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Designing a Strategy to Retake the CFA® Exam

By: Kaplan Schweser
January 8, 2021
A Man progressing through a maze symbolizes designing a Strategy to Retake the CFA Exam

When preparing to retake the CFA® exam, at any level, it can be difficult to determine where to start. This guide will help you focus on the areas where you need the most work, and develop a plan for preparing to successfully retake the CFA exam.

Step 1: Review Your Banding

Along with your results notification, if you have been unsuccessful, CFA Institute will have given you a banding. The banding shows your decile in the fail population.

Bands 10, 9 and 8

Being in the 10th banding means you were a fraction away from passing. Sometimes, being so close is more frustrating than missing a pass by a long shot. On the positive side, this means you were only a few correct questions away from passing, indicating that you do not have fundamental deficiencies in your knowledge or technique.

The first thing to do is to review your Ethics score. CFA Institute explicitly states that your score on the Ethics portion will determine pass/fail if your overall score is around the marginal passing score (MPS). So, if you are in these bands and scored poorly on Ethics, you probably know the cause of your fail.

Next, check whether you completed all the necessary practice questions. The questions you should have completed before sitting for the real exam are detailed in step 4. When we say “completed,” it is important to note that we don’t just mean answering the question, but also reviewing the answer. Reviewing the solution is of particular importance if you are to learn from your mistakes and improve your mastery of the curriculum.

Typically, your retake plan will consist of bringing any weaker areas up to speed and maintaining your core knowledge with the primary focus being on practice questions. Good prep provider question banks contain thousands of questions and allow you to custom build exams around specific LOS, readings, and study sessions. You can also use online question banks to replicate mock exams.

If you are in these bands, we would recommend initially focusing on self-study and then adding a review course later in your studies, especially if you feel you would benefit from a refresher on both technical content and exam technique.

Planning Your Retake Strategy? Consider Adding a CFA Exam Review Workshop to the Plan.

Bands 7, 6, and 5

These bands indicate that you were outside the top 30% of unsuccessful candidates. Bandings in these regions indicate that either your knowledge or exam technique were insufficient to pass the exam.

First, you need to analyze what caused you to fall into one of these categories. The most common reason will be that you ran out of time to properly prepare and knew that you had weak areas going into the exam. Candidates falling in these categories due to technical deficiency often benefit from attending weekly exam prep classes again. Next time in class, you will know exactly where you need to focus.

If you felt that it was not the technical difficulty of the curriculum that caused you to fail, then it is more likely to be an issue of insufficient question practice, which, in turn is normally caused by running out of study time. Candidates falling into this category will need to predominantly focus on question practice and will benefit from attending a review course.

Bands 4, 3, 2 and 1

If you scored in these bands then, unfortunately, you were in the bottom 40% of those failing the exam.

Before considering a retake, you really need to focus on the reason for this result. If you lacked the time needed to properly prepare for the exam, then a lesson has been learned. If you studied in excess of the 300 hours, this is a little more worrying. First, you need to question your study technique. If you have not yet read it, then it is worth reading the “common reasons for failure” in this guide. In particular, studying the technical material with insufficient question practice can cause failure, no matter how many hours you dedicate to preparation. We find that the majority of students can cope with the technical nature of the curriculum, but those who struggle with applying quantitative material may require more than the 300 hours. Remember, 300 hours is just a guideline and an average. Speaking to thousands of candidates, we do know that a large number will take far more than this to prepare.

The majority of candidates falling in these deciles will have both technical weaknesses and poor exam technique. Technical deficiencies can be improved by studying the CFA Institute texts and prep provider materials. Taking mock exams and attending review courses can improve exam technique.

Step 2: Review Your Topic Performance

The next step is to identify your strong and weak areas. When designing your retake plan, we suggest starting with the areas in which you clearly underperformed. Be very careful that you do not ignore your stronger areas entirely; otherwise, you may find that you have just substituted weak areas for previously strong areas.

Any area where you scored less than 50% in the exam is considered a weak area. These areas are where you should begin studying. Next, review your moderate areas (50–70%) before reviewing the areas you performed well in the exam (>70%). This now forms an outline of the order in which you will tackle the subjects for a retake.

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Step 3: Put Together a Plan for Each Topic

Based on your scoring, you can develop a new plan for each topic.

Areas Scoring <50%

It is best to start restudying these areas from first principles. Start by reading and reviewing both CFA Institute and prep provider materials. It is a good idea to review the CFA Institute material to see if it helps improve your understanding, especially if you only studied from prep provider materials for your first sitting.

Once you reach the end of each reading, tackle both the prep provider and CFA Institute end-of-chapter questions. You are looking for significant improvement to be reflected in your scores. If you are not noticing an improvement in certain areas, it is worth using a question bank to design tests covering only these readings. Once you are scoring above 70% when tackling questions on a specific reading, move to the next.

Areas Scoring 50–70%

The frustration is that you won’t know exactly how close to 50% or 70% your performance was in these areas. It is best to start with a quick review of the study material within your prep provider notes or CFA Institute texts. While reading, you should be asking yourself the question, “Do I feel comfortable with this material?” Then, tackle end-of-chapter questions in both the CFA Institute texts and prep provider notes. Scores below 70% indicate you have yet to master the material, and more in-depth study and question practice is needed.

Areas Scoring >70%

The good news is that your performance on the previous exam indicates you had a good understanding of these areas and can translate that knowledge into correct answers on the exam. The main danger with these areas is that you give them very little time and attention and, as a result, what was a strong area becomes a weak area.

Our advice would be to start with the end-of-chapter questions from CFA Institute and your prep provider, rather than reading the material again. Poor performance on these questions indicates that you should go back and review the material. Most of what you need to refresh and maintain in these areas should come from question practice.

Step 4: Start Studying Early

Don’t start your retake plan too late. You want to have plenty of time to tackle the material you find technically challenging. The earlier you start, the less invasive the study becomes in both your home and work life. Enroll for the exam early to get the lowest possible exam entry fee. Plan to leave a minimum of one month for review of topics and mock exams.

We wish you all the best in achieving a successful result in your exam retake. Good luck in your studies. With effort and applications, you can pass the CFA exam.


Interested in enrolling in a CFA Exam Review Workshop, a Mock Exam, or both? Kaplan Schweser offers multiple Review Workshop and Online Mock Exam options for all CFA exam levels.

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