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How Hard are the CFA® Exams?

By: Kaplan Schweser
May 26, 2022
How hard is each level of the CFA exam

Each CFA exam is demanding and will test your knowledge of the program’s curriculum in a computer-based format. Recently, the Level I CFA exam has been especially tough on program candidates, which is reflected in the current CFA pass rates. To increase your chance of passing each exam you should take your CFA prep seriously and utilize free study materials to help with the overall cost of pursuing the CFA charter


Why is Earning the CFA Designation So Difficult?

Program candidates rarely pass all three exams the first time and completing the CFA program can take 4+ years. If you factor in the hundreds of hours needed to study and practice for each exam while working a full-time job, you’ll realize just how major an accomplishment it is to become a CFA charterholder and add the CFA® designation to your resume.

What is a Passing Score on the CFA Exams?

The CFA exam is a pass/fail exam that has a Minimum Passing Score (MPS) assigned each time the exam is administered. This means candidates do not receive a numeral score when receiving exam results. Instead, candidates receive a breakdown of how they performed in each topic area, which will be represented within a percentage range:

  • More than 70 percent
  • Between 50 and 70 percent
  • Less than 50 percent

Each time the exam is administered, the CFA Institute and its members thoroughly review the results and determine a score range that dictates whether a candidate has passed or failed the exam. 

How CFA Exams Are Graded? »

How Hard is the CFA Level I Exam?

Level I of the CFA Program usually has the lowest pass rate which could imply it’s the most difficult exam in the program. However, this will not apply to every candidate because each person has different strengths and weaknesses. One reason Level I can be hard for program candidates is they don’t take the exam as seriously as it requires. The Level I exam may be the most comprehensive and rigorous exam they have ever experienced. 

One advantage Level I candidates have is they are in the beginning stages of pursuing the charter so there is less risk of burnout whereas candidates preparing for the Level III exam will have an increased risk of burnout. 

Hardest Topics on CFA Level I

The hardest Level I topics will vary for each candidate based on their background but if you struggle with learning mathematical formulas you should expect Quantitative Methods to be the most difficult. If math is one of your strengths but you have a difficult time remembering lots of rules and procedures you may find Ethical and Professional Standards the most difficult topic. No matter your background, all topics on the CFA Level I exam can be challenging to those that are not prepared. 

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What is a Passing Score on the CFA Level I Exam?

To pass the Level I exam, candidates will need to score above 70% on multiple topics and can only afford to score below 50% on one or two of the least weighted topics. Since the CFAI does not issue traditional scores, to pass Level I, candidates will need to prove they are ready to advance to Level II.

CFA Level I vs Level II Difficulty

There are quite a few differences between Level I and Level II which can make either exam more difficult than the other.  The Level II exam will introduce new question types and ask candidates to dig deeper for answers. The Level I exam however requires candidates to memorize and recall the foundations, including formulas and definitions, which could trip up candidates who learned about these topics on the job.

How to Prep for the CFA Level I Exam?

To study for the CFA Level I exam, candidates should start by getting familiar with the curriculum topics of the CFA Program. Then they should take some time to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, which can be done by utilizing a CFA prep package. Once candidates understand which topics they need to focus on the most, they should develop a study schedule that prioritizes those topics and keeps them on track.

How Hard is the CFA Level II Exam?

Level II of the CFA Program is when candidates need to dig deep and demonstrate their ability to apply the foundational knowledge learned while preparing for Level I to more complex subtopics within the program curriculum. Candidates will be introduced to a new question format, called vignettes, which can be very difficult to interpret. These questions can be long reads and require test-takers to learn how to quickly scan multiple paragraphs and pull relevant data points to answer a series of questions which are called “item sets.”

Hardest Topics on CFA Level II

The hardest Level II topics will vary for each candidate based on their background and what they learned during their preparation for Level I. Candidates should notice the increase in the weight given to Portfolio Management & Wealth Planning for the Level II exam compared to the Level I exam. If you scored low in this topic on Level I, you may find it to be the most difficult topic on Level II. All topics on the CFA Level II exam are guaranteed to be challenging to those that are not prepared to demonstrate a deeper understanding than was required on the Level I exam. 

What is a Passing Score on the CFA Level II Exam?

To pass the Level II exam, candidates will need to score at least 70% on multiple topics and can only afford to score between 50% - 70% on one or two of the least weighted topics. Since most topics on the Level II exam carry the same weight, getting below 50% on one of the topics could cost you the exam.

CFA Level II vs Level III Difficulty

Candidates should expect the Level III exam to be more difficult than the Level II exam. The primary reasons Level III is more difficult than Level II are:

  • Level III covers fewer topics which increases the weight of each topic, especially Portfolio Management and Wealth Planning
  • A new question format introduced called constructed response questions
  • Advanced judgment and writing skills are required
  • Mental fatigue can kick in after spending years of preparation to get to this stage of the program

How to Prep for the CFA Level II Exam?

Program candidates preparing for the CFA Level II exam should start by assessing their performance on the Level I exam. Use your CFA prep package analytics to determine which topics need to be emphasized. Then start reading and working through the Level II Learning Outcome Statements of the CFA Program. When you are ready to begin preparing for the vignette questions, remember that quantitative methods can consist of one or two item sets.

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How Hard is the CFA Level III Exam?

Don’t be deceived by historical pass rates for Level III of the CFA Program. The all-time average pass rates are higher than Level I, but barely. Level III is difficult and requires candidates to master time management and a new question format called “constructed response questions.” The Portfolio and Wealth Management topic is weighted 35-40% of the total exam so expect to demonstrate your expert writing and judgment skills when answering questions from this topic.

Hardest Topics on CFA Level III

Take what you will, performance in Portfolio and Wealth Management is 35-40% of the total weight on the Level III exam. Past candidates have expressed Derivatives to be the hardest topic on Level IIl for them, but that seems mostly to come from their lack of interest in the subject matter. Candidates' interests and previous work experience can be a big factor in determining which topic will be the hardest on Level III. 

What is a Passing Score on the CFA Level III Exam?

The percentage score candidates will need to pass the Level III exam fluctuates after each sitting but it’s safe to assume that if you are able to score a 70% or higher in all seven topic areas you may pass.

How to Prep for the CFA Level III Exam?

Program candidates preparing for the CFA Level III exam should try to get an early start on studying because average CFA candidates spend the most time studying for the Level III exam compared to previous exams. When you start practicing constructed response questions, remember to demonstrate your understanding of the basics in your written responses.



Are CFA Practice Questions Harder than the Actual CFA Exam?

CFA practice questions are designed to be similar to the actual exam questions at every level. If candidates are experiencing difficulty with practice questions this usually means that candidate is not fully prepared or their nerves got the best of them. Stress and anxiety can inhibit candidates from grasping new material and concepts thus preventing them from learning the subject material and struggling to answer practice questions correctly.

Are Mock Exams Easier than the CFA Exam?

CFA mock exams can be slightly more challenging than the actual exam simply because candidates are still preparing for the exam and haven’t finished studying. The best mock exams are designed to simulate the actual testing interface and format. If candidates are finding mock exams easy and their scores are looking good, then they have prepared well for the CFA exam. 



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