Let's say you're here because of a career change led you to the CFA exams or maybe you're already working in finance, but you need more experience. Or perhaps you don’t want to have to live like a graduate student any longer. Well here you are, with your non-finance degree, joining a CFA exam study group full of people who already know what a standard deviation is, already have their calculator steps down, and already have a structured plan in mind. Don't worry, you too can pass the CFA exams with ease even without a finance degree. You’re smart, you know how to study, and you’re determined to achieve your next career goal. So here are ten steps to help you get there! Thank us later.
1. Acknowledge Your Ignorance
It's important to accept that you are starting a bit behind, compared to someone fresh out of a finance or related degree. However, this is nothing you can’t overcome. You just have a little extra work to do and we're damn sure you'll get it done! I mean, you're here trying to learn more aren't you? That's already a huge step!
2. Prioritise Learning How to Use Your Calculator
When calculations are involved in answering exam questions, the more fluent you are in using your calculator, the more time you save on the exam. And time is everything!
Learn all the calculator functions, getting the basics down first, and then the more complicated formulas as your study progresses. As with learning any instrument, practice until it becomes part of your muscle memory.
3. Learn the Vocabulary
You are likely to be a bit behind on learning the language of the investment industry. From the textbook vocabulary to the jargon of a trading desk, there’s a lot to master. Take the time to learn and use the language; don’t try to learn concepts “in translation.”
Tip: Try to write down the terms in words that you understand - it's scientifically proven that writing things down helps retain what you learn.
4. Improve Your Math Skills
Sure, you’ll have your calculator, and you’ll be a whiz with it by exam day, but you can usually rule out at least one answer, if not two, just by eyeballing the math.
5. Read the Curriculum Carefully
The prose is not merely the filler between equations but an explanation of them. It also gives you the background, context, and often the evolution of the ideas you’ll be tested on, which will make them easier to understand. While you may grasp the math in the abstract, the curriculum will really bring it home for you.
6. Spend More Time Studying the “Basic Knowledge” Sections of the Curriculum
Besides taking up huge portions of the exam, they're also fundamental knowledge. Vocabulary from accounting, for example, permeates the Equity and Fixed Income curriculum, and Portfolio Management relies heavily on Quant calculations.
The more familiar you are with those basic concepts and vocabulary, the easier it will be to master the stuff in the advanced curriculum.
7. Don’t Skip Ethics
You might let your anxiety about the seemingly hardcore sections of the exam persuade you to put your efforts elsewhere. You might think that this is the easiest part of the exam because it relies most on reading interpretation, where you've exceeded. Sure, you may have an advantage with your strengths in reading and reasoning, but you still have to know the standards. Don’t blow your chance to ace this section by neglecting it, especially since it’s an extremely significant part of your overall score.
8. Review Some General Exam-Taking Tips
Non-finance degrees often require papers instead of exams, so maybe it’s been a while since you’ve had to take a timed, multiple-choice exam. But that’s precisely what this is: you cannot explain, argue, persuade, or ask for an extension, so be sure to take advantage of any multiple-choice exam taking advice and best practices.
9. Practice in an Exam-Like Setting And Then Practice Some More
Maybe it’s been a while since you had to sit and deliver under pressure, but this is the major leagues. The more comfortable you can get with exam-like conditions, the more comfortable you will be on exam day and confident in your ability to pass the CFA exam.
10. Don’t Be Intimidated
Yes, some—maybe most—of the other candidates are starting ahead of you, but remember, you only have to pass the exam, not surpass the other candidates.
These exams are not scaled, so your absolute score determines your fate. Your performance is the only one that matters.
The CFA designation is a great step in your finance career, no matter your starting point. And passing the exams is possible, even from the back of the field. It’s a commitment well worth making, but be sure to give yourself every possible advantage. Good luck! We're so certain you'll pass the CFA exam!