Preparing for the CFA level 1 exam? Read my top 7 exam tips!
1. Know your calculator inside out!
The level 1 exam is characterised by extreme time constraints (90 seconds per question!).
Although the CFA Institute promotes market competition, this isn’t reflected in the choice of calculator as you are only allowed to use 2 calculators: both models are not the most practical ones (and aren’t cheap either!) and it took me about 1.5-2 months to become fully comfortable with them. Hence, start in advance, do lots of calculation exercises so you ace the easy calcs questions and put aside time for the more challenging financial analysis questions.
2. Write your answers and calculations on the questions sheet
CFA provides you with one questions booklet and one answers booklet and tells you at the start of the exam that you are not allowed to write any intermediate results or notes on the answer sheet. What they are less clear about is whether you are allowed to write on the questions sheets! Hence, use that opportunity: write down calculations, cross out answers that are clearly incorrect, and encircle the correct answers so that you can easily check your work once finished.
3. Ensure you can track exam progress by doing lots of mock exams
Speed is a key aspect in the level 1 exam, therefore you need to ensure you know if you are still on track during the exam or need to speed up: i.e. you need to have some signposts along the way. Do lots, and lots of mock exams (I did around 20) so you get a feeling how much time each topic requires: most likely ethics, economics and quantitative methods will take the least time, and financial analysis will be the most time consuming.
4. Have spare materials at hand and visit the exam location
The CFA 1 exam is twice a year, rather pricey, and consists of 2 gruelling sessions of 3 hours each: I haven’t come across anyone who wasn’t stressed before the exam or extremely tired after! Avoid any unnecessary drama where you can by having a spare calculator, writing materials, and erasers. Also, visit the exam site a couple of weeks before the exam day to get a feeling about the travelling time and where exactly to go, so you can focus all you energy on what is important that day: your exam!
5. Leave enough time to check your answers
I have been surprised several times by my own stupidity during a CFA exam! Although I circled the correct answer on the question sheet, I ticked the wrong answer on the answer sheet! For some reason, the level of stress and time pressure apparently lead to odd situations. Hence, allow yourself at least 10 minutes in the end to compare your encircled answers on the question sheet with the ticked answers on the answer sheet.
6. Consume quality foods during the day
The CFA exam is a highly intense 2 times 3 hours test which requires a high constant energy level. Therefore, ensure you consume good food before the exam and during
lunchtime: fruit, and muesli bars are ideal prep food.
Also, be aware that although CFA does not allow you to consume food during the exam, you are allowed to consume small sugar bars like dextro energy. I found these a great way of staying concentrated for the full 3 hours (and know people having similar experiences) so test them out when you are practicing mock exams and they might also help you in staying focused for the full ride.
7. Don’t cheat – ever!
Unlike other exams or organisations, the CFA institute is rather strict (or ruthless depending on your interpretation!) when it comes to exam fraud. The figures speak from themselves: every year between 80 and 400 people are caught cheating showing that CFA institute monitors its candidates rigorously. Not only does this imply that your result won’t count, but also that you may not be able to participate in any future exams for a couple of years. Last, and not least, your name will be published in the CFA journal: probably the worst publicity you can wish for current and future employers!
Therefore, don’t cheat, don’t even think about it! Failing an exam is annoying, however the consequences for being caught are such that I sometimes wonder why people even consider it.
And never forget, the number of people scoring more than 70% for each topic is extremely rare: you are not supposed to know everything, and when you are having a hard time during the exam, others will probably too. As long as your score is good compared to the rest of the pack, you should be OK for the CFA 1 exam.
Are you preparing for the CFA level 1 exam? Have you already done the exam and some tips as well? Please share your insights!