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Step-by-Step Guide to Passing the Level I CFA® Exam

By: Kaplan Schweser
January 12, 2021
Step by step to pass the Level 1 CFA exam

Are you going to take Level I of the CFA exam? If so, you might have heard all kinds of opinions about how hard it is and what you can do to pass the CFA Level I exam. This article is a practical, step-by-step guide to passing Level I of the CFA exam based on tips and guidance from Kaplan instructors and successful CFA charterholders.

Step 1: Familiarize Yourself with the CFA® Exam Level I Curriculum

The curriculum for Level I of the CFA exam covers 10 topics, each of which is weighted. The topics and weights change regularly, but these are the most recent topics and weights shared by CFA Institute in 2022:

  • Ethics 15-20%
  • Quantitative methods 8–12%
  • Economics 8–12%
  • Financial reporting and analysis 13–17%
  • Corporate issuers 8–12%
  • Equity investments 10–12%
  • Fixed income 10–12%
  • Derivatives 5–8%
  • Alternative investments 5–8%
  • Portfolio management 5–8%

Although the weights are variable (which means they are subject to change), you can see that the one with the most weight is ethics, financial reporting and analysis, equity investments, and fixed income. Make sure you are really on top of those four topics. Otherwise, it will be more difficult to pass the exam.

Step 2: Learn the CFA Exam Level I Question Format

The format of the Level I exam is multiple-choice. There are 180 equally-weighted questions with a focus on investment, and each question has three answer choices. The exam is divided into a morning session and afternoon session, and each has 90 questions. Both sessions cover all of the topics according to their weights, so be prepared to answer questions about each topic in both sessions. There’s no gaming the system.

Knowing this format will help you start thinking along those lines as you study. It’s also important to remember Level I is testing your knowledge and understanding of these topics, so you need to have the concepts of each topic area down.

Step 3: Know the Level I Pass Rate, and Use It to Your Advantage

Level I of the CFA exam is definitely challenging. The pass rate is in the low-to-mid 40s. You can find the most recent pass rates in this article. Don’t be discouraged by those numbers. Instead, use them to energize your preparation. If you haven’t already, you should start studying right away. Although CFA Institute recommends 300 hours, that’s really their minimum needed to pass. So, see if you can put in more. Over the years, successful candidates have told us that they studied for about 360 hours, so that’s a good goal for you.

Dedicate as much of your free time as you can to studying, and don’t let up until you walk in the door of the testing center. In short, start early, and study often. Consider an exam prep package because surveys show that the pass rate for Level I is higher for those who do. For even more details, check out our article on how to make the most of your study hours.

Looking for more help with passing the Level I CFA exam? Check out our study packages.

Step 4: Prepare, Practice, and Review

To increase your odds of passing, you should spend up to 40 percent of your study time preparing, which involves absorbing information by reading and listening to lectures. The focus should be on the Learning Outcome Statements (LOS) from CFA Institute because they detail exactly what you are expected to do on exam day.

Level I CFA exam preparation classes can really help here, and that’s why anyone serious about passing the exam should enroll in one. These courses will go over the concepts and help you navigate the LOS. You will answer practice questions throughout these classes; however, you should also spend up to 50 percent of your self-study time on practice questions. Research studies have shown that practice is the most effective way to prepare for Level I.

CFA charterholders report that review workshops were part of their preparation strategy and helped them pass. These review workshops pull everything together, which is critical to doing well on the exam. They show you slightly different perspectives for the same topic, which can help you remember solutions to questions when you’re taking the exam.

Step 5: Learn How to Take the Exam—and from Your Mistakes

There’s a difference between learning the material and learning how to take the exam. That’s why you should take at least one mock exam. Mock exams offer realistic simulated exam conditions that can really help you in your last weeks of studying. The Kaplan Schweser mock exam offers a simulation mode that mimics the computer-based exam from Prometrics, the testing provider. 

Our mock exams include a multimedia tutorial that will take you through each question and help you understand where the answer comes from, the calculations required, and what terms they are testing you on. This will help to fill in your knowledge gaps and give you an idea of how you should pace yourself during the actual exam.

If you make a mistake, you can use it to your advantage. You can train your brain to recognize that this is the kind of mistake that can be made. Then, you’re less likely to repeat it. Successful CFA charterholders have told us they spent the entire last month working and reworking exams and focusing on the main issues. “I learned from mistakes,” they say.

Step 6: Watch This Tutorial

For an in-depth look at what you need to do to increase your chance of passing the CFA Level I exam, view this video by clicking the image to get started.



Looking for More Guidance on How to Prepare for Level I of the CFA Exam?

Enroll in one of our CFA Level I Premium or  PremiumPlus study packages to receive expert instruction, CFA Program study materials, and more. Give yourself the best chance to succeed on the CFA exam.

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