CFA®CFA® Tips and TricksFinance

How To Cram for the Level 1 CFA® Exam

a young cfa level I student preparing intensely for the exam

If you aspire to become a Chartered Financial Analyst or a CFA, you will have to work hard to get there. The CFA Exam is no piece of cake, with three individual levels designed to test different parts of your knowledge. Cumulatively, all exam levels can take as long as four or five years to pass. If you are overwhelmed and trying to do some last-minute cramming, you certainly are not alone. Countless CFA hopefuls before you have done the same, and many of them have passed! Even if you are cramming, having a strategy is essential. Follow the tips in this guide for a productive cram session.

Understanding the Level 1 CFA Exam

Before you can delve into the material of the CFA Exam, you must first understand the characteristics of the test itself. The Level 1 exam is offered four times a year, with upcoming dates in 2022 scheduled for February, May, August, and November. To register, you must satisfy one of the following criteria:

  • Have 4,000 hours of experience in a professional setting; 
  • Possess a bachelor’s degree or equivalent (or no more than 11 months remaining before graduation)

If you qualify to register, you will pay the CFA institute’s one-time enrollment fee of $450 (this fee is not charged for either Level 2 or Level 3).

The exam is offered in a computer-based format with an interface that displays the number of questions and the time remaining for your test period. You can highlight, strikethrough, or flag questions to aid in answering. There is typically a tutorial offered to candidates before starting the exam.

You will be allotted 270 minutes to complete the exam, split into two 135-minute sessions. During this time, you will have 180 questions to answer, which gives you about 1.5 minutes per question to produce a response. You should keep this in mind when pacing your study sessions.

Set Aside Time and Eliminate Distractions

Once you understand what to expect from the test, you can start preparing by studying the material. To do so, though, you must first set aside a dedicated portion of time and eliminate any distractions that might derail your focus. Some of the most common distractions from studying include:

  • Text messages and phone calls
  • The temptation to check social media
  • Impulse to get up and get a snack
  • TV playing in the background
  • Sounds from others in the house

It is essential to do everything you can to eliminate these distractions and focus exclusively on your study session. If you are cramming, you don’t have much time to spare, so you can’t lose any of it by letting your attention stray. Turn off your phone and close your door so that you can study and succeed.

Assess What You Need to Focus On

With distractions gone, you can focus on what is most important: the Level 1 CFA Exam contents. The exam focuses on ten topics,  weighted as follows:

  • Alternative – 5 – 8%
  • Derivatives – 5 – 8%
  • Portfolio Management – 5 – 8%
  • Corporate Issuers (this was changed for 2022) – 8 – 12%
  • Economics – 8 – 12%
  • Quantitative Methods – 8 – 12%
  • Equity Investments – 8 – 12%
  • Fixed Income – 8 – 12%
  • Ethics – 15 – 20%
  • Financial Reporting and Analysis – 13 – 17%

You might naturally be inclined to think that your cram session should focus on the subjects that make up most of the test, right? But it’s not that simple. Rather than dive right into the subjects, grab a pencil and rate your confidence in each category on a scale of 1 – 3. Let a 1 mean that you desperately need to study and a 3 signal that you feel pretty good about your mastery of the topic. 

Then, focus on the areas you designated a 1, starting with the most heavily weighted, and work your way towards the areas that are a 2, followed by 3. This will help you build your knowledge without wasting time reviewing the information you already know.

Develop and Maintain a Steady Pace

You know what you need to work on, and now you must come up with a strategic plan. When cramming, whether it is in a week or an hour, you can’t be productive without pacing yourself. To develop a steady pace, you need to break up your target material and allot a specific amount of time to each section. A timer can help you precisely manage individual blocks of time. 

Create an itinerary for yourself as in the following example intended for a six-hour cram session covering one of the Level 1 topics:

  • Hour 1: Create flashcards for the subject area you are studying.
  • Hour 2: Go back through the material, taking note of what you need to know. If you are a UWorld student, you can simply review your performance graphs to track performance and compare your progress with others. 
  • Hour 3: Spend time focusing on the material that you are most unfamiliar with. 
  • Hour 4: Reflect on what questions you have about the material that remains unanswered and seek answers.
  • Hour 5: Answer practice questions on the topic.
  • Hour 6: Create customized exams based on your unique study needs. 

You can apply this same principle to each of the different topics you’ll be focusing on, especially if you have only a week to study. In any case, adjust your plan as needed to focus more or less time on weak or strong areas, respectively. Remember to stick to whatever plan you make — pacing is the key to progress.

Hit All the Essential Checkpoints

As you assess what you need to work on most and how much time you’ll spend on each topic, be sure to pay attention to the amount of material covered in the CFA Program curriculum. Take a look at each reading that corresponds to the topic you are studying for, and make sure that you’re allotting enough time to get through the reading. Note that because the readings can be pretty lengthy (sometimes more than 100 pages), you won’t be able to cram them entirely but only select portions.

Since you are cramming, you’re short on time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hit essential checkpoints. Identify key checkpoints to reach within each cramming session. In addition to entire readings, a checkpoint can be any of the following:

  • A specific section or sections of a passage in the CFA Program curriculum;
  • A particular number of flashcards to get through each day;
  • A number of mock exams to complete.

Pacing yourself to achieve your checkpoints is an effective way to ensure that you are making steady progress and gaining mastery of specific concepts, even when subject to significant time constraints. Be intentional and specific when measuring your checkpoints, and make sure you give yourself reasonable goals with the time that you do have.

Invest Time in Taking Practice Exams

An essential part of studying — even if you are cramming — is practicing for the actual test. Practice tests are an ideal way to prepare for exam day, get used to a timed test, and ensure that you know the material as well as you can. Try to tackle at least one mock exam in the same environment as the day of the actual CFA Exam. As you take the mock exam, keep the following principles in mind:

  • Pace yourself just like you would during a cram session
  • Try to utilize active learning for retaining concepts and formulas

Study Solutions for CFA Exam Cramming

Thousands of CFA candidates sit for the Level 1 Exam each year. Unfortunately, less than half of those candidates will pass — but that doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the success stories! Even if you are cramming, you can pass the CFA Exam using the right materials and employing proven strategies. 

UWorld Finance has the resources you need to succeed, no matter your study time frame. With 90 days of free test prep access, you can be sure that you are thoroughly prepared and confident when exam day arrives. We wish you the best of luck!


Click here for a FREE trial of our Level 1 CFA Learning Platform.