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I Failed the CFA® Exam: Now What?

By: Kaplan Schweser
January 8, 2021
Woman frustrated after failing the CFA Exam

So, you failed and need to retake a level of the CFA® exam. It happens sometimes. 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.

The Good News

Yes, there’s good news. 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.

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.

Failing Level I Is Not the End

A large concern many unsuccessful Level I candidates have is that if they have failed Level I, what chance do they have of success at the subsequent levels? Most candidates have heard that the CFA exams are harder at Levels II and III. An important step is to analyze why you failed the Level I exam. For many candidates, it will be due to their study time, study technique, or exam technique, rather than the technical difficulty of the material. If this is the case for you, there is no reason why you can’t be successful at subsequent levels, providing you have corrected your study failings. We have had plenty of candidates fail at Level I, learn the lessons from this lack of success, and go on to first-time passes at the remaining levels.

One of the main reasons candidates at Level II and III report that they are harder tests than Level I is the study hours required. Those that studied less than the prescribed 300 hours at Level I, mainly due to prior exposure to the Level I content, find that they require the full 300 hours at Levels II and III. If you were new to the majority of topics in the Level I curriculum, you will likely have needed to put in the 300 hours or more at Level I and, as a result, will not find the study time required for Level II and III that much of an increase.

The Level II exam is technically more demanding than Level I. However, we find relatively few candidates fail because they cannot master the concepts. One big factor in Levels II and III being more demanding is the style of the exam compared to Level I.

Find words of encouragement and hope from other exam takers. Download the free Before You Sit for the CFA Exam ebook.

Dealing With Failure

No one likes to fail an exam, but given the difficulty of the CFA exams, it is the norm rather than the exception. The pass rates for the June 2019 exam were 41% for Level I, 44% for Level II, and 56% for Level III. 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 you can see from recent pass rates, passing all levels of the CFA exam is the exception rather than the rule. Also, it is worth pointing out that these pass rates contain students retaking exams, and our experience suggests they have a greater success rate than those taking the exam for the first time.


Interested in enrolling in a CFA Exam Review Workshop and/or Mock Exam? Kaplan Schweser offers multiple Review Workshop and Live or Online Mock Exam options for all CFA Program levels.

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

Free eBook: CFA® Program Fundamentals, 2nd Edition

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