Is the CFA Exam Difficult? A Student’s Perspective

When one hears “CFA,” words like prestige, expertise, and rigor often come to mind. Considered one of the gold standards in the finance realm, the CFA program is globally recognized and is held by over 170,000 professionals around the world. But the journey to acquire the CFA designation is not a walk in the park. It’s marked by rigorous examinations, intense study sessions, and an unwavering commitment to ethical standards.

In this blog post, we will traverse the challenging yet rewarding landscape of the CFA program. We’ll address the looming question many prospective candidates have: “Is the CFA difficult?” We’ll delve into the structure of the examination, the potential challenges faced by candidates, the remarkable opportunities the designation can unlock, and much more.

So, whether you’re a budding finance professional considering the CFA path or just curious about what the buzz is all about, this guide aims to provide a comprehensive look into the world of the Chartered Financial Analyst.

Understanding the CFA Examination

A. Introduction to the CFA Institute and its role

Imagine a world where there’s no standard method to measure the skills of financial professionals. It would be a tad chaotic, wouldn’t it? The CFA Institute steps in to address just that. In simple terms, think of the CFA Institute as a global association that ensures investment professionals have the knowledge and ethics to be truly effective in their roles.

This institution is responsible for creating a standardized testing process that helps to identify individuals who are not only knowledgeable but also uphold strong professional and ethical standards.

B. Detailed overview of the CFA Examination structure

Delving deeper, the CFA program is divided into three sequential levels:

  • Level I: It provides a base understanding of the wide array of areas in finance, such as corporate finance, portfolio management, and economics. The questions at this level are formatted as multiple-choice, and they aim to check the candidate’s knowledge and comprehension of key concepts.
  • Level II: Building on the basics, Level II goes deeper into topics like asset valuation. Here, candidates are presented with ‘item sets’ or ‘mini-cases’ which have multiple-choice questions linked to them.
  • Level III: This is where the rubber meets the road. Level III emphasizes portfolio management and wealth planning. The examination comprises both item sets and constructed response (essay) questions.

C. Requirements to take the CFA Examination

So, what does it take to embark on this journey? Before you can sit for the CFA exams, there are a few prerequisites:

  1. Educational Qualification: At the very least, you must be in the final year of your bachelor’s degree or already possess a bachelor’s degree.
  2. Work Experience: You can either have four years of professional work experience (doesn’t have to be finance-related) or a combination of professional work and college experience that totals at least four years.
  3. International Passport: All candidates are required to have a valid international passport to register and sit for the examination.
  4. Commitment to Ethics: Each candidate must understand and adhere to the CFA Institute’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct. This is non-negotiable and remains a cornerstone of the CFA program.
  5. Registration Fee: Last but not least, there’s the financial commitment. Each level of the examination comes with a registration fee, which varies depending on when you register (earlier registrations often get discounts).

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Why Consider a CFA Certification?

A. Prestige and Professional Recognition

  • Benchmark of Excellence: The CFA designation is often regarded as a benchmark of excellence in the finance and investment industries.
  • Testament to Ethical Standards: Beyond just knowledge, holding a CFA title signifies an unwavering commitment to upholding the highest ethical standards in the industry.
  • Elite Community: Becoming a CFA charterholder also means joining an elite community of professionals globally, which can be instrumental in networking and professional growth.

B. Career Opportunities and Benefits

  • Diverse Roles: CFA charterholders are well-equipped for a plethora of roles including portfolio management, research analysis, consultancy, and even corporate financial roles.
  • Increased Earning Potential: Numerous surveys and studies suggest that CFA charterholders often command higher salaries compared to their non-certified counterparts.
  • Career Advancement: The comprehensive knowledge and skills acquired through the CFA program often lead to faster career advancements and a broader range of opportunities within the finance domain.
  • Employer Recognition: Many top finance employers prioritize or even require the CFA designation for certain roles, recognizing its value in ensuring a candidate’s proficiency.

C. Global Relevance of the CFA Certification

  • Worldwide Recognition: The CFA program is globally recognized, making CFA charterholders sought-after professionals in the global finance arena.
  • Consistent Curriculum: The CFA curriculum is consistent worldwide. This means a CFA charterholder possesses a uniform set of skills and knowledge.
  • Global Network: The CFA designation provides access to a global network of professionals, furthering opportunities for international roles, collaborations, and knowledge sharing.

