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Designing a Strategy to Retake the CFA® Exam

By: Kaplan Schweser
October 11, 2022
CFA Exam Retake Strategy

When preparing to retake a CFA exam it can be difficult to determine where to start. This guide will help you learn how to identify the areas you need to work on the most and develop a plan to successfully retake the CFA exam.

Key Highlights

  1. Use your band number and topic score percentage as the foundation for your strategy for retaking the exam.
  2. Depending on your topic score percentage, your plan should focus on three areas: curriculum knowledge, practice questions, and exam-taking techniques. 


What Are CFA Fail Bands?

If you failed a CFA exam you’ll receive an email containing a band number and a percentage range for each exam topic. That band number will indicate how far you were from passing the CFA exam. Band numbers are provided from a 10-1 range. Higher band numbers indicate you were close to passing, while lower numbers indicate you were further away from passing. 

Included with your band number, you’ll also get a score in each topic area. The score for each topic area is expressed in three ranges: less than 50 percent, between 50 and 70 percent, and more than 70 percent.

CFA Exam Score Grading Process >>

Step 1: Review Your CFA Fail Banding

Since there are 10 different banding numbers possible it can be difficult to identify which topics or exam-taking strategies you need to focus on for your next exam sitting. If you spent 6 months preparing for the CFA exam and still got a band score of 10-8 you’ll need to dig deep to identify where things went wrong for you during your CFA exam prep

Start by reviewing your Ethics score. CFA Institute explicitly states that your score on the Ethics portion will determine if your overall score is around the marginal passing score (MPS). So, if you get placed in bands 10-8, and scored poorly on Ethics, you probably know the cause of your fail.

Next, check whether you completed all the necessary practice questions. 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.

What To Do If You Received Bands 10, 9, or 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.

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 exam topics. You can also use online question banks to replicate mock exams.

If you are in bands 10-8, 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.

What To Do If You Received Bands 7, 6, or 5

If you receive bands 7-5 after failing the CFA exam, this indicates you were outside the top 30% of unsuccessful candidates. Bandings in these ranges indicate that either your knowledge or exam technique was 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 CFA 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.

Sign up for our question of the day and get a CFA question sent directly to your inbox every day to help prepare for the next sitting.

What To Do If You Received Bands 4, 3, 2, or 1

If you scored in bands 4-1, 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 didn’t have the time needed to prepare for the exam properly, then a lesson has been learned. 

How to Pass the CFA Exam While Working Full Time >>

If you studied in excess of 300 hours, then this is a little more worrying. First, you need to question your study technique. 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 average. 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.

7 Tips for Effectively Using Your 300 Hours >>

The majority of candidates who receive bands in the 1-4 range will have both technical weaknesses and poor exam technique. Technical deficiencies can be improved by studying the CFA Institute curriculum and prep provider materials. Taking CFA mock exams and attending review seminars 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.

Interpreting Your CFA Exam Results >>

Step 3: Put Together a Plan for Each Topic

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

If You Scored <50% in a CFA Topic

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 CFA 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.

Download our CFA Program Fundamentals eBook to help prepare for your next exam.

If You Scored 50–70% in a CFA Topic

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.

If You Scored >70% in a CFA Topic

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.

Sign up for our question of the day and get a CFA question sent directly to your inbox every day to help prepare for the next sitting.

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.

CFA Level I 6-Month Study Guide >>

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