep-deprived, the new memory files can easily mix up or get lost, which makes them almost impossible to retrieve in the future. Therefore, if you always live by a regulated biological clock like I do, you may not want to interrupt it or it would not help you much. However, if you have to stay up late, a small glass of wine or a cup of milk may quickly soothe you into sleep mode.

Take Breaks

The 300-hour rule indicates that one needs to spend two or three hours (or more) a day studying. Ironically, humans' average attention span is about 20 minutes. Therefore, stretching, drinking water, and even pacing around while studying is not a waste of time. You need those breaks so you can refocus. In fact, these quick rests can make you feel recharged and revived.

To counteract the impact of taking breaks, I extended my study time to six hours a day during weekends. I took three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon to mimic the rhythm for exam day. This allowed me to take breaks without feeling guilty or stressed.

Cold Feet

A day before I took my Level II exam, even though I felt I was prepared, I couldn't help wondering if there was any chance I wouldn't need to take the test. My thoughts went far and wide, including thinking that maybe a big blizzard would cause the exam to be canceled—even though I was taking the test in Honolulu, Hawaii, in June.

Statistics show that more than 20% of the registered candidates do not show up for the test. Remember that if you show up, you have a 50% chance of passing, but you have a 0% chance of passing if you do not show up.

Score on Exam Day

After so many days and nights of study, voluminous books, and exercises, you finally move the ball to the end zone. Even so, you may still black out or stumble on some questions. My approach was to skip those questions for a moment and finish the ones I was confident with. It is harder to retrieve your memories when you are stressed out, and you can calm your mind by showing yourself that you can get questions right.

On exam day, I stayed away from high levels of sugar and refined carbohydrates because they make me sleepy. I made my own lunch with whole-wheat bread, eggs, lean beef (pork also works), and cucumber. Nuts are also good. You want food with high protein but less fat to boost your energy level without causing drowsiness.

Try to avoid the impulse to have a high-sugar snack as a reward after an exhausting morning. Eat right and eat enough, but do not overeat. Remember that you have another three-hour exam in the afternoon!

Finally, have a big meal after the exam and have an exuberant celebration with your family and friends!

About the Author

Feifei Zhu, PhD, CFA, is an Assistant Professor of Finance at Radford University. Her research focus is on international finance markets and corporate finance. She teaches corporate finance, international finance, and investments at both the undergraduate and MBA level. She obtained her master's in Economics and PhD in Finance from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Feifei Zhu