The day finally arrived. I walked into the Jacksonville auditorium an hour before the scheduled report time. This was not because I needed to, but because I was a green Level 1 candidate who was nervous about the unknown. Accounting ratios were circling in my head and I was determined not to speak to anyone. I didn’t want to take a chance that any of their words would mess up my fragile memorization of the standards of conduct.
The testing process was as exactly as strict as I expected. When they opened the doors, I walked to my assigned room and waited in line as the attendants checked my passport, registration slip, calculators, and anything else I had in my pockets. I sat in my assigned seat, pulled out 10 pencils, just in case nine broke, and waited until they read the instructions and began the testing.
Surviving the First Session
For the next three hours, I felt excited as I answered the questions I studied for, all while I fought the fear of reading questions on topics I didn’t remember seeing. Thankfully there were not many of the latter. All the while, I stared either straight down or in the air. I didn’t dare chance a testing violation.
I finished with about 45 minutes to spare on the first three-hour section. I spent 20 minutes of this time reviewing questions I was unsure about and reworking some of the math. I didn’t bring a lunch, so I had to eat at the concession booth. The typical fried and greasy foods were available, along with a salad option.
I chose a burger over a salad. Even though I knew a heavier meal wasn’t the best option, I needed a reward after sitting through a three-hour test. A salad from a concession stand just didn’t scream “winner.”
The Final Stretch
When the time came, I re-entered the testing room, went through the security and calculator checks, and sat back in my seat. I finished the second half with 30 minutes to spare. One question bothered me the entire 30 minutes. I must have changed my answer six times – each time convincing myself it was correct with the evidence I found, either through previous questions or some CFA epiphany.
When I walked out of the testing center, I felt confident about my performance, but I wanted nothing to do with finance or anything related to the CFA exams. It was if a massive weight was lifted from my shoulders. It took another week to wind down, as I wondered what to do with my time and mind. I spent so much of the previous six months focused on the CFA exam, so I needed to recalibrate my mindset to one without memorization and finance.
What I Learned About Level 1
I learned that Level 1 was fair. After 240 questions, I felt the breadth of the test matched the curriculum. There weren’t many topics the test didn’t cover; however, the test had few questions that covered any information I didn’t feel prepared for, which was a relief.
The Level 1 test is as strict as all the stories portray. The proctors are the equivalent of a financial TSA team. These are not finance professionals, so they do not know the importance of the exam. If you are in violation, no matter how small, they will report you, but you will not know until weeks after the exam. That’s right – the proctors don’t tell you that you have committed a violation. Here’s a few more important things I learned about the CFA Level 1 test:
- I could have survived by showing up 30 minutes later and with half the pencils.
- I should not have taken lunch for granted, so next time, I’ll pack my own.
- There is no greater feeling than walking out of the exam at the end of six hours.
How I Prepared for Level 1
I used Schweser notes and good old-fashioned note cards. I never cracked open the CFA curriculum. I read through the Schweser notes, paying attention to important concepts and problem areas.
Once I was finished with the reading, I took some practice tests from Schweser and the CFA mocks. Both were useful. Taking the mocks was a formality because the grading and review of various topics brought the true benefits. I re-read certain sections and added anything related to incorrect answers to my note sheets. I didn’t count how long it took me to prepare, but I think the 250-to 300-hour range is a fair estimate.
A large part of level 1 is the memorization of ratios and equations. I made a stack of note cards with every ratio and equation in the curriculum. This was by far the most useful preparation I did for the exam. Remember, Level 1 questions are straightforward and not reliant on other questions, like the vignettes of Level 2.
The presentation of the results is unique with this test. They don’t give you a grade, but rather a range of how you scored in each section. I passed all sections, with two above 70 percent. If you plan to take the CFA Level 1 exam, my experience and how I prepared may help you. Be sure to study, correct your weaknesses and bring a lunch. Good luck.