Also Read: Is CFA Worth It in 2023? An Honest Opinion

Is the CFA Examination Difficult?

A. General Perceptions about the Difficulty Level of the CFA Exam

The CFA Examination is often deemed one of the most challenging tests in the finance domain. This perception isn’t without merit. Given the depth and breadth of the topics covered and the rigorous preparation required, many consider it a Herculean task. The rigorous study hours, coupled with the need to balance work and personal commitments, further fuel this perception.

B. Examination Pass Rates and What They Indicate about Difficulty

Historically, the pass rates for the CFA Examination have not been particularly high, and this has further established its reputation for being tough.

  • Historic Insight: Historically, pass rates have hovered around 40-50% for Level I, 45-55% for Level II, and 55-65% for Level III. These numbers reflect the fact that not every candidate who sits for the exam emerges victorious.
  • Depth Over Breadth: The pass rates also indicate that the CFA isn’t just about rote learning. Instead, it tests a candidate’s ability to apply knowledge in practical, real-world situations, requiring a deep understanding of the topics.

C. Breakdown of the Difficulty Level for Each Level

Examination LevelDescription
Level ISeen as the foundation, this level focuses on introducing candidates to the vast world of finance. The broad range of topics can be overwhelming to many.
Level IIThis level dives deeper, requiring candidates to apply the knowledge they’ve acquired. The case-based questions add layers of complexity compared to Level I.
Level IIIWidely regarded as the most challenging, Level III merges theoretical knowledge with real-world application. It tests the candidate’s ability to synthesize and evaluate complex financial scenarios and strategies.

D. Topics and Areas Candidates Often Find Challenging

Different candidates might find different topics challenging based on their background and strengths. However, certain areas have been frequently reported as particularly tough:

  • Derivatives: These financial instruments, their valuation and application, are often complex and require an intricate understanding.
  • Fixed Income: This segment can be challenging due to the depth of knowledge required around interest rates, yield curves, and the valuation of bonds.
  • Financial Reporting and Analysis: It’s intricate and demands a comprehensive understanding of financial statements and their implications.
  • Economics: Given its theoretical nature, some candidates find grasping economic concepts and their real-world implications challenging.

Challenges in Preparing for the CFA Exam

A. Maintaining Consistency in Preparation

Consistency in study and preparation is crucial for CFA candidates given the sheer volume of material and the depth of understanding required.

  • Volume Overwhelm: The extensive CFA curriculum can often seem daunting, especially when spread across months of study. A single topic can sometimes span hundreds of pages, making consistent coverage challenging.
  • Keeping the Momentum: Long-term preparations require staying motivated over an extended period. Given the time between when one starts preparing and the exam day, it’s common for candidates to face burnout or lose momentum.
  • Periodic Revisions: Ensuring consistency isn’t just about moving forward but also revisiting old topics. Without periodic revisions, there’s a risk of forgetting previously studied material.

B. Balancing Work and Study

The majority of CFA candidates are working professionals, which brings its own set of challenges.

  • Time Constraints: Juggling a full-time job with CFA preparation means fewer hours in the day to dedicate solely to studying.
  • Mental Fatigue: After a long day at work, diving deep into the intricacies of the CFA curriculum can be mentally exhausting.
  • Work Commitments: Unexpected work commitments, such as late-night meetings or business trips, can disrupt a carefully planned study schedule.

C. Overcoming Isolation and Loneliness during the Preparation Process

The CFA journey is often a solitary one, with countless hours spent alone with books and mock exams.

  • Lack of Social Interaction: Extended hours of study might mean sacrificing social events, meetups, or even just spending time with family and friends. This can lead to feelings of isolation.
  • Stress and Pressure: The weight of the impending exam combined with isolation can lead to heightened stress levels. Without social outlets, this stress can magnify.
  • Seeking Peer Support: While study groups can be beneficial, not everyone has access to them. Some candidates may find it challenging to find peers who are on the same CFA journey or even understand the pressures associated with it.

Reasons Why CFA Examination May Be Considered Difficult

A. Amount of Study Material and Time Investment Required

The depth and breadth of the CFA curriculum are nothing short of extensive. It’s not just about reading a topic but understanding, assimilating, and being able to apply it.

