Ready to start your journey to becoming a CFA? Get key tips on how to pass Level I of the CFA Program exam in our free guide.

Key Takeaways

  • You must meet certain work and education experience requirements before you can register for the Level I CFA exam.
  • Once you meet the CFA exam requirements, you can register for the Level I CFA exam.
  • Each level of the CFA exam focuses on different elements of the curriculum.
  • You must pass the Level I exam before taking Level II, and Level II must be passed before taking Level III.
  • The last step to earning the CFA charter is becoming a CFA Institute member.

CFA® Program Requirements

Before you can register for the Level I CFA exam, you must meet CFA exam requirements such as qualified work/education experience.

Experience required to meet the CFA exam requirements for Level I:

  • Having completed a bachelor’s degree OR
  • Being a final-year student of a bachelor’s program OR
  • Having four years of qualified full-time work experience OR
  • Having a combination of college and full-time work experience that totals at least four years

CFA Education Requirements

As noted above, as you pursue your CFA (chartered financial analyst) designation, a completed bachelor’s program qualifies you to take the CFA exam, but you also qualify if you have completed an equivalent program or are a final-year student in a bachelor’s or equivalent program.

However, you must complete your educational program before you can register for the Level II exam. You can consult your college or university to inquire about whether your program is equivalent to that of a bachelor’s degree.

To validate your education, CFA Institute may request a copy of your degree, marksheet, or other documents.

Taking the Level I CFA exam as a student may be beneficial because you often have more time to prepare for the exams than you would while working a full-time professional job, and once you graduate, it can set you apart from other job seekers.

Ready to start your journey to becoming a CFA?

Download our free guide for key tips on how to pass Level I of the CFA Program exam.

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However, it also means sacrificing other extracurricular activities and possibly networking opportunities, so it is important to weigh the pros and cons when considering when to enroll.

CFA Professional Work Experience Requirements

Professional work experience must be full-time and dates of employment cannot overlap with education.

Eligible work experience is not limited to financial markets experience but should show that the applicant has highly developed judgement and business skills:

  • Leadership and teamwork
  • Business communications
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Time management
  • Professional judgement
  • Analytical skills
  • Adaptability

Paid internships and professional work experience at a family business qualify. CFA Institute does not ask for proof of work experience at the time of exam registration.

To verify that work experience meets CFA Program requirements, CFA Institute may request documentation proving employment, payment (such as pay slips), or other relevant information.

Registration and Fee Requirements for the CFA Exam

Once you have determined that you meet CFA exam requirements, you can register for the Level I CFA exam. Registration fees for the program and exam must be submitted with your application. Candidates meeting CFA requirements can register for the CFA exam on the CFA Institute website.

Want to see what the CFA exam will be like? Sign up for Wiley’s Free CFA Program Practice Exam to find out.

CFA Institute charges a one-time enrollment fee of $450 to register for the CFA Program and a $1,000 standard CFA exam registration fee for each of the three exams.

You can save up to $300 per exam by enrolling during the early registration period (about 4 months before the exam).

One-time Enrollment Fee

Early Registration Fee

Standard Registration Fee

Rescheduling a previously selected exam date typically requires payment of an additional $250 fee. This has been reduced to $25 for 2021 exams.

To recap, enrollment and registration fees include a:

$450 one-time enrollment fee

$700 – $1,340 registration fee per exam

$250 ($25 for 2021 exams) rescheduling fee, if applicable

CFA exam requirements info

Curriculum, Format, and Structure of Each Exam

Each level of the CFA exam is structured differently and focuses on different elements of the curriculum. CFA Institute determined through independent psychometric research that the exams could be significantly shorter than they were in prior years, and as a result each exam was reduced to 5.5 hours.

Total appointment time for each exam is now 5.5 hours, divided as follows:

  • 30 minutes allotted to pledge, tutorial, and survey
  • Approximately 135 minutes for session 1
  • 30 minutes for an optional break
  • Approximately 135 minutes for session 2

Below is information on the curriculum, format, and structure of each exam.

CFA Level I Exam

Main curriculum focus: ethics and financial reporting and analysis

Cognitive objectives focus: knowledge, comprehension, and basic application of the material

Question format: 180 multiple-choice questions divided into two 135-minute sessions

CFA Level II Exam

Main curriculum focus: financial reporting and analysis, equity investments, and fixed income

Cognitive objectives focus: advanced application, analysis, and synthesis of the material

Question format: vignette-supported multiple-choice questions

CFA Level III Exam

Main curriculum focus: portfolio management and wealth planning

Cognitive objectives focus: advanced analysis and synthesis of the material as well as evaluation of the materials and methods used in a particular context

Question format: vignette-supported constructed response questions and vignette-supported multiple-choice questions

Each exam must be passed sequentially; that is, Level I exam must be passed before taking Level II, and Level II must be passed before taking Level III.

CFA Exam Curriculum Topics

CFA Institute has identified the following curriculum topics covered in the CFA Program exams:

  • Ethics and professional standards
  • Quantitative methods
  • Economics
  • Financial reporting and analysis
  • Corporate finance
  • Equity investments
  • Fixed income
  • Derivatives
  • Alternative investments
  • Portfolio management and wealth planning

While several topics may be tested at every level, you may only see some topics on exams for one or two levels.

Want free practice questions covering the complete list of topic areas for the Level I exam? Take our free practice exam for the Level I CFA Program exam.

However, CFA Institute suggests that material from prior levels may be tested on a higher level.

CFA Computer-Based Testing Schedule

Exams for all three levels are now available only as computer-based testing. 

The available schedule for the Level I exam is:

  • August 24 – 30, 2021
  • November 16 – 22, 2021
  • February 15 – 21, 2022
  • May 17 – 23, 2022

Registration for the 2022 Level I February exam is November 1, 2021. 
The schedule for all CFA exams will be:

CFA Exam































Although there will be four opportunities to take the Level I CFA exam each year, you will likely only be able to register to take the exam twice per year.

