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Taking the Exam: Tips & Tactics

Remember "40/50/10"
As a general guideline, Stalla recommends a 40/50/10 model of preparation to answer a combination of basic, moderately difficult, and very difficult questions. Although the proportions are only estimates, our candidates tell us that they are helpful gauges for preparation.

40 percent fundamental concepts Expect about 40 percent of the exam questions to be relatively straightforward. These should be readily answered if you understand the most basic principles and can do the most basic calculations found in the assigned readings.

50 percent moderately difficult Prepare for about 50 percent of the questions to be more challenging. They will require an in-depth understanding of the subject matter, the ability to solve more complicated problems, and a demonstration that you paid detailed attention to the assigned readings.

10 percent very difficult Prepare for the remainder of the questions, about 10 percent, to be very difficult, requiring you to make proper inferences from basic principles found in the assigned readings. You will need to exhibit good analytical skills by solving problems that may not have been directly encountered in the readings, but which are solvable by using the principles learned in the right way. You may encounter obscure trivia, but for the most part, there is no attempt to pose “trick” questions.

Manage your time wisely
Bearing in mind the 40/50/10 model, we recommend that you approach the exam in two or three passes.

On the first pass, rack up as many points as possible as quickly as you can. Answer only those questions that you find easy and feel you can answer in one minute or less. Skip long questions or those with less readily apparent answers or solution methods. If you can answer the easier questions in half or two-thirds their allotted time, with 85 to 90 percent accuracy, you can compile almost three-quarters of the points required to pass the exam and still have one-half to one-third of the total test time still available! This gives you a big advantage.

On the second pass, answer the “somewhat difficult” questions and the easier ones that took too long to answer during the first pass. You want to get 60 to 75 percent of these more difficult questions correct. You should have “banked” some time during the first pass, so you have more time to spend on these more difficult or lengthy questions. You still must go fast enough to answer all questions before the exam session ends. So, don’t spend too much time on a single question. Just use your best judgment and move on!

On the third pass, make sure that you’ve recorded an answer for every question on the exam. Leave no answer blank.

Read the questions carefully
Reading a question too quickly or scanning it in the interests of time could cause you to misinterpret it or jump to the wrong conclusion and give the wrong answer. Despite the time pressure, read slowly enough to make sure you understand precisely what each question is asking. Some questions are long and confusing, because of their wording or because they contain too much information. Sometimes the best plan is to conclude quickly that such a question will take up too much time on the first pass and come back to it on the second.

Answer precisely; there’s only one correct response
The multiple-choice and item set portions of the CFA Exams are machine graded. In these cases, you get no partial credit for using the right methodology to come up with an inaccurate answer. So go slowly enough to be precise and not make careless math errors. Remember this especially on your first pass through the exam. The closer you can get to a perfect score on the easier questions, the higher your odds of passing the exam, no matter how difficult the other questions may be.

Give the answer found in the readings
Answers to CFA Exam questions reflect the assigned readings only. Conflicts with what you possibly believe, what you learned somewhere else, or what you do on the job are to be resolved in favor of what the assigned readings say.

Avoid “over-thinking” questions
Over-thinking questions has been the downfall of many smart candidates. If your solution to a question is highly complex and cumbersome, you are probably off on a tangent. The examiners are trying to assess your knowledge of the subjects covered in the assigned readings, not trying to trick you. Take the attitude that all questions can be answered in a straightforward manner by applying the principles contained in the readings. Answer questions based on primary rather than secondary or tertiary effects.

Fill in the right oval
This sounds elementary, but it’s extremely important. If you take the exam in two passes, answering the easier questions on the first pass and the harder ones on the second, take great care that the number of the oval you fill in on the answer form corresponds to the number of the question you’re answering. Carelessness here can cost you dearly.

Do Not Try to "Game" the Test
The examiners are fully aware that many candidates try to guess what will be on the exam based on previous exams or the relative importance of the subjects within each primary topical area in the curriculum, and then study only those areas. Do not make this mistake!

Although the percentage of the exam questions that will relate to each primary topic may be fixed by CFA Institute, the exact subjects within each of these primary topics (and their associated Learning Outcome Statements) that will be tested are selected using a stratified random sampling process. The constrained random selection process within the primary topics means that less important subjects within each primary topic have a significant chance (maybe 25%) of being on the exam. In addition, topics that have been heavily emphasized in past exams may be completely ignored on the current exam, while subjects that have not been covered on previous exams may be heavily emphasized.

While effort is made to cover important subjects thoroughly, there is also an effort to make the tests different from year to year so that candidates cannot successfully "game" the exam. Learning Outcome Statements that have been emphasized in past years might not be emphasized this year. There are a sufficient number of readings and sub-topics covered in the CFA Institute Study Guides to ensure that many will be covered on the exam, but others will not. However, there is no way to determine in advance what sub-topics will be covered and which ones will be ignored in any given year. Candidates are advised, therefore, to be thoroughly prepared in all subjects assigned in the study program. Going over past exam questions, to the extent they are available, is recommended for practice in problem-solving, but not as a means of determining the probability that a particular type of question will appear on a given year's examination.

Release the Pressure
The CFA Exam places a lot of pressure on candidates. This pressure is positive when it provides an incentive to study and prepare well. However, pressure can become a negative force on exam day if it leads to anxiety and/or panic that adversely affects one's test-taking efficiency. Therefore, starting one or two weeks before the date of the exam, make a conscious effort to relieve the psychological pressure of the exam itself. In particular, try to reduce the feeling that passing this exam is akin to a "life and death" situation.

Something else that candidates can do to relieve anxiety is to visit the exam site one or two weeks before the exam date. Make sure you know how long it takes to get to the site, where parking is available and the exact location of the exam room. If you can, go into the exam room and get comfortable with the surroundings. Make sure to also check Stalla's and CFA Chicago's websites a few weeks before the exam for free final preparation tips and strategies that will be helpful to you as exam day approaches.

The right attitude
Develop an attitude like Olympic athletes who train for years for one performance.
On the scheduled day of the event, they know that just one misstep can mean that all their hard work will be for nothing. Yet, if they dwell too much on that possibility, the likelihood of faltering actually increases. Athletes cope by realizing that they have trained and practiced countless times, and now all they can do is complete one more exactly as they’ve practiced. The outcome is really out of their hands; it is up to others to judge their performance. They resolve to simply do what they’ve practiced and let the chips fall where they may.

Do the same
Keep reminding yourself that you are as prepared as you possibly can be at this time. The hard work is over, now just go out and perform at your peak. Don’t worry about the outcome; that decision is out of your hands. Truly adopting such an attitude can help reduce “performance anxiety” on exam day, an important part of writing a successful exam.

Remember that the dedication and commitment you devote to exam preparation now will make all the difference to your success. We wish you the best of success on Exam Day!

Source: CFA Chicago