  • Sheer Volume: The CFA curriculum spans thousands of pages, each packed with detailed concepts, theories, and methodologies. Covering this expansive material is a task in itself.
  • Time Commitment: The CFA Institute often suggests an average of 300 hours of study per level. This translates to numerous months of sustained, focused effort, especially challenging for professionals juggling work commitments.
  • Continuous Evolution: Financial concepts, strategies, and regulations evolve. The CFA curriculum gets updated to reflect these changes, which means candidates need to be on top of the latest in the financial world.

B. High Standards of Ethics and Professional Conduct Expected from Candidates

Ethics isn’t just another topic in the CFA curriculum. It’s the backbone of the entire certification.

  • Significance: Ethical and professional standards hold significant weight in the CFA exam, making it essential for candidates to understand and internalize these principles deeply.
  • Gray Areas: Unlike quantitative topics where answers are definite, ethics often involves navigating gray areas, which can be tricky and subjective. Judging the best ethical stance in complex scenarios is challenging.
  • Application in Real-world Scenarios: The exam tests not just the theoretical understanding of ethics but also its application in real-world financial situations.

C. The Real-world Application and Problem-solving Elements of the Examination

The CFA isn’t about rote memorization. It’s about understanding, analyzing, and applying.

  • Application-based Questions: Especially from Level II onwards, candidates encounter item sets and case studies that require applying learned concepts to real-world scenarios.
  • Synthesizing Knowledge: The exam often requires candidates to pull knowledge from multiple topics to address a single problem, mimicking the interconnected nature of real-world financial challenges.
  • Higher-order Thinking: Simple recall won’t cut it. The CFA exam demands higher-order thinking skills, including analysis, evaluation, and synthesis.
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Preparing for the CFA Examination: Study Techniques and Habits

A. Importance of Understanding the CFA Examination Curriculum and Format

  • Solid Foundation: Having a solid grasp of the curriculum and the exam format lays the foundation for efficient and effective preparation. By understanding the weightage of each topic and the type of questions posed, candidates can prioritize their study time.
  • Setting Expectations: Knowing the format means there are no surprises on exam day. Familiarity with the structure helps in managing time during the exam and boosts confidence.

B. Recommended Study Techniques and Habits for Each Level of the Examination

  1. Level I:
    • Master the Basics: Focus on understanding core concepts, as these form the foundation for the next levels.
    • Practice Questions: Regularly solve end-of-chapter questions to reinforce learning and identify weak areas.
    • Flashcards: Given the breadth of the material, flashcards can be useful for quick revisions and retaining definitions or formulas.
  2. Level II:
    • Application Focus: Dive deep into how concepts are applied in real-world situations, particularly given the case-study nature of questions.
    • Mock Exams: Regularly take mock exams to get a feel for the item set questions and assess preparedness.
    • Review Mistakes: After mock exams, review mistakes and refocus on those areas before retesting.
  3. Level III:
    • Essay Writing: Practice structured essay writing to answer the constructed response questions efficiently.
    • Interlink Topics: At this level, many questions require integrating knowledge from multiple areas. Always look for connections between topics.
    • Regular Revisions: Given the synthesis required, revisiting topics is crucial to keeping all the material fresh.

C. Tips for Managing Time Effectively While Preparing for the CFA Examination

  • Study Schedule: Create a detailed study plan, breaking down each reading and allocating specific days or weeks to it.
  • Pomodoro Technique: Use techniques like the Pomodoro method, where you study intensively for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break. It helps maintain focus and reduces fatigue.
  • Regular Mock Exams: Allocate the last month or so exclusively for mock exams. This will not only test knowledge but also improve time management skills for the actual exam.
  • Avoid Procrastination: Set specific milestones and reward yourself for achieving them. This can help in maintaining momentum and avoiding procrastination.

D. Suggestions for Maintaining Mental Health and Managing Stress During Preparation

  • Regular Breaks: It’s essential to give your mind some downtime. Regular short breaks during study sessions can boost retention and reduce burnout.
  • Physical Exercise: Physical activity, be it a short walk, yoga, or a gym session, can greatly help in reducing stress and enhancing cognitive function.
  • Stay Connected: While the CFA journey can be solitary, it’s important to maintain connections with family, friends, or fellow candidates for emotional support.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices can assist in managing anxiety and improving focus and concentration.
  • Seek Help When Needed: If feelings of overwhelm persist, consider seeking professional help or counseling. There’s no harm in needing assistance to navigate through stressful times.

