One of the best resources out there is Analyst Forum. It's an online forum populated by people who are studying for (or have already passed) the various CFA levels. I read it regularly, and you should too - it's absolutely superb.
One poster (BBD) recently shared his strategy on how to pass the exam on limited study time. I've copied it below. I'd also note that (while the poster recommended the Schweser study notes, Stalla also has good material):
I have learnt several things on this forum during the 3 years I studied for CFA. There were 10 of us who started CFA together and 3 of us completed it 3/3; 4 did not complete the course. I thought I would share some ideas that might help others.Read the whole thing (and the associated comments) here.
The key challenge in CFA is huge volume of material. The subject matter is generally not very complex (except one or two areas like Derivatives or Bonds). If some folks find the complexity to be severe, they need to a) allow more time to studies and b) perhaps reconsider their reasons for doing CFA. For most people with some financial background, volume and not complexity will be the main issue.
To master the challenge posed by volume I suggest the following steps with consideration that only 50 days are left. These steps apply to all levels. In the brackets I note some anecdotes:
There is no time left to argue which notes or whether or not to refer to the text books. This is the time to just do it - imagine you are driving at 120mph and focus fully.
- Master the basics - this comprises roughly 50% of the volume. This also represents the easiest marks that you cannot afford to lose. The way to do it is noted in the steps below.
- Get hold of Schweser VCDs. In 2-4 hr sessions you can cover a SS. The lectures give a good overview of the most important points. Jot down the main points in on a note pad as you listen to the CD. [I often found learning new concepts easy by listening to something instead of reading a large amount of text. Also it improved my retention. I bought my set second hand from another friend who also did CFA 3/3 and recommended it highly.]
- Next read the Schweser Secret Sauce. This is a condensed version of all the notes and consists of roughly 200 pages. After listening to the DVDs, it's quick and easy to do it. On average you could cover SS in 1-2hrs. [Make sure you always have the Secret Sauce notes with you. Read these often. They are the basics and you must master it. I read these during my commute, at breakfast etc and knew it inside out]
- Go for the kill - attack all the questions you can find on the SS. These must include all the old exam questions. Do not restrict the questions you answer. You must attempt all the questions you can find. Practise, practise, practise. Some questions you will not be able to answer because you dont know enough of the SS. Don't panic. Follow the step 5 below.
- For the questions you cannot answer, refer to the Schweser notes. Scan through the whole notes, you will already be familiar with most of it by covering the Secret Sauce and VCD, and then focus on the area you find difficult or don't know about.
- With ~2hrs on DVD + 2hrs on Secret Sauce + 4hrs on questions + 2 hrs on weak areas, you can cover a SS in 8 hours. Depending on the time available, you could comfortably cover a SS in 2 days. That was roughly my average. 18 SS took +/- 36 days and the remaining days were for revision.
- Volume can only be mastered by revision. Don't try to learn a SS 100% the first time. If you know 70-80% the first time that is good. You will learn an additional 10-20% the next time round and that will be enough to get through the exam.
- Time management is key. Be very strict on the time spent on one SS. Don't exceed the time on any one SS at the sacrifice of another. Easy marks are available across all SS. [ I know its easier said than done. I too spent much longer on Derivatives than I expected to however that is also because I really enjoyed the subject].
- Make sure you take a break. Let the mind relax. A tense mind makes many mistakes. That is I noted 50 days above - leave some time to relax and do something else.
- D-Day is key. In my opinion the exam day stress management is one of the most important factors in passing or failing. Be relaxed on the exam day. I remember in my L3 exam I made a few silly errors in the morning session. I had many friends in the same exam and we ended up asking how it went during the break. When the mistakes surfaced, I left their company and went to my car and sat with the AC on till the end of the break. This helped me relax and I had a good afternoon session.
While BBD most likely came to the table with a better background than most candidates , a number of his suggestions can be applied (with modification) by almost everyone. Here's what I'd take from it:
- Time and money are substitutes (to a point). If you can afford to spend the money to buy supporting resources (videos, classes, study guides), it will save you time spent studying. In particular, the DVDs from the prep providers can potentially allow you to grasp material much more quickly than you could reading it from the CFAI material alone. Many people get material much more quickly from a lecture than from reading a book. In addition, study guide are a great way to distill the material down. T his doesn't mean that you don't need the CFAI curriculum. In a perfect world, that's all you'd get, and you'd focus solely on the CFAI materials. But it's not a perfect world. As an example, I've signed up for a two-day intensive review course for the FInancial Statemen Analysis material. I'll gladly shell out $500 if it'll save me 30-50 hours of additional study time.
- Major on the majors. Although there's a lot of material, there's a lot of "low hanging fruit" on the exam. At the minimum, you should make sure you get the key concepts in every section.
- Work questions. It's hard to get material down merely by reading material or watching a video. These are essentially passive learning strategies, and they simply don't work - learning is an active, participative exercise. Work as many problems as you can, and answer as many questions as you can. This is one way that prep providers can be really helpful. Both Schweser and Stalla have test banks. While the quality of their questions can vary, answering ANY question can be helpful. In addition, if you're near a local society that gives a mock exam, take it.
- Time Management is critical. Don't shoot for perfect the first time through the material. Since the curriculum is extremely broad, you don't have the luxury of spending too much time on any one section. For your first pass through a given segment, shoot for 60-70% on the questions at the end of each section, then move on. Once you've done every section, go back and brush up. Remember - you're shooting for a B to a B+, not an A.
- If you do have to focus, focus on the "Big" sections. Financial Statement Analysis (now called Financial Reporting and Analysis), Ethics, Fixed Income, and Quantitative Methods count for almost 60% of the level 1 exam, and Equity, FRA and Ethics are about 50% of the L2 exam. If you nail the "Big 4 (for L1)" or "Big 3" for L2, you'll be in good shape. You still have to cover everything (see #4), but if you have extra time, put in extra here.
- Don't neglect any section. Although the "Big 4" (See above) count for a lot of the exam, you only get 20 item sets (with 6 questions each). If you miss one of them, that's 5% off your grade right there. As an example, a lot of the L2 candidates who failed last time around noted that they completely missed an item set on Treynor-Black.