The Best Way to Prepare for the CFA Level I Exam

How much do I need to study to pass?

Preparation for all three levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams requires a serious commitment to following a structured study plan. According to the CFA Institute, the average annual pass rate over the last 10 years for the CFA Level I exam has been 44%. For the May 2022 exam, the pass rate was just 38%. This statistic indicates that only dedicated candidates are likely to pass the exam, so be prepared to make the necessary sacrifices and put in the required effort. And remember, passing Level I is only the first step to receiving a CFA Charter - there are two more rigorous exams to go.

Your biggest investment in the CFA Charter is your time, so spend it efficiently. According to the CFA Institute, successful candidates report that they spent on average about 323 hours in total preparing for the CFA exam, and the CFA Institute, which administers the exam, suggests no less than 300 hours of study.

The required preparation time can be greater for those with a poor background in the subject matter and less for those who have a strong background in the subjects that the CFA curriculum covers. As a guide for a study plan, let’s use this estimate of 323 hours of reading and practice hours as a benchmark.

Key Takeaways

  • Passing the CFA Level I exam, which has around a 40% pass rate over the past years, requires following a solid study plan.
  • Successful Level I candidates spend more than 300 hours preparing for the exam, on average.
  • The best strategy is to leave at least four months (approximately 17 weeks) to finish all the reading material.
  • Don’t neglect end-of-chapter questions, however. They will help reveal weak points.
  • Allow four weeks prior to the exam date to review questions and have practice sessions, while also setting aside at least one day to simulate exam conditions at home.
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Pass Your CFA Exams on the First Try

Reading Material

The CFA Level I exam covers 10 topics, 19 study sessions, and 57 readings. Each subject carries a different weight in the exam. A good way to manage your study time is by allocating study time based on each topic’s weight.

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Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

The table below summarizes the distribution of 323 hours of reading on the different exam topic areas. It’s often best to leave at least four months for readings and the last month for revision and practicing. If you read two hours per day on weekdays and eight hours on the weekends, then it will take about 17 weeks (four months) to complete all of the readings.

Weekends and nonworking days are the best time to study for the CFA. During the week, you likely will not have time for practice questions, in addition to end-of-chapter questions. Therefore, plan to spend an additional two to four hours during the weekend on practice questions. Do not forget that the more you practice, the higher your chances of being successful on the exam.

The letters "CFA" cannot be added after your name until you have passed all three exams and earned CFA Charterholder status.

End-of-Chapter Questions

Do not forget end-of-chapter questions, and always write down your results to track your progress. End-of-chapter questions will give you an overview of what areas are tested on the exam, so you can be more focused on these areas. Additionally, these questions will reveal the weaker areas that you must focus on to improve.

The following table summarizes how to best allocate your study time for the various CFA exam topics, if you were to give yourself about 323 hours and four months (120 days) to study. Use this table as a benchmark and customize your study routine to suit your circumstances.

CFA Level I Exam Topic Areas
Topic Area Weight Hours based on 323-hour schedule Days to allocate
Ethical and Professional Standards 15%–20% 54 20 days
Quantitative Methods 8%–12% 31 12 days
Economics 8%–12% 31 12 days
Financial Reporting and Analysis 13%–17% 46 17 days
Corporate Finance 8%–12% 31 11 days
Portfolio Management 5%–8% 20 8 days
Equity Investments 10%–12% 35 12 days
Fixed Income 10%–12% 35 12 days
Derivatives 5%–8% 20 8 days
Alternative Investments 5%–8% 20 8 days
Total 100% 323 120 days
Source: CFA Institute

The Last Four Weeks 

After decades of paper-based exams, the CFA exams have changed to computer-based testing. Beginning in 2022, the Level I exam is now offered in February, May, August, and November, the Level II exam in February and August, and the Level III exam in May and November.

Taking these dates into account, allow yourself four weeks prior to the exam date to review questions and have practice sessions. During this period, you should practice more intensively than in previous periods. The CFA Institute will give you mock exams.

It’s recommended that you set aside at least one day to simulate exam conditions at home with the mock test. Two 2.25-hour sessions with an optional break in between are advised, to reflect the conditions of the new computer exam. The mock exam will help you to be well prepared physiologically for the exam.

It can also be worthwhile to take a two- to four-week study leave from work during the final phase of your preparation.

How Much Do I Have to Study to Pass the CFA Level I Exam?

The CFA Institute recommends studying more than 300 hours for the CFA Level I exam, and successful test-takers report devoting around 323 hours.

What Is the CFA Level I Exam Pass Rate?

The overall pass rate since the CFA Level I exam began in 1963 through May 2022 is 45%, and over the past 10 years (through May 2022), just 44% of test takers have passed. The May '22 exam saw only 38% pass.

What Is the Minimum Passing Score for the CFA Level I Exam?

Each year, the CFA Institute computes a minimum passing score (MPS) for its exams, which changes each time the exam is given. The CFA Institute does not make this score available to the public, but test prep providers believe that scores above 70% should usually constitute a pass. They also estimate that in some years the passing score could be as low as 56% and as high as 74% in others.

What Happens if I Fail the CFA Level I Exam?

If you fail the CFA Exam, you have the opportunity to retake it, but candidates who do not pass their exam will have to wait for a minimum of six months to take it again. You can only attempt an exam twice per calendar year and have a total of six maximum attempts per exam level to succeed. You will also have to pay the registration fee each time you sit for the exam.

How Much Does the CFA Level I Exam Cost?

To sit for the CFA Level I exam, you will first have to pay a one-time $350 enrollment fee into the program. Each exam then costs $1,200 (or $900 for early-bird registration).

The Bottom Line

The key to preparing for the CFA Level I exam is to study in a structured way over a period of at least 323 hours. Hopefully, after studying in a structured way for the exam, you won’t have any issues with passing it. Completing the CFA Level I exam is only a piece of receiving a CFA Charter. You'll need to sit for two additional exams - CFA Level II and CFA Level III - before being eligible for this prestigious industry credential.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. CFA Institute. “1963 – 2022 Candidate Examination Results.”

  2. CFA Institute. "CFA® Exam Results and Pass Rates."

  3. CFA Institute. “June 2019 CFA Program Candidate Survey.”

  4. CFA Institute. “CFA® Program Study Sessions.”

  5. CFA Institute. “Information on Exam Registration, Scheduling and Deferrals.”

  6. CFA Institute. “CFA® Program Mock Exam and Practice Questions.”

  7. CFA Institute. “Computer-Based Exam Information.”

  8. 300 Hours. "CFA Passing Score: Here's The Latest MPS Estimates."

  9. CFA Institute. "CFA Exam Eligibility Policy."

  10. CFA Institute. "Exam Dates, Cost, and Registration Fees."

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