Also Read: How To Prepare for CFA Level 1 [A 90 Percentiler’s Guide]

Resources to Help You Succeed in the CFA Examination

A. Overview of Resources Provided by the CFA Institute

  • Official CFA Curriculum: The backbone of CFA preparation, this set of textbooks provides in-depth coverage of all exam topics. They offer numerous examples and end-of-chapter questions that mirror the style and complexity of actual exam questions.
  • Candidate Resources Portal: This online platform offers topic tests, mock exams, and other study aids that emulate the examination environment. These tools help candidates assess their preparedness and identify weak areas.
  • CFA Exam Digital Learning Platform: A digital platform offering a variety of interactive study tools, including topic tests, practice assessments, and adaptive quizzes tailored to a candidate’s proficiency.

B. Recommended Third-party Resources and Study Guides

  • SchweserNotes: One of the most popular third-party resources, Schweser offers condensed study guides, practice exams, and video lectures, providing candidates with a streamlined approach to studying.
  • Quintedge: This platform provides practice questions, mock exams, video lessons, and performance tracking. It’s tailored to aid candidates in mastering each level of the CFA exam.
  • Mark Meldrum’s Video Lessons: Recognized for in-depth explanations, Mark Meldrum’s Youtube series on the CFA curriculum is a favorite among many candidates, especially for complex topics.

C. Overview of Study Groups and Forums for CFA Candidates

  • Local CFA Societies: Many cities have local CFA societies that organize study groups, boot camps, and mock exam sessions. These can provide structured support and a community of peers.
  • Online Forums like Quedly and AnalystForum: An active online community where candidates can discuss doubts, share resources, and connect with fellow aspirants and charterholders.
  • Social Media Groups: Platforms like Reddit, LinkedIn, and Facebook have active CFA candidate groups where members share tips, resources, and exam experiences.

D. Balancing Work, Life, and CFA Exam Preparation

  • Time Management: Allocate specific study hours each day and stick to them.
  • Inform Your Workplace: If possible, let your employer know about your CFA journey. They may offer additional support, resources, or even adjust workloads during peak study times.
  • Seek Support: Discuss your CFA journey with family and friends. Their understanding and support can ease some personal pressures and create a conducive environment for preparation.
  • Regular Downtime: Allot some hours every week for relaxation and hobbies. This can help rejuvenate the mind and break the monotony of continuous studying.

Also Read: Best CFA Study Materials in 2023 [Books, Courses & Videos]

Balancing Work, Life, and CFA Exam Preparation

A. Advice for Balancing Work, Life, and Exam Preparation

  1. Prioritize and Plan: At the outset, understand your commitments. Do you have big work projects coming up? Family events? Plan around them.
  2. Consistency Over Intensity: Instead of sporadic, intense study sessions, aim for consistent daily or bi-daily study slots. This reduces stress and aids retention.
  3. Optimize Your Environment: Identify when and where you’re most productive. Some candidates prefer early morning study sessions, while others are night owls. Find your peak times and optimize around them.
  4. Communicate with Loved Ones: It’s important to communicate with your family and friends about your journey and the time commitment it requires.
  5. Integrate Breaks: Continuous studying can lead to burnout. Ensure you take regular short breaks during your study sessions and longer breaks every few weeks to rejuvenate.

B. Insights into How Different Candidates Managed Their Time Effectively

  1. Flexible Work Hours: Some candidates leveraged flexible work hours or remote working days to carve out extra study time.
  2. Weekend Power Sessions: Dedicate large chunks of undisturbed study time on weekends, which can be especially useful for complex topics that require extended focus.
  3. Leveraging Commute Time: Some candidates found value in revising flashcards or listening to topic summaries during commutes.
  4. Time Blocking: Using time management techniques like time blocking, where specific hours are allocated to specific activities, helped many candidates structure their day effectively.
  5. Using Leave Strategically: Some candidates took a few days off before the exam for focused revision and relaxation, ensuring they were at their best on exam day.

