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Interpreting Your CFA® Exam Results in the New Format

By: Richie Owens, CFA
January 11, 2021
Woman looking at her CFA Exam results on her laptop

In recent sittings, CFA Institute has changed the way a candidate’s exam performance is reported. The new format of the CFA® exam results gives a wealth of information on performance overall, performance compared to the minimum passing score, performance compared to other candidates, and performance by specific topic. Used properly, this breakdown can be a vital tool in organizing your studies for the road ahead.

Overall exam performance

Minimum Passing Score

The minimum passing score is the clearest and obviously most important piece of information. Your score is the blue line, and if that’s above the minimum passing score, then congratulations, you’re on to the next level or filling out your membership application.

Good news!

If your score is not above the minimum passing score, there’s a lot of other useful information in the report that you can, and absolutely should, use to plan your strategy for the next attempt.

Confidence Interval

The light blue shading around your score is a 90% confidence interval (if you don’t know what that is, then your first takeaway is that you need to revisit the quantitative methods material).

Not such good news

The top end of the interval represents the score you could expect if everything went exactly as you’d hoped on the day of the exam—you felt great, the right questions came up, and the candidate next to you had no distractingly annoying habits. The bottom end pretty much signifies the opposite. This represents the score you could expect if your weakest areas were examined and you had a bad day during the exam.

In the example above, it’s likely the candidate would have failed even with an ideal set of circumstances. Even the top end of the confidence interval is below the minimum passing score. In this case, we’d recommend critically re-examining the whole approach to studying. The most common fault is simply the time commitment. If life got in the way, and you didn’t put the hours in, it’s an extremely difficult exam to pass due to the sheer volume of information you need to retain.

Almost as common, however, is a lack of question practice. Many candidates read the materials for four months, practice questions for a few weeks, and do a mock exam or two. Undoubtedly, this will leave areas of the syllabus that you’ve read, but on which you’ve not practiced enough questions. This will hurt in the exam. If you don’t know how a reading is typically tested, you’re likely to be met with unexpected and hence tricky questions on exam day. Our recommendation is questions, questions, questions from the outset. If you have a two-hour study session planned, an hour of it should be question practice, starting on day one. Your last month should be saved almost exclusively for mock exams.


The final aspects of the overall score report are the 90th and 10th percentiles. Only 10% of candidates scored higher than the 90th percentile. If your mark is anywhere up there, it’s safe to say you crushed it. At the other end of the interval, 90% of candidates scored better than the 10th percentile. If you find yourself dipping down there, again it’s a sign that you need to commit to significantly more study time or fundamentally alter your study approach. A Kaplan Schweser CFA Exam Study Package is an excellent way to get the guidance you need through this process. Schweser’s unique online study program guide will ensure you put the time in and, equally as important, focus on the right areas with the right balance of preparing (reading notes and attending classes), practicing (doing questions), and performing (completing practice exams).

90th percentile (above the MPS) and 10th percentile (below the MPS)

Topic Breakdown

In addition to the overall pass or fail information, the report also gives a breakdown by topic.

A pass on a "good day"

"The report shows the candidate’s mark and 90% confidence interval for each topic. There is no minimum passing score for each topic, so instead the topic mark is benchmarked against 70%—a score that demonstrates a “reasonable level of topic mastery.” In other words, hit 70% in a topic, and you’ve certainly done enough to pass in that area.

Don’t underestimate the little guy

In this example, we have an all too typical breakdown for a theoretical Level I candidate who was an “almost pass.” The candidate has performed well on FRA, achieved over 70%, and set themselves up for a pass. But derivatives has dropped well below the level of reasonable mastery. FRA clearly deserves a lot of study at Levels I and II. It’s voluminous, often not intuitive, and represents a significant chunk of the exam. But it’s important not to give it too much attention in your studies at the expense of other areas. A poor performance in several of the relatively smaller topics, such as derivatives and alternative investments at Level I, sometimes adds up to a narrow fail despite mastery of the bigger areas.

Often, we see candidates with results reports like this for a couple of reasons:

  • The candidate spends too long trying to master 100% of the largest topic (you can’t and won’t).
  • The candidate simply doesn’t make it to the end of the syllabus.

As a result, smaller topics get overlooked. “They’re too small to worry about’’ is a common argument against bothering with these areas. But add them up, and they often rival the weighting of the bigger areas for which candidates are willing to over-study.

The best way to address this next time around is to leave enough time for plenty of practice exams. The last five or six weeks should involve practice exams and debriefs, along with short review sessions learning factual areas (via self-testing). The beauty of a practice exam is that it forces you to weight the topics in the correct manner. You see every topic in its correct weighting, and a thorough review of the results should reveal the areas in which you’re exposed.

It’s also worth noting the position of the percentiles and the width of the confidence intervals. Smaller topics will inevitably have wider intervals (smaller sample size—Level I quant again). But it’s also worth noting that a lower 90th percentile and a higher 10th percentile, and a narrow confidence interval, indicate a harder topic. A reasonable mastery in these topics indicates a very strong performance.

Level III

Contrasting morning and afternoon

Finally, a quick note on Level III. The morning exam for Level III is a written paper, and candidates typically find these constructed response or essay questions tougher than the item set approach seen at Level II. To help assess your performance in each session, the Level III report will break down your performance into essay and item set. The example above is very typical. The afternoon item set performance demonstrated a more than reasonable mastery of the topics, but a below average essay paper could very well drag the overall mark below the minimum passing score.

For this candidate, the obvious approach next time around is to seek much more feedback on written response questions. It can often be tough to gauge how well you’ve answered a written question, as there are often several acceptable responses. It’s also important to understand how your responses are graded. For example, if you’re asked for three points, the first three will get credit. Trying to blitz the grader with an extra five points won’t help—it will just blow your time allocation. Once again, practice and debrief are the key.

In Summary

We’re all hoping the thick blue line is above the minimum passing score. But if not, don’t ignore the valuable information you have here. An unsuccessful attempt is by definition a result of an unsuccessful study approach. Whether it was a lack of time, a lack of question practice, or a lack of focus in the right areas, you can assess what needs to be put right. With the most experienced and largest full-time faculty, Kaplan Schweser has the blend of study materials, question practice, mock exams, and classes that can aid both your technical mastery and exam technique.

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