Spoiler alert – there are no real shortcuts to doing well on the GMAT or CFA! It does actually take discipline, focus and hard work. But it’s as much a mind game as anything else.
There is no substitute for hard work. – Thomas Edison
When I was studying for the GMAT and applying to business school, I was working in my very first job out of college, earning very little money. I couldn’t afford an expensive prep course, but I was determined to do well. I was well-aware that I needed a stellar score to get into a top school, because I didn’t have an Ivy League undergrad degree or a blue-chip first employer.
I had always done well on standardized tests – not that I’m genius or anything. Some people just happen to do well at those kinds of tests. Other people are really great at tennis or playing the piano or flying airplanes. I am none of those things, which is too bad. I’d gladly trade test-taking skills for one of those talents.
Having no extra cash to burn on a formal prep course, I went to the local Barnes and Noble and bought the top prep books, which at the time were Kaplan and Princeton Review. I also bought the book with “real GMAT questions!” from ETS (Educational Testing Service), which I think owned the GMAT at the time. Now I believe it’s the GMAC and they have their own books.
At that time, the Kaplan questions were more difficult than Princeton Review. As a warm up, I started with the Princeton Review books and did all of the practice questions. Then I took a practice test. Once I had a baseline and knew which areas were my weaknesses, I used the Kaplan book practice questions to focus on those areas. Every weekend, I would do a practice test on Saturday, focus on the weaknesses with more practice questions, then another practice test on Sunday. During the week, I would review the concepts of my weak areas, but I didn’t do any practice questions. I suppose I could have worked a bit harder during the week, but I felt like 2 practice tests every weekend was enough. I’d do a practice test in the morning, then questions in the afternoon focusing on my weak areas, and still have the evenings free for a movie or something low-key.
They weren’t as well known when I was studying for the GMAT many years ago, but I’ve heard that Manhattan Prep’s books are really good and that there are some complaints that their questions are more difficult than the actual test. This is exactly what you want! You want the practice to be so hard that the real thing feels easy – a massive confidence boost when you get to the exam itself.
For the GMAT, I spent about a month preparing in this way. On the actual test day, I felt nervous going in, but as the questions popped up on the computer, my confidence increased and I felt better. I knew I had done well when the results came up, but I surprised myself.
I used the same strategy when I studied for the Chartered Financial Analyst exam, even though I also took an expensive prep course, since my employer was paying for it. The prep course included books and notes by Schweser (owned by Kaplan), and I bought additional practice tests from the CFA Institute (the folks who write the exam). I had very little time for studying during the week, but on the way to work, I reviewed the “quick sheet” which came with my notes. The CFA exam was the hardest exam I’ve ever taken, and I felt as though levels 1 and 2 were specifically written so that no one could ever pass it. I studied so hard for Level 1, and still I felt completely unprepared when I took the actual exam. In fact, when the results came out, I refused to open the email because I was convinced I’d flunked. I was putting off the humiliation of telling my boss, who’d reluctantly agreed that I could take the exam even though I was new to the bank and he felt it was a waste of time.
Side note – I don’t think any education or qualification is ever a waste of money. I’d just spent six figures on my MBA, so when found out the bank would pay for me to take the CFA and a course to prepare for it, I figure why not get some free education for a change?! I had not intended to end up in banking and had no idea how long I’d last, so I wanted to get as much out of it as possible.
A friend convinced me to open the results, and I was shocked to find that I had passed. I let out a shout, which went largely unnoticed given the things that happen on the trading floor. Level 2 was basically a repeat of the same situation – though this time I knew it was going to be difficult. Level 2 is notoriously the most difficult of the CFA exams, but I found it about the same as Level 1, mainly because of the psychological element of being aware that it would be difficult. I was prepared going in – it was still difficult, and I still had the feeling that I had not passed, even though I did. Level 3 was much easier, and I felt not quite relaxed, but relieved as I took the test.
Also, I wanted to share my thoughts on the prep course. While I didn’t have one for the GMAT, I did for all three levels of the CFA. I felt that the prep course was a good review of the material, so it’s very helpful if you haven’t studied the material previously or feel that you have significant weaknesses. The prep courses are usually taught by people who are great at exam strategy and really know the exam material. If you have already covered the information in coursework during an undergraduate or MBA program, it’s useful mainly as a reminder to stay on your study schedule. I found the course to be beneficial, but not necessary, and I definitely would not have taken it if my employer hadn’t paid for it. It doesn’t mean any less studying, and I already had the motivation to follow my own study schedule.
This method of exam preparation is no big secret, no shortcut or anything. I liken it to a bootcamp of sorts. Toughen yourself up with practice more difficult than the actual exam. The confidence boost of finding the real questions easier than your prep goes a long way on exam day.
Good luck to all those embarking on GMAT and CFA adventures!
P.S. The final piece of advice from a friend as I studied relentlessly on a sunny late spring day – in between practice tests, I went outside and put my bare feet in the grass and breathed in the fresh air. That was more than 10 years ago and weirdly, I still remember that exact moment and the feel of the cool grass between my toes.
This post contains affiliate links. If you buy through these links, the cost is the same to you and this blog will receive a small commission. Thanks for your support.