Passing the CFA Program exams requires strong discipline and an extensive amount of studying. The three exams have traditionally been offered in June, with the exception of Level I, which could be taken in December as well. As of 2021, all levels of the CFA exam will be computer-based. The Level I CFA exam will also be offered four times per year on February, May, August, and November. Due to 2020 postponements resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, two temporary windows for 2021 were added in March and January. The Level II and III exams will subsequently be offered three times in 2021 given on May, August/September, and November, then twice from 2022 onwards. 

Although the exams can be taken as many times as needed, each exam typically requires candidates to study in excess of 300 hours. Given the considerable amount of time that must be 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.

The exams are difficult. Only 49% passed the Level I exam in December 2020. Having the right plan and the discipline to follow the plan are essential skills for passing all three exams. 2018 saw a record number of test-takers. The pass rate was similar to previous years. The increase in test-takers came primarily from Asia. The Institute now has test-taking centers in 91 countries and territories around the world.

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Tips for Taking the CFA Exam: Part 2

Topics

The six-hour exam covers topics ranging from ethics and professional standards, to quantitative methods, economics, financial reporting and analysis, corporate finance, equity investments, derivatives, alternative investments, portfolio management, and wealth planning, which is why most CFA charterholders recommend studying for 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 Level I and Level II of the exams are typically between 40% and 50% with Level III having a slightly higher pass rate. However, pass rates were much higher when the exams were first initiated in 1963 and have been trending downward since then.

On the December 2020 exams, 49% of candidates passed Level I, and 55% passed Level II, while 56% passed Level III. Moreover, somewhere between 10% and 20% of candidates who sign up for the exam end up not showing up for the test.

Exam Questions

The test material is very difficult, and exam questions are designed specifically to trick the candidates. For this reason, candidates should take many practice tests to go through practice questions and get a feel for the types of questions they will encounter.

Level I has 180 multiple-choice questions (as of 2021 the number of Level I questions was reduced from 240 to 180); 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.

Starting in 2021, Level I, Level II, and Level III of the CFA® exam will be offered in a computer-based testing format, ending 60 years of paper-based testing.

The Bottom Line

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 an extensive and impressive network of CFA professionals.