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How Hard Is the CFA® Exam?

By: Kaplan Schweser
March 7, 2021
Man overwhelmed while studying the CFA Exam

If you are deciding whether or not go to go for the CFA® charter, odds are you are wondering, “So, just how hard is the CFA exam?” It’s a commonly searched question and one of much discussion on CFA exam-related forums. Rather than just answering this question for you, we’ve asked some of our former students, who are now CFA charterholders, to provide their opinions on the question.

Think of It as Marathon Training

"It’s more of a test of endurance than a test of intelligence. Just view it as a marathon and stick with it.” – Brady Raanes, CFA, CFP®

On the whole, our students said preparing for each CFA exam is like preparing to run a marathon. It takes a lot of time, but it is doable as long as you put in the mileage. Preparing with the same intensity at the beginning as at the end was pivotal to their success. You can achieve success on exam day as long as you have the time to commit to the training.

“A minimum of 4 to 5 months is required for each level (assuming full-time employment). Spread the effort evenly over the course of study, as the volume of material simply precludes cramming.”
– Rob Martin, CFA

Despite all the warnings that it’s impossible to cram for the CFA exams, there are always people who think they are exceptions to the rule. These are not your typical theoretical exams. Not only are you being tested on your ability to recall information but also your ability to apply it to situations. You simply cannot get through it all and have it mastered without dedicating at least 300 hours per exam to prepare. As one of our students pointed out below, there is a certain instinct you will develop only after hours and hours of preparation.

“It demands sufficient effort to prepare, especially for Level II and Level III. The key to the ethics section is a kind of intuition developed only by practice.” – Sergey Trofimov, CFA

The Sacrifice Is Part of What Makes It So Difficult

“Your social life takes a backseat in the months you are studying for the exam, and that’s tough. Obviously, one wants to relax after a long hard week at work, and it’s hard to hit the books. But it’s only for a few months!” – Audrey Lim, CFA

Most of our students told us the hardest part of the CFA Program is the sacrifices you have to make in the rest of your life to put in the necessary time to study. If you’re working a full-time job while studying, then family time, social time, travel, and leisure time become harder to come by.

“It’s a lot harder to balance family, friends, and work commitments than it appears on the surface. It’s one of those things you don’t know until you are in it.” – Nick Caldwell, CFA

Time management and organizational skills are pivotal to balancing the studying in with the rest of the obligations in your life. Creating a study plan and sticking to it will help you get into a routine and stay on track for exam success.  Exam prep packages can also help in this area.

Considering the CFA charter? Download this free Before You Decide to Sit for the CFA Exam eBook.

Experience Helps

“Work experience helps bring some real world context to the study material.” – Audrey Lim, CFA

If you are a working professional trying to fit CFA exam studying into your life, there is good news. Many of our students said that their work experience helped bring the concepts they were learning to life. Being able to apply what you are learning immediately is a great way to solidify your understanding of the material. They also reported that being able to apply concepts to their practice immediately was rewarding in its own right.

OK, Really, How Hard Is It to Pass?

“It is one of the most difficult exams in the world.” – Hu Jia, CFA

“Having already passed the CMA, CFM, and CPA programs, I was overwhelmed with the amount of study and preparation that was required for the CFA Program.” – John Mario Furtado

It’s definitely tough. Our students have said it’s harder than any other designation program they’ve ever done. But, that makes getting through the program even more rewarding.

“Finishing the charter was one of the best feelings of accomplishment I’ve ever had in my career.”– Tim Davis, CFA

Achieving the CFA charter is no small feat, but all of the former students we talked to said it’s worth the hours of commitment. It is a true test of perseverance and discipline. The sky’s the limit if you can commit to preparing for it!

Free eBook: Before You Decide to Sit for the CFA® Program Exam

Free eBook: CFA® Program Fundamentals, 2nd Edition

Ready to Pass the CFA® Exam?