Since its founding in 1963, the CFA curriculum has expanded to include topics like economics, ethics, and accounting. Candidates for the CFA Designation must meet enrollment requirements and pass all three exams. Candidates will also be required to complete work experience requirements and submit letters of reference before the Charter is granted.

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Key Topics in the CFA Exams

The CFA Program Curriculum covers approximately ten topics to various degrees over three exams:

  1. Ethical and Professional Standards
  2. Quantitative Methods
  3. Economics
  4. Financial Statement Analysis
  5. Corporate Issuers
  6. Equity Investments
  7. Fixed Income
  8. Derivatives
  9. Alternative Investments
  10. Portfolio Management and Wealth Planning

To obtain the coveted CFA designation, candidates must pass all three exams. The 10-year average pass rate for all levels of the exam is 44%. The CFA Institute Board of Governors sets the minimum passing score (MPS) for each level exam after it has been administered. CFA Institute does not release the MPS or individual candidate scores to the public, although names of candidates passing the exams are provided to local societies for membership purposes.

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How Much Time Do the Exams Take?

The CFA exams are difficult, taking about 4-6 hours each. Candidates must complete 180 questions during that time in the Level I exam, which is not an easy task. To be successful, candidates need more than just intelligence and stamina. They also need the right tools at their disposal.

The CFA exams are not easy, but they aren’t impossible either. Despite the difficulty of the CFA exams, it is worth pursuing this certification because it demonstrates a high level of commitment and knowledge, as well as the strong possibility of higher earning potential vs non-chartered peers.

Furthermore, passing the exams qualifies you to work in many industries that require this level of financial education and skill.

Wondering if you should pursue the CFA charter? Learn more by visiting our blog on why become a CFA charterholder.

What Are the Questions Like?

The CFA exams have a high difficulty, and you should be careful about taking them without sufficient preparation. Each of the three exams tests common components of investment analysis, portfolio management, and wealth planning.

The Level III CFA exam, however, does not test investment tools such as quantitative methods, financial statement analysis, and corporate issuers. The exam questions transition from primarily testing knowledge at Level I, to testing application at Level II, and evaluation at Level III.

The types of questions differ among exams, with Level I featuring unrelated multiple-choice questions while Level II uses vignettes followed by 4 to 6 multiple-choice questions about the vignette. Level III takes a mixed approach featuring item sets and constructed-response questions, the latter being similar to essay questions and perhaps including multiple-choice aspects.

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CFA Exams Pass Rates

The CFA exams are perhaps the most challenging exams out there. They are often referred to as “bar none” the toughest exams—even harder than medical school or law school exams—with pass rates that hover around 50% and were much lower during the recent pandemic. Does this mean you should feel discouraged from attempting these exams? No, it doesn’t.

The road to earning your CFA designation will be difficult; it will require years of study and discipline. If you are in it to win it, then there is no better way to do it than to study hard, practice, and take the exam. The CFA exams score on a pass/fail basis. The pass rate for these exams is typically around 50%; this means that half of the people who take the exams pass, and half fail.

For more information on CFA pass rates, be sure to visit our latest blog on CFA Program Exam pass rates.

But with the right preparation, you can pass on your first attempt. Budget 300 hours for studying, invest in the right CFA review course (like Wiley CFA Exam Review program), stay consistent, and take lots of practice questions and practice exams and you greatly increase your chances of being part of the group that succeeds. For more information and to register, check out the CFA Institute website.

10 Tips on Passing the Exams

CFA exams are tough, but with enough time to prepare, you can do it. According to successful exam-takers, it takes an average of around 300 hours for each exam (though some people report having studied for over 500!), so it’s best to figure out how much time your other projects take and schedule study time around those. It’s also important to know how you learn best—visuals, reading, demonstrations, etc.—and employ different strategies accordingly.

Every year thousands of candidates complete the exams and pass. That said, remember that this isn’t easy work. So how do you make sure to pass?

Here are 10 tips for passing the CFA exams.

#1. Focus on the Most-Tested Material

While you can’t really know what will be on the exams until you take them, you can see the percentages of what topics are covered. Some concepts are more heavily focused on than others, so you’ll want to put more effort and time into learning those that are most tested.

#2. Focus on the Concepts More Than the Math

While it might be tempting to focus a lot on the math and the format of the problems, you will benefit much more if you become thoroughly familiar with the ideas underlying them. The questions you study will be unlikely to appear on the exam in the same exact way, so you’ll have to adapt and overcome using your conceptual understanding.

One of the most surprising things about the CFA exams is how the questions challenge you to understand what is being asked and, as the exams progress across levels, to integrate your knowledge to solve problems different from those in the text.

#3. Develop a Study Plan

If you can’t afford to study 24/7, then schedule your studying into your day, with the intention of spending at least one hour per day preparing for the exam. You’ll have a better chance of actually getting the information in your head and committing it to memory if you study consistently.

