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I Failed the CFA® Exam: Now What?

By: Kaplan Schweser
October 14, 2021
If you failed the CFA Exam, follow these tactical steps to reach your goals.


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.

2021 CFA Exam Pass Rates: What it Means for You

2021 CFA Level I Exam Pass Rates

Recently, CFA Institute released exam results for the July Level I exam. The pass rate of 22% was the lowest in history, even lower than the 25% pass rate for the May 2021 Level I exam. The angst in the CFA community is clearly high and rightly so; candidates made a huge investment of time and money only to yield a devastating result. 

Results from the August Level I exam have just been released by CFA Institute. The pass rate was 26%, which is a slight improvement from recent exams but is still recorded as the third lowest Level I pass rate in CFA history. 

The Institute hasn’t provided much information as to why the Level I pass rate is so much lower than previous exam administrations, and we won’t speculate on that topic here. Rather, we want to focus on providing guidance and support to our CFA candidates, both successful and unsuccessful on the July or August exams.

2021 CFA Level II Exam Pass Rates

Results from the May 2021 Level II exam were released just a couple months ago. The pass rate was 40%, which is lower than usual but is not a dramatic deviation from the average, unlike what we saw from the Level I exam results. 

More recently, the pass rate from the August 2021 Level II exam was revealed to be just 29%, which is an all-time low for Level II. There are several possible reasons that the pass rate was so low for the exam, but what’s most important is to focus on what to do next.

2021 CFA Level III Exam Pass Rates

The May 2021 Level III exam pass rate was 42%, which is the lowest pass rate ever recorded for the Level III CFA exam. Similar to the Level I results, it is unclear why the pass rate was so low for this exam, but our goal remains the same—to help you become a CFA charterholder. 

For those who passed, congratulations. For those who did not, we will help you take the next best step forward and are dedicated to helping you achieve your professional goals.

Whatever your exam result, the obvious question now is, “What do I do now?”

If You Did Pass the CFA Exam

Getting through any CFA exam is a huge achievement, and you should be proud. For those who passed Levels I or II, your next exam is now on the horizon, and you may be wondering which exam window to sign up for. Your decision depends in part on what you have been doing since the exam.

If You Passed the July 2021 CFA Exam

July candidates who passed the exam can take the Level II exam as early as February 2022. It goes without saying that the more time you spend studying, the better prepared you will be for the exam. If you enrolled in Kaplan Schweser’s Level II JumpStart program and began studying for Level II, then you already have an advantage going into the February exam. If you have not started preparing for the Level II exam, it’s not too late to schedule 300 hours of study between now and the February exam. However, you will still have the opportunity to take the Level II exam in August, should you need more time.

If You Passed the August 2021 CFA Exam

For those August Level I candidates who have been using Kaplan Schweser’s JumpStart materials to begin studying for Level II, you are in great shape to sign up for the February 2022 exam and take advantage of the momentum you’ve already built up. We recommend increasing the intensity with which you are studying to ensure you have adequate time for a proper final review about one month prior to the exam. 

If you are an August Level I candidate who has not begun preparing for Level II, the window of time to start studying for the February 2022 exam is closing fast. Honestly assess how committed you are to putting in the required hours of study to adequately prepare for the exam. If you are looking for the fastest path to completing the CFA Program and are willing to devote yourself to preparing for the exam, February 2022 is still an option. However, if you are unsure or unable to commit to such an intense study plan, the August 2022 Level II exam may be a better option.

Candidates who passed the August Level II exam still have enough time to prepare for the Level III exam in May 2022, although your pace will depend on the progress of your Level III studies thus far. Those who have been utilizing Kaplan Schweser’s JumpStart materials to get ahead on the Level III curriculum have ample time to prepare for the next exam at a comfortable and flexible pace. If you have not yet begun studying for Level III, there is still plenty of time to adequately prepare for the May 2022 exam, but you’ll want to get started right away with a structured study plan

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 the May exam, 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

When July 2021 Exam Candidates Should Retake the CFA

For July exam candidates, we recommend retaking as soon as possible, which according to CFA Institute policies, will be in February 2022. However, that will mean studying with a slightly different curriculum than what you used for the July 2021 exam. Most of the curriculum will be familiar to you, but you will want to ensure you have access to the latest material in order to be fully prepared for the exam.

When August 2021 Exam Candidates Should Retake the CFA

For most August exam candidates, we recommend retaking the exam in February 2022 for the following reasons: 

  • Momentum is on your side. Even if you have been taking a break since August, all of the effort you put into preparing for the exam is relatively fresh. Re-engaging your study plan now leaves ample time to prepare for the February exam and will be easier than trying to restart several months from now. 

  • Waiting to retake the exam later in 2022 increases the likelihood that you will forget material that you have already learned. 

However, if you aren’t ready to commit to the February exam and just need a break, that’s totally understandable. We would still recommend not waiting too long to register for another exam, but taking time to re-energize yourself may be a good strategy.

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 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 the 2021 CFA Exam Pass Rates

According to CFA Institute 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 going 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 you 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 achieve first-time passes at all three levels of the exams. 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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