The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam is not easy to pass. In 2019, the Level I exam saw a pass rate of 41% for the June exam and a 42% for the December examination according to the CFA Institute. The June 2019 CFA Level II exam pass rate was 44% while the Level III pass rate was 56%.

The numbers are somewhat comparable to 2018 when only 43% of candidates passed the Level I exam, while just 45% passed Level II. In 2017, 54% passed level III in the June examination.

Typically, fewer candidates have passed the exams over time. In 1963, the exam's first year, 94% passed, while in the mid-1980s, the pass rate fell to around 65%, and since 2000, pass rates have ranged from 34 to 55%. If you're one of the many who failed their exam, here's what to do to increase your odds of passing when you retake it.

Key Takeaways

  • The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam is a challenging test, and in 2019, pass rates ranged from 41% to 56% for the three Level exams.
  • If you don't pass the CFA Exam, review the exam results and performance summary provided with your score.
  • Candidates should re-evaluate their study plan and enroll in a CFA prep course.
  • Along with a strategic study plan, you'll need a strategic test-taking plan, which incorporates the structure of the exam.

Step 1: Analyze Your Performance

According to the CFA Institute, candidates who do not pass are provided with their exam result and a summary of their performance in each topic area. Make sure to review this information to gain an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. You'll put this understanding to use in step 2.

Step 2: Re-Evaluate Your Study Plan

Regardless of how hard you studied the first time around, something about your plan didn't work, or else you would have passed. That's why part of your strategy to pass the CFA exam the next time around should involve re-evaluating your study plan.

The CFA Society of Minnesota points out a couple of obstacles that CFA candidates commonly face in their studies: unexpected events disrupt study plans and the amount of material to study is overwhelming. To combat these problems, the society recommends setting up a week-by-week plan for covering all the material before you begin studying. The plan should provide a cushion of several weeks so that you're scheduled to complete your studies several weeks before the exam. This schedule leaves extra time to review difficult concepts and provides a cushion to deal with unexpected life events that might derail your original study plan.

The society also recommends that candidates schedule regular progress testing to get a sense of where they stand throughout their course of study. In other words, don't wait until the week before the exam to discover that you don't understand a topic as well as you thought.

Step 3: Consider Taking a CFA Prep Course

When you've already spent nearly $1,200 to take the test once, and bought official study materials, and are about to shell out another $700 to $1,000 to retake the test (depending on how far in advance you register), spending hundreds more on a CFA prep course doesn't sound that good. But if it means passing the test, you'll save hundreds of hours of further study, and you'll achieve any career advancement or pay increase associated with earning your CFA sooner. In other words, an effective test preparation course can easily pay off.

You can take a prep course in person or online. Courses include features such as a final review, practice exams, ongoing quiz questions, and a structured study plan. A class can help you stay on track with your study plan and identify your weaknesses. Look for a class with guaranteed success, where you'll get your money back if you don't pass the exam as long as you complete the requirements of the study course. Do your due diligence and find the best option for you. The CFA Institute also has a list of approved providers on its website.

Step 4: Plan Your Test-Taking Strategy

Along with a strategic study plan, you'll need a strategic test-taking plan. If you didn't have a plan the last time you took the exam, this step will give you an advantage. If you did have a plan, you can use your real-life test-taking experience to restructure it, keeping in mind which aspects of the test you found easier and which ones were more challenging.

Here are a few specific test-taking strategies from the CFA Society of Minnesota:

  • Understand the exam's 40/50/10 structure, in which 40% of the questions will be fundamental and basic, 50% will be moderately difficult, and 10% will be challenging.
  • Plan your exam-taking time around the 40/50/10 structure. Make three passes through the exam, first quickly answering as many of the easier questions as possible, then addressing the more difficult and time-consuming questions on the second pass. Use the third pass to quickly make sure you've answered every question.
  • Move on when it is taking you too long to answer a question. You want to manage your time in such a way that you can answer all of the questions before the exam time is up, though you don't want to rush so much that you read the questions carelessly.
  • Prepare for exam day by doing a test run. Drive to the exam site and, if possible, visit the actual exam room to familiarize yourself with what you'll experience on the big day.

The Bottom Line

If you don't pass and decide to retake the CFA exam, make sure to register for the exam early so you'll pay the lowest registration fees and take the steps described in this article to make sure you pass your retake. Make this time the last time you have to pay exam expenses and invest the hundreds of hours of required study time.