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CFA Level II Test Day Experience

Last Saturday I took the CFA Level II exam, for which I’ve been studying intensely over the past two months. Overall I would estimate that I studied about 150 hours (although I didn’t keep careful track) and took 4 practice exams. After taking the real exam, I’d say that was probably not enough prep time. I knew from the beginning that Level II would be much harder than Level I; out of about 10 people I talked to, only one passed Level II on his first try. The exam is so difficult because although there are only 20 mini-case studies (item sets) of 6 questions each, the numbers of topics they can draw from are probably around 100. As I discovered, you really have to know the entire curriculum because you just don’t know what they are going to ask.

The exam took place in a huge room at the Anaheim Convention Center, the same place as last year. All three levels of CFA take the exam in the same room; I’d estimate there were about 1,000 people there. The two sessions run from 9-12 and 2-5, but you have to be in the room 30 minutes ahead of time. So, there was a lot of time spent sitting around while the staff did various administrative things.

I found the morning session to be brutally difficult. For the first time, I actually ran out of time and had to furiously fill in bubbles during the last seconds before time expired. I was very surprised by this because on practice exams I usually finished in 2 – 2.5 hours (then again, on the practice exams I consistently scored around just 50% correct). I felt like my preparation had covered most of the material, but they kept asking the “wrong questions”, i.e. questions that I was not specifically prepared for. For some of the questions  that required calculations, I wound up with answers that didn’t match one of the three answer choices, so I’d have to go back and try to rework the problem. Also, since I ran out of time, I had to make quite a few outright guesses. I suppose I should expect to get about 33% of those guesses correct.

During the lunch break I followed my strategy from last year and got a tall coffee from Starbucks; I made sure to finish the entire thing since I wanted the maximum amount of caffeine. When I came back for the afternoon session, suddenly everything was clicking. I was moving through the questions efficiently, and whenever I did a calculation it seemed to match an answer choice. I felt like I was answering the questions with a high degree of accuracy, possibly high enough to offset the difficult morning session. Then suddenly, near the end of the exam, an item set came up on a topic that I just hadn’t prepared for. In fact, I had specifically not prepared on that topic: during my study I looked at the section and thought it would take me too many hours to learn, so I decided to just take my chances and hope it didn’t appear on the exam.  Unfortunately it did, so my results for those 6 questions will be no better than random.  At least I finished the afternoon session on time.

As I stated, anything in the curriculum is fair game. You really do have to review the LOS (Learning Outcome Statements) and prepare the topics that the CFA Institute expects you to know. It’s true that Financial Reporting & Analysis and Equities constitute a big portion of the exam (the CFA Level II topic weights are publicly disclosed on the CFA website), but they are still only 35%-55% of the total. I did know these topics well and hopefully I performed strongly on them, but there were a couple of item sets on other topics that I just wasn’t adequately prepared for.

This year I followed roughly the same study strategy as last year: I worked directly from the CFA books and took the 2 sample exams and 1 mock exam from the CFA Institute. I also took a practice exam from BSAS and two practice exams from Elan Guides. Late in my preparation, I signed up for Elan and discovered they had hired Peter Olinto, one of the best teachers in the CPA/CFA exam prep industry. They have a couple of his lectures available for free; I watched part of them and they were excellent. In retrospect, I wish I had signed up for Elan and bought their online course at the beginning of my prep.

Anyhow, the exam is over now and I will have to wait about seven weeks to find out if I passed. I will update then with the results.