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Designing a strategy to re-take the CFA® exam

This guide will help you focus on the areas where you need the most work plus develop a plan for preparing to successfully re-take the CFA exam.

This blog post has been updated and was originally authored by Kaplan Schweser.

When preparing to re-take the CFA® exam at any level, it can be difficult to determine where to start. This guide will help you focus on the areas where you need the most work plus develop a plan for preparing to successfully re-take the CFA exam.

Review your banding

Along with your results notification, if you’ve been unsuccessful, the CFA Institute will have given you a banding. The banding shows your decile in the fail population.

Bands 10, 9 & 8:

Being in the 10th banding means you were a fraction away from passing. Sometimes, being so close is more frustrating than missing a pass by a long shot. On the positive side, this means you were only a few correct questions away from passing, indicating you don’t have fundamental deficiencies in your knowledge or technique.

The first thing to do is to review your ‘Ethics’ score. The CFA Institute explicitly states your score on the ‘Ethics’ portion will determine a pass or fail, if your overall score is around the marginal passing score (MPS). If you’re in these bands and scored poorly on ‘Ethics’, it’s likely you’ll know the cause of your fail.

Next, check whether you completed all the necessary practice questions. The questions you should have completed before sitting for the real exam are detailed in step 4. ‘Completed’ doesn’t just mean answering the question, but also reviewing the answer. Reviewing the solution is particularly important if you want to learn from your mistakes and improve your mastery of the curriculum.

Typically, your re-take plan will consist of bringing any weaker areas up to speed and maintaining your core knowledge, with the primary focus being on practice questions. Most question banks contain thousands of questions and allow you to custom build exams around specific LOS, readings and study sessions. You can also use online question banks to replicate mock exams.

If you’re in these bands, initially try focusing on self-study. You can then add a review course later in your studies, especially if you feel you’d benefit from a refresher on both technical content and exam technique.

Bands 7, 6, & 5

These bands indicate you were outside the top 30% of unsuccessful candidates. Bandings in these regions indicate either your knowledge or exam technique were insufficient to pass the exam.

First, you need to analyse what caused you to fall into one of these categories. The most common reason will be you ran out of time to properly prepare and you knew you had weak areas going into the exam. Candidates falling into these categories due to technical deficiency often benefit from attending weekly exam prep classes again. Next time in class, you’ll know exactly where you need to focus.

If you felt it was not the technical difficulty of the curriculum that caused you to fail, it’s more likely to be an issue of insufficient question practice. This is normally a result of running out of study time. Candidates falling into this category will need to predominantly focus on question practise and will benefit from attending a review course.

Bands 4, 3, 2 & 1

If you scored in these bands, you were unfortunately in the bottom 40% of those failing the exam.

Before considering a re-take, you need to identify the reason for this result. If you lacked the time required to properly prepare for the exam, then a lesson has been learned. First, you need to question your study technique. Studying the technical material with insufficient question practice can cause failure, no matter how many hours you dedicate to preparation. Most students can cope with the technical nature of the curriculum, but those who struggle with applying quantitative material may require more than the recommended 300 hours of study. It’s important to remember 300 hours is a guideline based on an average and it can take far more than this to prepare.

The majority of candidates in these deciles will have both technical weaknesses and poor exam technique. Technical deficiencies can be improved by studying the CFA Institute texts and exam prep provider materials, like those developed by Kaplan Schweser. Taking mock exams and attending review courses can also improve exam technique.

Review your topic performance

The next step is to identify your strong and weak areas. When designing your re-take plan, it’s ideal to re-start with the areas in which you clearly under performed. Be careful not to ignore your stronger areas entirely, as you may find you’ve substituted weak areas for previously strong areas.

Any area where you scored less than 50% in the exam is considered a weak area. This is where you should begin studying. Next, review your moderate areas (50-70%), before reviewing the areas you performed well in the exam (>70%). This helps identify an outline of the order  you should tackle the subjects for a re-take.

Put together a plan for each topic

Based on your scoring, you can develop a new plan for each topic.

Areas scoring <50%

It’s best to start re-studying these areas from first principles. Start by reading and reviewing both the CFA Institute and exam prep provider materials to see if it helps improve your understanding.

Once you reach the end of each reading, tackle both the exam prep provider and CFA Institute end-of-chapter questions. You’re looking for significant improvement to be reflected in your scores. If you’re not noticing an improvement in certain areas, it’s worth using a question bank to design tests covering only these readings. Once you’re scoring above 70% on questions for a specific reading, move on to the next.

Areas scoring 50–70%

You won’t know exactly how close to 50% or 70% your performance score was in these areas, so it’s best to start with a quick review of the study material. While reading, think about how comfortable you feel with this material, then tackle the end-of-chapter questions in both the CFA Institute texts and exam prep provider notes. Scores below 70% indicate you have yet to master the material and more in-depth study and question practice is needed.

Areas scoring >70%

The good news is your performance on the previous exam indicates you had a general understanding of these areas and can translate the knowledge into correct answers on the exam. The main risk with these areas is you may give them very little time and attention. As a result, what was a strong area may become a weak area.

It’s recommended to start with the end-of-chapter questions from both the CFA Institute and your exam prep provider, rather than re-reading the material. Poor performance on these questions indicates you should go back and review the material. Most of what you need to refresh and maintain in these areas should come from question practise.

Start studying early

Don’t start your re-take plan too late as you’ll want plenty of time to tackle the material you find technically challenging. The earlier you start, the less invasive study becomes in both your home and work life. Plan to leave a minimum of one month to review topics and mock exams. By enrolling in the exam early, you’ll get the lowest possible exam entry fee.

We wish you all the best in achieving a successful result in your exam re-take. Good luck in your studies. With effort and application, you can pass the CFA exam.


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