As stated earlier, it usually takes around 300 hours of study to get ready to pass the exams, so plan your time well in advance. Think about it like this: if you put in 3 hours daily, for three months, you’d be at nearly 300 hours of study. Whatever you choose to do, don’t rush in preparing for the exams.

Preparation and sticking to your study plan are key to success. Learn how to build a CFA study plan to help you pass each level of the CFA Program exam on the first try.

#4. Take Practice Exams

Taking practice exams helps accomplish the goals of reviewing the material, highlighting weaknesses in your knowledge, and developing exam-taking skills. You will become better at managing the time you take on each question and knowing which questions should be skipped for later review if you’re running behind. You can also purchase CFA test prep courses to help prepare for the exam.

#5. Get Comfortable With Your Financial Calculator

CFA Institute only allows two models of calculator to be used during the exam: Texas Instruments BA II Plus/Plus Professional and Hewlett Packard 12C and special editions. If you are not comfortable using the calculator, you are more likely to make mistakes on the test (and, therefore, reduce your score).

#6. Answer All Questions

There is no penalty for incorrect answers. However, “incorrect” answers can be counted as a loss of points for the exams, and scoring more points can get you closer to a passing score. As such, it’s to your advantage to answer all of the questions.

Want to be prepared for all types of questions on the CFA exam?
Study with our popular CFA Test Banks to ensure you’re ready on exam day.

#7. Dress Comfortably on Exam Day

According to CFA Institute: “There is no dress code, but dress in layers for comfort. Quiet shoes are a plus.” Since each exam is many hours long, you’ll likely regret it if you’re wearing something uncomfortable for that long.

#8. Drink Lots of Water

Your body consists of approximately 60% water, and your brain is over 70% water. Because each exam is so long, ensure you’re drinking enough water.

#9. Sleep Well

Getting a good night’s rest is vital for your health and your mental well-being. So, although it may seem obvious, on exam day, try to get a good night’s rest. You’ll need to stay up for the entire exam, so feeling well-rested is important.

#10. Take It Easy the Day Before the Exam

Now that you’ve been studying for months, don’t worry or even talk to anyone about your exam. Your study plan has helped you arrive at the right place. Get all your exam things ready to go for tomorrow, and then take your mind off it completely.

Drive somewhere you like. Listen to relaxing music. Take a walk. This practice will keep your mind and body stress-free and improve your confidence and performance.

How to Schedule Your CFA Exam

Recently, CFA Institute released a list of all upcoming exams. To schedule your exam, you must meet specific requirements.

To register for your Level I CFA exam, you must have:

  • A bachelor’s (or equivalent) degree or be a final-year student (max. 11 months to go for the Level I exam) OR
  • 4,000 hours of professional work experience (full-time, investment-related or not) acquired over a minimum of 3 years OR
  • A combination of professional work experience and education totaling 4,000 hours (education and work cannot overlap)

Find the latest CFA test dates and CFA exam schedule, plus information on CFA registration deadlines and exam fees in our helpful resource.

Differences Between CFA Level I, II, and III Exams

The CFA Program consists of three levels: a Level I exam, a Level II exam, and a Level III exam. The tests have been described as becoming progressively more difficult, and all three level exams challenge one’s expertise in finance.

CFA Institute strives to maintain consistency in the difficulty level for each administration period by establishing a minimum passing score (MPS) only after each exam is administered. Each question is then considered based on whether a well-qualified candidate would be able to answer the question.

The Level I exam focuses on ethics and investment tools, with additional knowledge presented in asset valuation and portfolio management.

Level II continues to focus on ethics but reduces the focus on investment tools and increases the focus on asset valuation and portfolio management.

Level III assumes you have mastered investment tools other than economics and expands the knowledge presented in fixed income investments and portfolio management/wealth planning.

Study Resources for CFA Exams

The CFA exams are rigorous, daunting, and require a lot of study time, especially if it is the first time you are trying them, but they’re worth it. The degree of difficulty depends on which exam you’re taking.

The CFA exams test your knowledge in four areas: ethics and professional standards, investment tools, asset analysis and valuation, and portfolio management/wealth planning. The tricky part is that all these areas are interdependent, and you need to know about all of them to pass the exam.

In addition to our CFA review courses, Wiley offers a suite of CFA study materials to fit every learning style and budget.

Wiley’s CFA Program materials include:

  • Study Guides
  • Flashcards
  • Test Banks
  • Formula Sheets
  • Mock Exams
  • 11th Hour Final Review Course
  • And much more!

Get what you need to pass the CFA exam the first time.

Conclusion: How Hard Are the CFA Exams?

The CFA exams are challenging, with candidates reporting average study commitments of over 300 hours. However, the CFA charter can be an excellent career advancement opportunity.