How to prepare & pass CFA Level 1 Exam on your first try (self-study tips)

How to prepare & pass CFA Level 1 Exam on your first try (self-study tips)

I passed the 2019 December CFA Level I exam. The pass rate for CFA exam was 42%. Contrary to the advice/study strategies given on the forums, it was not particularly useful for me. Instead, the self-study and preparation tips from my friends definitely helped me alot! I hope this post will be useful for any candidates.

Analysis of my CFA Level 1 exam results 

  • My stronger topics are in Alternative Investments & Derivatives, Corporate Finance, Economics, Equity Investments, Fixed Income Investments and Quantitative Methods
  • My weaker topics are in Ethnical & Professional Standards, FRA and Portfolio Management

My background

I majored in Economics so both Quantitative Methods & Economics are the only topic that I had prior knowledge in. Needless to say, I struggled so hard in the other topics. CFA It's exceptionally hard to learn and memorise so many concepts and formula, in a short span of time. On the flip side, a number of candidates came from Business School so most topics are familiar to them.

Juggling the revision with a 9-6pm job was tough. This means that I could only study during my commute, after work and during the weekends. I spent all the free time that I had on studying, so I am certain that I invested over 300 hours in revision. 

I started to study proper in May 2019, which means I have around 8 month of revision. I would say the biggest reason why I passed is due to the insane amount of time I used to recap the concepts and practice questions.

CFA level 1 syllabus/curriculum

How I studied and prepared for each topic

Studying for the Level I exam requires discipline, and it takes a substantial effort to master each topic. I use different strategy for each topic.

How to study Ethnics

General tip: Adopt a read-and-reread strategy. It’s about reading Ethical and Professional Standards at the very start of your CFA exam preparation. Then come back to Ethics, every time you finish studying some other topic. At the end of your prep, we also recommend Ethics revision.

My tip: I made a mind map as there are so many things to memorise. I used Kaplan Schweser notes as it is succinct.

cfa level 1 how to study ethnics

How to study Economics and Quantitative Methods

This might be the topics familiar to most, if you took it during high school. I made notes on each concept and wrote down the key points. Although the content is easy to absorb from the Kaplan Schweser notes, the questions on the mock exams might be slightly tricky. So practice makes perfect.

It might seem overwhelming to remember so many formulas. But it will get into your head overtime, especially with more practice.

how to study economics for CFA Level 1 exam
CFA level 1 exam study smart

How to study for Financial Reporting and Analysis, Corporate Finance, Equity Investments, Fixed Income

These are exceptionally hard for me. Because there are too many formulas to memorise. However, the questions really helped me to internalise the concepts really well. I did all the questions three times. Which means I had practiced over 10k questions. Answering the questions during the CFA Exam came intuitively, as the questions are more or less similar.

CFA level 1 exam study kaplan
CFA level 1 exam study kaplan revision

How to study Derivatives, Alternative Investments, Portfolio Management and Wealth Planning

These are some topics which I haven't had much time to internalise. Partly because I was too exhausted to absorb more content, nearer to the exam. As such, I learnt the topics through Q&A, in contrast to how I studied for the rest of the topics.

CFA Level 1 best study tips

CFA level 1 study materials

Schweser Notes

Most important resource. Their notes are condensed and easy to internalise. 


For learning how to use TI BA 2+ maths. Kaplan notes was unable to aid me well in this area. His videos are so helpful in guiding me on questions, such as Ordinary Annuity Calculations (PV, PMT, FV).

Topical questions from CFA portal 

This is EXTREMELY useful. I crushed this thing relentlessly. It’s an easy way to review readings and retain a large percentage of the material.The questions are similar to the standard for the CFA level 1 and the mock exams. There’s detailed explanation so you could learn from your mistakes. Fret not, if your your results did not hit >70% consistently. On my first try, I hit ~50% for my weak topics and it subsequently improve. 

Schweser Question Bank (3000 questions)

The questions are so much tougher than the CFA exam and mock exams. So don’t worry if you cannot do. My recommendation is to attempt the topical questions on the CFA portal first, to build up on your foundation.

Schweser Quick Sheet 

Used during commute, memorising all the concepts, formula etc.

Mock exams from CFA portal

There’s 3 mock papers available, released closer to the examination day. However, it was released much earlier because of some students’ feedback. I spent the last few weeks on the mock exams (redo 3 times as well).  

Should you take online classes?

I did not take any online classes or sit for the mock exams at a study centre It’s tough for me to spare the time and money. There’s more ROI if I continue my self-revision. Simply because I feel it is more worth it to invest my time in reinforcing the concepts myself and practice as many questions as possible.

Should you take the exam in December or June? 

CFA Level 1 exam December or June
  • I took the December paper simply because I wanted to space out my revision. By taking the December paper, you will have more time to study but if you are to retake, it will be the following year in June. The concern would be a change in syllabus. 
  • For the overachievers, this is the fastest way to take all three tests as soon as possible (in 18 months)

Exam day

I made sure to be in a relaxed state of mind and did not study the day before. However, I woke up at 3am and couldn't fall asleep. This means that took the 6 hours long exam with 3 hours of sleep. Goodness. Needless to say, I took the exam in a half-awake state, answering the questions intuitively. Similarly to what my friend shared, we can finish each session of the exam (3 hours) long in around 1.5 hours. Leaving the spare time to check and nap (dead tired)

When you are struggling or feel like giving up, remember your motivation in taking the exam.

My motivation to press on, was that I invested so much time, energy and fees (it aint cheap!). Additionally, it curbed my identity/ quarter life crisis and might potentially helped me in my career. Best wishes!

More study-related blog posts

Curriculum and topic weight changes

Preparing for exams

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3 comments on “How to prepare & pass CFA Level 1 Exam on your first try (self-study tips)”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience and congratulations on passing. I am also taking CFA Level 1 in Dec 2020 with little to no prior knowledge for majority of the topics. I had two questions - did you rely on the official CFA textbooks or only the Schweser notes, and which Schweser package did you purchase (I assume it was Essential)?

    On a side note, I enjoy reading your blog and your posts seem well thought out.

    1. Hi Tony! Good luck for your exams!=) I only used the Schweser notes (Essential). Let me know if you need any resources. Didn't use CFA textbook at all because it is really long-winded and dry. Do stay relaxed and space out your studies. I woke up at 5am a few nights because I was that stressed. Thank you for dropping by, hope some posts helped:)

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