C. The Potential Role of Employers in Supporting CFA Candidates

  1. Study Leave: Some progressive companies offer study leave for their employees pursuing the CFA, especially close to the examination.
  2. Sponsorship: Financial support in the form of exam fee or resource sponsorship can be provided to employees, reflecting the employer’s commitment to staff development.
  3. Flexible Working Hours: Recognizing the demands of the CFA exam, some employers might offer flexible working hours to candidates, especially during the final stretch of preparation.
  4. In-house Training and Workshops: Larger firms, especially those in the financial sector, might organize in-house training sessions or workshops geared towards the CFA curriculum, leveraging in-house experts and external trainers.
  5. Mentorship: Senior employees, especially those who’ve been through the CFA journey, can provide invaluable guidance, mentorship, and moral support to candidates.

What if You Fail the CFA Examination?

A. Understanding the Implications of Failing the CFA Examination

  1. Not Uncommon: First and foremost, it’s vital to recognize that failing a level of the CFA exam isn’t a rare occurrence. Given the pass rates, many candidates find themselves in this situation.
  2. Financial Implications: There’s the obvious cost of re-registration, which varies depending on when you decide to re-enroll for the exam. Early registrations are typically cheaper.
  3. Time Commitment: Failing means dedicating additional months to prepare for a retake, further extending the timeline to becoming a CFA charterholder.
  4. Emotional Toll: Beyond tangible implications, there’s the emotional and psychological impact. It’s natural to feel disappointed, frustrated, or disheartened.

B. The Process of Re-taking the Examination

  1. Re-Registration: Candidates can register again for the next available exam. There’s no limit to the number of times one can sit for the examination at any level.
  2. Review Feedback: While the CFA Institute doesn’t provide detailed score feedback, the exam results will indicate topic areas where the candidate’s performance was below average, average, or above average. This feedback can guide the candidate’s revision strategy.
  3. Re-strategize: Candidates should consider altering their study methods or materials based on where they felt underprepared. It might also be worthwhile to join a study group or seek additional resources.

C. Encouragement and Advice for Candidates Who Have Failed

  1. Keep Perspective: Many successful CFA charterholders did not pass every level on their first try. Failure can be a stepping stone to future success, offering insights into areas of improvement.
  2. Seek Support: Connect with peers, mentors, or study groups who can offer encouragement, share their own experiences, or provide new perspectives on preparation strategies.
  3. Focus on Weak Areas: Use the exam results feedback to target weak areas. Dive deep into topics where performance was below average and consider seeking tutoring for those sections.
  4. Mindset Matters: Treat the failure as a learning opportunity rather than a defeat. Cultivating a growth mindset – where challenges are seen as opportunities to learn and grow – can be beneficial.
  5. Stay Updated: If you’re taking a break before retaking the exam, ensure you’re aware of any curriculum changes for the upcoming year.
  6. Consider a Break: If continuous preparation is leading to burnout, consider taking a short break to recharge before diving back into your studies with renewed vigor.


The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) certification is not just a test of one’s knowledge of finance but also a measure of commitment, perseverance, and determination. With its rigorous curriculum, demanding study hours, and the multifaceted challenges candidates face in preparation, the journey towards becoming a CFA charterholder is a marathon, not a sprint.

However, the rewards — both tangible and intangible — are worth the effort. Beyond the global recognition, career opportunities, and professional growth, the journey itself instills resilience, discipline, and a deeper understanding of the financial world.

For those currently on this path, or considering embarking on it, it’s essential to remember that setbacks, like failing an exam or feeling overwhelmed, are just temporary hurdles. With the right resources, support, and mindset, they can be overcome. Every CFA charterholder has a unique story of challenges faced, lessons learned, and milestones achieved. Your story, with its highs and lows, will be a testament to your dedication and passion for finance.

So, gear up, stay committed, and remember: the CFA journey is not just about reaching the destination but also about the wisdom gathered and the character forged along the way.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it typically take to prepare for each level of the CFA exam?

While preparation time varies based on individual backgrounds and study habits, many candidates spend an average of 300 hours studying for each level of the CFA exam.

Is the difficulty level consistent across all three levels of the CFA exam?

No, each level presents its unique challenges. Level I focuses on basic knowledge and comprehension, Level II emphasizes complex analysis and application, and Level III hones in on portfolio management and decision-making.

If I fail a level of the CFA exam, how soon can I retake it?

You can register for the next available exam date, but it’s important to ensure you’re ready and have addressed areas of weakness before retaking.

Bain & Co.
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