I Failed the CFA So You Don’t Have To: 7 Tips to Passing on the First Try

You spend six months ignoring your family, blowing off close friends’ weddings, and generally being an irritable pain in the butt. When your friends see you, the first question they ask is, “How’s CFA studying going?” because they know you have nothing else more important going on in your life. At least all your hard work pays off, right?    

 Well, sometimes it doesn’t.  

I thought I was giving my heart and soul to the exam, only to find out I failed. This hurts. Friends don’t understand that you have to wait an entire year before you can take Level II and Level III again. This means taking six months to think about what a loser you are and another six months to re-study the curriculum, including any fun little changes the CFA Institute has made over the past year.

I have failed both Level II and Level III exams. But today, after going through two BA II Plus Professional calculators, 15 Mead notebooks, and a couple cries in the shower, I am a CFA charterholder. I survived.  

The good thing about me failing (and then passing) is that I know what I did to fail those exams and I know what I did differently that helped me pass.

I passed Level I on the first try, so I’m not exactly sure what I did differently to pass, but I took that exam before I had a real job and was living at home with my parents. In other words, I was in a coddled little nest of support with very little stress and unable to partake in any of the self-destructive behaviors you will read about below.

 So here’s my hard-earned wisdom.

1. Tell Your Colleagues You’re Studying for the CFA

Oftentimes, people who are taking the CFA exam are earlier in their careers. It’s hard to prioritize studying over working when you feel the need to show the office what a good analyst you already are (see more about this below). The best way to get the time you need is to be vocal—you have to tell the office you are studying for the CFA. Many people at your office have likely been in your shoes and recall how many hours it takes—they will be more understanding than you think (and if they’re not, they’re not a long-term ally anyway).

My first time around, I tried to play it cool and not tell people in case I failed. This made it tougher for me to explain why I needed to leave early some days for things like CFA class, leading to unnecessary anxiety and, sometimes, led me to just skip class altogether.

2. Prioritize Studying vs. Working

This is a tough one. Don’t tell this part to your boss. And, of course, I mean prioritize studying vs. working in moderation.

In my case, especially in early days at a new job, I would find it easier to work than to study. Six o’clock would strike and I knew it was time to shut down the computer and open the books, but it was so much easier to just keep working. I knew how to do my job; I didn’t know exactly how to do swap calculations.  

My point is that doing your job is going to feel a lot better and easier than studying, but don’t let that feeling get in the way of study time.

3. Do Any Questions You Can Get Your Hands On

Do as many questions as humanly possible. Do all the Bloomberg test prep questions, all the end-of-chapter curriculum questions, and all the blue boxes in the curriculum. My first time around, I did a ton of reading and thinking and watching videos. But I stupidly didn’t put my knowledge to the test. It’s annoying to do questions and get them wrong and be frustrated, but you know when it’s even more annoying? Getting frustrated during the exam. Be wrong now so you’re not wrong later.

Also, always check with the errata if you don’t understand the answer. Sometimes the answer in the back of the book is just wrong.

4. Take Old Exams

When you are really done with your studying, take as many old exams as you can. Many questions/topics repeat themselves. Also, when you go over old exams and see a really “out there” question (there’s at least one in every exam, in my experience), it will prepare you a bit for a surprise question on the real exam.  

Just breathe and think to yourself, "This is the tough one—everyone will think this is tough. I’ll do my best, but I’m not going to get bogged down and waste all my time."

But make sure you don’t even peek at an old exam until you’re ready to take it. When I failed, I would take the practice tests untimed and look up the answers without trying to do them on my own first. When I passed, I timed myself, feeling the pressure and the discomfort of not being sure. Get used to feeling uncomfortable, not knowing exactly the right answer, and knowing when to move on.

5. Don’t Chit-Chat between Morning and Afternoon Sessions

Talking to friends or strangers in between the morning and afternoon sessions will psych you out. Nothing is more annoying than people talking about the exam and going over answers. Hearing that someone else put down a different answer on just one dopey question you were sure about can stick in your brain.   

This is not a time to test your mental toughness. My second time around, I got in my car, listened to classical music, ate a banana, and calmly reviewed concepts that hadn’t been tested in the morning. Like a total weirdo, I wore ear plugs while waiting in line to get back into the exam room.  

Again, be weird or uncomfortable now so you’re not standing in that same line next year.

6. Give Yourself Some Love

When I failed these exams, I was not taking care of myself. I wasn’t eating well. I wasn’t going to the gym. There are no public pictures of me from that time period due to my hermit status, so I’m not sure, but my guess is I looked haggard.   

This is not good for your brain. You need to eat right, exercise once a day, and get outside and see the sun every single day. It gets harder in winter, but even a single lap around the office or library at lunchtime can do wonders for the soul. When in doubt, call your mother for a pep talk (or father, or best friend…whoever your biggest fan is).

7. Stop Reading Blogs Like This

You’re procrastinating right now. You are at work, worrying about the exam and doing everything but actually studying. This is the last article you need to read about the CFA—now it’s time to get to work.


About the Author

Elizabeth Howell Hanano, CFA, received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in Healthcare Finance and minored in History. After spending 10 years as a financial analyst for both the buy-side and sell-side, Elizabeth is currently a freelance writer in Philadelphia.   

Twitter: @ejhowell

LinkedIn: ejhowell

Elizabeth Hanano