This means you will not be able to take adjacent Level I exams, conforming to CFA Institute’s desire to have six months between a failed exam and a retake or a successful exam and the next level exam.

Learn more about the CFA Program exam schedule. CFA Institute has also provided a “candidate pathing” graphic here.

Study Plan for the CFA Exams

Most candidates take 4-5 years to take and pass all levels of the CFA exam, and successful candidates spend around 300 hours studying for each level.
Here are some key points to consider when making your study plan:

Start early. Give yourself at least six months to study.

Plan for a minimum of 300 study hours per exam. Shoot for 15 hours per week.

Plan for procrastination. Procrastination can lead to not having enough time to adequately prepare, so anticipate wanting to procrastinate and have a plan to combat it.

Use a trusted CFA exam prep course. Using a program of study from a CFA Institute Approved Prep Provider (APP), like Wiley’s CFA Program Exam Review, exposes you to a personalized self-study course taught by industry-expert instructors.

Two out of three candidates who’ve used a competitor product prefer Wiley’s CFA Program Exam Review. Test drive it free for 14 days.

Understanding Exam Performance

It will take up to 60 days to receive your results for the Level I and Level II exams and up to 90 days to receive your results for the Level III exam. CFA Institute Board of Governors sets a minimum passing score (MPS) on an exam-to-exam basis to help normalize results for exam difficulty.

Your results will be reported as either “pass” or “did not pass.” If you score in the 70 to 80 range, you will likely pass the exams.

Rather than provide topic area breakdowns of candidate performance, CFA Institute now provides a visual metric for the exam as a whole and each topic area.

Rather than provide topic area breakdowns of candidate performance, CFA Institute now provides a visual metric for the exam as a whole and each topic area
Source: CFA Institute

The dashed line represents the bottom of the top decile (90% and over); the dotted line shows the top of the bottom decile (10% and under). The shaded area represents your true score with 90 percent confidence while the solid black line represents your score on this exam. Your true score is the mean score you will likely have if you could take a similar exam many times.

CFA takes a similar approach to each topic area:

cfa topic scoring chart
Source: CFA Institute

As with the total score, you can be more confident that you mastered the topic area as your score rises over 70.

Here is the most recent CFA exam pass rate information reported by CFA Institute:

CFA Exam Pass Rates

May 2021 CFA Level I exam pass rate: 25%

May 2021 CFA Level II exam pass rate: 40%

December 2020 Level III exam pass rate: 56%

As you can see, less than half of candidates pass the first two levels of the exam, and just over half pass the Level III exam. So, shoot for a 70% average score across the topic areas as you do practice questions and exams to give yourself the best chance of passing each exam the first time.

CFA Institute has responded to the extraordinarily low Level I pass rates for the May 2021 exam.

In general, CFA Institute indicated that various scheduling changes related to the pandemic likely contributed to the lower pass rates. The December 2020 rates were less affected, but the May 2021 candidates may have been deferred for up to a year.

Long-term pass rates are available from CFA Institute here.

CFA Institute Membership

After meeting all CFA Program requirements and passing all three levels of the CFA exam, the last step to securing your CFA designation is becoming a CFA Institute member.

To do this, you must:

  1. Apply to become a member
    • Meet all CFA Program requirements
    • Submit 2 or 3 professional references
  1. Be accepted
  2. Activate your membership
  3. Pay annual membership fees (currently $250 annually)
  4. Submit your Professional Conduct Statement and Membership Agreement
  5. Join a CFA Society (not required but highly recommended)

You are eligible to become a CFA Regular Member if you meet the CFA Program requirements for professional work and/or education experience and have a passing score for the CFA Level I Exam, CIPM Program Level II Exam, RBA Netherlands Exam, or the self-administered Standards of Practice Exam.

The membership year starts on July 1st and ends on June 30th, so your first payment for annual dues will be pro-rated if you are a first time CFA Institute Member.

CFA Ethical Standards and Professional Practice

Ethics, integrity, and professionalism are cornerstones of CFA Institute expectations and requirements for CFA charterholders. The Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct require that all CFA Institute members act with professionalism and integrity as it applies to capital markets, duties to clients, recommendations, and conflicts of interest.

And they must always prioritize the integrity of the profession and put client interests ahead of their own.

Benefits of Earning the CFA Charter

Becoming a CFA charterholder communicates that you have an advanced understanding of investment analysis, real-world portfolio management skills, and professional ethical standards.

Earning a CFA designation and showing that you have unmatched expertise in investment management can mean access to:

  • Better job opportunities
  • Career advancement
  • Better outcomes for your clients

Take the Fast Track to the CFA Charter

On average, it takes over four years to become a CFA, but if you have already met the education and/or work requirements needed to qualify for CFA Program enrollment, it is possible to become a CFA charterholder in less than two years if you pass each exam on the first try.

To become a CFA charterholder in under 2 years, your plan would look something like this:

CFA Level I Exam Plan

  • October 2020 – begin 5-month study plan
  • February 2021 – take CFA Level I exam

CFA Level II Exam Plan

  • March 2021 – begin 6-month study plan
  • August 2021 – take CFA Level II exam

CFA Level III Exam Plan

  • December 2021 – begin 6-month study plan
  • May 2022 – take CFA Level III exam

Becoming a CFA charterholder can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. With the proper support and trusted study materials, you’ll be well on your way to earning this coveted credential. Plus, all your hard work is guaranteed to pay off when you start to enjoy better job prospects and other advantages because of having the charter.

Are you ready for the CFA® Program exam?

Take our free CFA Program practice exam to see where you stand.