Tips on how to pass the CISI’s Portfolio Construction Theory exam

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Tips on how To Pass the CISI’s Portfolio Construction Theory Exam


Here are some tips on how to deal with the three different sections within this exam.


Section A – 20 multi-choice questions

Allow yourself 35 to 40 minutes for Section A and try not to go too much over this. You are definitely going to get caught in this part of the exam without a good knowledge of all major syllabus topics. Watch out for a few other points though.


Firstly, the examiner often use negatives in the question stem and / or the distracters. You must read all parts of each question and in many instances, read them again to make sure you know exactly what the examiner is asking. He will frequently offer a distracter that is very close to the correct answer, so your mind may start to feel unsure even where your knowledge is good. Don’t let this put you off. Keep working through the questions you can definitely answer and go back to those where you are unsure later when you have “bought’ yourself a bit of time.


Secondly, you will need to be aware that with many of the key investment models and theories, you should read widely to understand their origins and the rationale behind their development. Candidates have historically been put off by the way the examiner has presented these models only to find out later that they had a reasonable knowledge and could have made a better attempt at the question set.


The examiner will also throw in a calculation or two in this section which may take some time to work out. Keep an eye on time here remembering you will only get one mark for each correct question. If it is getting too much, move on and perhaps go back to it later.


Section B – short answer questions

I personally like Section B. It gives candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding often requiring them to appraise a situation either with good literal skills or by way of some key calculations. Again the subject matter is varied so you can do very well with a good knowledge of the syllabus and some practical application. With 40 marks on offer, it is a section well worth paying attention to and candidates who score highly in Section B, will often do well overall.


My advice is to firstly make sure you can deal with a range of situations relating to key investment theory and risk management. As well as reading extensively, you will also need to work as soon as possible, through exam papers and start getting used to the different ways in which questions are presented. At one extreme, they can be very short and to the point. At the other, they can run alongside some quite complex information such as a graph or a table that you have to quickly decipher and analyse in order to provide a satisfactory answer. The information provided may seem horrendously complex but invariably with these questions, the examiner is asking you to “look through” the detail to bring out some fairly easy to understand points relating to the syllabus.


Finally, wherever you are asked to calculate something, make sure all workings are shown.


Section C – choice two out of three scenarios

This can be a tough section with the time allowed in the exam. If you have kept disciplined with the other parts of the paper, you should be able to make a reasonable stab at section C but I often get feedback from students who have answered the exam in section order (you don’t have to do this – you can attempt the sections in any order you like) saying that they just did not have enough time to do justice to themselves.


The three scenarios given obviously provide candidates with a choice. This is where the first alarm bells go off for me. They pick the subjects they favour most rather than the questions that are likely to give them the best marks as quickly as possible. For instance, assuming you have a reasonable knowledge of all topics, you would probably be better off with a question broken down into sub sections of a few marks each using the wording of the questions as the signposts for where you are likely to pick marks up. Even if you are very well versed on a topic, you may struggle to quickly establish exactly what the examiner wants for 20 marks if set an essay using a single short sentence.


Many questions in this section present some quite detailed scenarios asking for a commentary on either establishing a portfolio/fund or, managing an existing one, making any recommended changes along the way. Use all of the information you are given to build the template for your commentary. What are the objectives of the fund, what types and level of risk have been established? Are there any particular constraints relating to the type(s) of investor(s), timescale, tax status etc? Some sensible planning and structure in your commentary can start to pick up a healthy quota of marks even if to you, they may seem obvious. Remember, the examiner doesn’t know you, so tell him everything you feel is relevant, including the basic stuff. Again, working through past exams and examiner reports will often give you a feel for what the examiner expects of you in terms of depth of knowledge, understanding and application.


To summarise, your studies should concentrate as soon as possible on both learning the syllabus in detail alongside practice on exam technique. Get used to the examiner’s requirements and idiosyncrasies so that come exam day, you know exactly how much time and effort you devote to each very different section. Good luck and get in touch if you need any more help.



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