How to Pass the CFA Exams: It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

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The following is an interview with Jonathan Masse, a CFA® charterholder who has been a CFA Program exam prep instructor for the last 12 years, a member of the steering committee of CFA Society San Francisco (CFA-SF) and formal mentor to many finance professionals.

Can you tell us about your career trajectory?

pass-cfa-examsRight now, I am a Financial Advisor at Merrill Lynch specializing in Options and ETFs. I spent the first seven years of my finance career on the trading floor of the CBOE and moved to the Pacific Stock Exchange. Then I spent time adjusting to “upstairs life” as a Trading Analyst at Barclays Global Investors as they started their iShares product set. I am also a CFA® charterholder, and that helped me make the transition to life off the floor.

Why is getting the CFA designation important?

In 2004, the designation was a near guarantee of a job or a promotion. It is less so now, but you definitely want the credential if you want to manage money. It helps you gain notoriety at your company, positions you as very capable to future employers, but perhaps most significantly, it signals your commitment to the industry and your commitment to excellence within it.

Marathons require more effort than sprints..it’s so critical to start your weekly study session back in January (for the June exam) to pace yourself.

What was your experience in passing the CFA exam?

I finished in three years and was more than thrilled. I was a student in CFA-SF Exam Review program for all three years. It was very helpful that their 18-week curriculum ended a month prior to the exam. With that month, I took as many diverse practice exams as possible (that is, from multiple exam prep providers).

I also tell people to do these practice exams on their own in a hostile environment. You never know if the heater might be broken or some other factor may cause them to lose focus. When I was studying, I sat in the food court of Hillsdale mall. It was loud, and the air conditioning was broken. A woman got my attention and mouthed “I’m sorry.” She apologized for her two kids running around me like a tornado. I told her: “This ain’t the library. The fact that I don’t even notice your kids indicates I am READY to take this exam.”

Why take exam prep classes?

You should take CFA Program exam prep courses because getting your CFA designation is a marathon and not a sprint.  The Bay Area is as delightful as it is distracting. It’s so easy to say “I’m going surfing/skiing/hiking/wine-tasting this weekend, and I’ll study twice as hard next week.” You know what never happens? Getting back on track. That’s why it’s so critical to start your weekly study session back in January (for the June exam) to pace yourself. If you think you can pass by cramming all the courses at the end, you are gravely mistaken. Also, if you do not pass, you have to wait another year. You want to give this thing three years of life and don’t do more than that. I’ve taught over a dozen years for the review program and know 9- and 10-year candidates.

I tell people to do these practice exams on their own in a hostile environment. You never know if the heater might be broken or some other factor may cause them to lose focus.

Marathons require more effort than sprints. So you should study for a minimum of 300 hours or 15 hours a week. Do 400. Why leave things to chance? If one study session is light and you think more reading would help, do it.

You need to finish a lap of what you need to know one month before the exam, so you have time to review. That’s when the classes end. In your last month, keep study sessions 1-4 fresh in your mind, and then go through 1-8 as a whole.

Statistics also show that review program students have a higher pass rate. Don’t fight the math.

What can you say to people who have failed the exam multiple times?

Prepare accordingly. It’s like taking your Econ, Accounting, Quant, Derivatives, Fixed Income, Finance, Investment finals all in one day – and with much graver consequence: If you don’t pass, you often have to wait an ENTIRE YEAR to retake it. That’s a lot of life.

You need to finish a lap of what you need to know one month before the exam, so you have time to review. That’s when the classes end. In your last month, keep study sessions 1-4 fresh in your mind, and then go through 1-8 as a whole.

What about studying in groups?

Study groups are good for people to be accountable to study at a good pace and to brainstorm. However, they can become whine sessions. Group sessions need to be disciplined like the classes. Bring questions for each other and limit the discussion to 5-10 minutes each. Stay on point. Then have a 10-minute wrap up at the end.  It should be held within 60-90 minutes depending on the size.

What is the difference between online or in-person exam preparation classes?

I happen to learn best through engaging the senses, like writing things down (touch) and listening (hearing) live, ay slides and writing on the board (sight). When you hear something repeated in class you are feeling it. If there were a way to smell/taste the CFA Program curriculum, you would take it in that way!

[To people who have failed multiple times] … Prepare accordingly. It’s like taking your Econ, Accounting, Quant, Derivatives, Fixed Income, Finance, Investment finals all in one day.

Why make the commitment to teaching, when you have such a demanding job?

I have taught for over 12 years, and currently cover International Investing and Behavioral Finance for Level III and Alternatives for Level I. I enjoy helping people get through this review program. It is a very difficult exam to pass, as it was for me, so I want to give back and show my dedication to this field. I also am active in the CFA-SF Continuing Education committee that brings further in-depth educational events to our area members – at the level of CFA Level IV if there was such a thing (which I’m sure the mention of which would send a chill down many candidates’ spines). As a group, we often bring in authors of the CFA Program curriculum to speak to their latest and greatest research.

Also, I have seen the exam change over 12 years. Certain themes have been emphasized on the exam at certain times; and, having taught all three levels, I am able to highlight themes that continue throughout the curriculum.


Jonathan Masse teaches Level III International Investing and will be teaching Level I Alternative Investments this fall at the Golden Gate University campus in downtown San Francisco. Weeknight classes start on Tuesday, September 18th and Saturday classes begin on September 22ndYou can register now on the CFA Society San Francisco website.


CFA® and Chartered Financial Analyst® are registered trademarks owned by CFA Institute.

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