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Passing the CFA Program exams requires strong discipline and an extensive amount of studying. The three exams can be taken once a year in June, with the exception of Level I, which be taken in December as well as June. On June 3, level I, II and III exams will be given (level I is also given December 2).

Although the exams can be taken as many times as needed, each exam typically requires candidates to study in excess of 300 hours. Based on the latest candidate survey conducted by the CFA Institute, the average candidate (including all levels) studied 322 hours for the exams. Given the length of time spent studying, many candidates are deterred from continuing the CFA Program after failing one of the levels. To receive a charter, each candidate must pass all three exams and have four years of qualified work experience in investment decision-making.

Although the exams are difficult, on the level I test in December, only 43% passed. Having the right plan and the discipline to follow the plan are essential skills for passing all three exams.

Topics

The tests cover topics including ethics and professional standards, quantitative methods, economics, financial reporting and analysis, corporate finance, equity investments, derivatives, alternative investments, portfolio management and wealth planning. The six-hour exam covers a wide array of topics, which is why most CFA charterholders recommend studying more than 300 hours. The books provided by the CFA Institute provide more material than what is necessary to learn for the exam. Many candidates elect to study from an alternative source of prep materials, such as study books provided by Schweser. Classes, videos and online quizzes can also provide assistance in studying for the exams. Utilizing a variety of methods for studying and taking advantage of prep materials can enhance a candidate's ability to pass the test.

Pass Rates

The CFA Institute reports that historical pass rates for each level of exams are typically between 40 and 50%. However, pass rates were much higher when the exams were first initiated in 1963 and have been trending downward since then. The June, 2016 results report that 43% of candidates passed Level I, 46% passed Level II and 54% passed Level III. Level III results typically have the highest pass rates out of all the levels. About 20% of candidates who sign up for the exam never end up showing up for the test. The average candidate takes four years to receive a charter.

Exam Questions

While the test material is very difficult, the exam questions are especially designed to trick the candidates. For this reason, candidates should take many practice tests and go through practice questions to prepare for the exam and get a feel for the types of questions they will encounter. Level I has 240 multiple-choice questions, Level II consists of 20 item-set questions and Level III has a combination of item-set questions and short essays. Although Level I's multiple choice questions only have three possible answers, candidates need to read the questions carefully to select the correct answers, which can often include "None of the above" and "All of the above" as possible answers. The time pressure during the exams also creates some anxiety for candidates. (See also: The Best Way To Prepare For The CFA Level 1 Exam)

Conclusion

Overall, the CFA exams are very difficult, but candidates can increase their chances of passing by studying for over 300 hours, utilizing alternative prep materials, answering as many practice questions as possible and creating a structured study plan. Finishing the entire CFA Program can be very rewarding, and the designation is recognized by companies across the finance industry. Charterholders can advance in their investment careers through the knowledge they gain and their access to the extensive network of CFA professionals.

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