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I Failed the CFA® Exam: Now What?

By: Kaplan Schweser
January 10, 2022
What to do if you failed the CFA exam

Every year, hundreds of thousands of candidates attempt to pass the CFA® exam. Because the CFA charter is widely considered to be the gold standard within the investment community, it is no surprise that the intense difficulty of the exams results in the majority of candidates failing at least once. And when it happens to you, it can be a frustrating feeling. But all is not lost. You have experience on your side, and you can retake the exam with confidence. You just need to keep a few things in mind as you prepare for your retake.

Recent Low CFA Level I, II, and III Exam Pass Rates: What it Means for You

Across recent CFA Exam administrations, there was a consistent trend: noticeably low pass rates. The low pass rates have been a trend across all the Level I, Level II, and Level III CFA exams. While there are multiple contributing factors to that trend, including COVID-19, and more, it’s most important to focus on what to do next as you continue to climb toward becoming a CFA Charterholder.

If You Did Not Pass the CFA Exam

The average candidate spends four years in the program, meaning most do not pass at least one exam on their journey to becoming a CFA charterholder. Combine that fact with the historic low pass rate for recent exams, and you can rest assured that many smart, capable candidates are in the same boat as you. 

While it is easy to feel that you wasted 300 hours of study for no reward, a better way to think about it is that you have completed a large amount of the study requirement for your next attempt. Although the CFA Program curriculum does change each calendar year, much of the knowledge you have gained from the previous exam will still be relevant for your next attempt at the exam. Don’t give up on the CFA Program. Instead, view the time you spent this year as an investment in ensuring you pass the next exam. So, what to do now? 

Retaking a level of the CFA exam is not nearly as time-consuming as studying a level from scratch. It should be much easier to balance your work, family, and study commitments this time around. Having said this, it still pays to start your studies early and spread the study time over many months to minimize the impact on your life.

Retaking the CFA Exam

How many times can you retake the CFA?

CFA candidates can take each exam level a maximum of six times, a policy that was instituted in 2021. Also beginning with the 2021 exams, candidates can take an exam up to two times per calendar year, but cannot take the exam in windows that are less than 6 months apart.

When to Retake the CFA Exam

The first step to deciding when to retake the exam is to assess your previous exam preparation experience. How many hours did you spend preparing? Did you consistently stick to a structured study plan? Are there other study materials that could help you pass your next exam? Examine how you will approach exam prep differently going forward, reflect on your own personal/professional goals, and consider the various exam window options offered by CFA Institute to determine when to retake the CFA exam. 

In general, we recommend retaking the exam as soon as possible, especially if you can do so in the same calendar year. Registering for the next possible exam is best for the following reasons: 

  • Momentum is on your side. Even if you have been taking a break since your last exam, all of the effort you put into preparing for it is relatively fresh. 
  • The longer you wait to retake the exam, the higher the likelihood that you will forget the material that you have already learned.

It is particularly important to retake the exam in the same calendar year if at all possible, since CFA Institute changes the CFA Program curriculum on an annual basis. Retaking the exam before these annual updates will give you a higher probability of passing because you will be more familiar with the curriculum being tested.

Regardless of which exam you decide to sign up for, we have some recommendations for approaching the next exam attempt:

  • Carefully review your exam results and use them as a diagnostic tool to help guide your studies on the next attempt.
  • Organize your study plan to focus on weak areas first. Your study plan should be weighted heavily toward practicing the material using the SchweserPro QBank and end-of-chapter questions in the CFA curriculum. 
  • After doing additional practice, if you are still performing poorly, revisit the SchweserNotes and OnDemand class videos to relearn the concepts with which you are struggling. 

Continue this process until one month prior to the exam and then focus on a well-structured final review process. especially if you were unable to do this for the May exam. 

For final review, focus heavily on practicing what you have learned, but with the Schweser Mock Exams rather than the SchweserPro QBank. After completing a mock exam, thoroughly review the answer explanations for the questions you answered incorrectly. Make certain you understand the logic behind the correct answer.

Also, be sure to use the OnDemand Review videos to sharpen your exam strategy and ensure you retain information for the exam. 

Finally, get help through our InstructorLink tool if you are still struggling with the material. We want you to succeed on the CFA exams and are always ready to help.

Takeaways from Recent CFA Exam Pass Rates

According to CFA Institute, the recent low pass rates are somewhat of an anomaly, as they are largely driven by candidates who have been affected by COVID-19 related deferrals and cancellations. Additionally, it looks like we are seeing a higher minimum passing score (MPS) in the era of computer-based testing. Both of these factors have combined to yield the lowest pass rates ever recorded in the history of the CFA Program. 

What does this mean for candidates? You need to be better prepared to go into the CFA exam. We suggest that you aim to be scoring more than 75% on mock exams, rather than the 70% we used to suggest. This extra work will certainly pay off in increasing your chances on exam day. And also, Level I candidates should keep in mind that the more prepared they are for Level I, the easier the Level II and III exams will be. 

No one likes to fail an exam, but given the difficulty of the CFA exams, it is the norm rather than the exception. Very few candidates pass all three CFA exams on their first attempt. CFA Institute estimates it takes the average successful candidate four years to complete the CFA Program. So failing one level, if not two, makes you an average candidate. It is difficult for most candidates entering the program to accept this. Most people entering the program are high fliers who have passed most, if not all, exams that they have taken in the past. As one candidate recently said, “I don’t do failure.” As recent CFA pass rates would suggest, passing all levels of the CFA exam is the exception rather than the rule.

Keep in mind, whether you pass or fail the CFA exam, Kaplan Schweser is here to support you during every step of your journey to becoming a CFA charterholder.

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