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I failed the CFA® exam – now what?

The CFA charter is widely considered to be the ‘gold standard’ in the investment community, so it’s no surprise the intense difficulty of the exams can often lead to several candidates failing at least once.

This blog post has been updated and was originally authored by Kaplan Schweser.

Every year, thousands of candidates sit the CFA® exam. The CFA charter is widely considered to be the ‘gold standard’ in the investment community, so it’s no surprise the intense difficulty of the exams can often lead to several candidates failing at least once. We understand how frustrating this can be for candidates who spend months preparing for the exams. However, it’s not all bad news. At least you’ve gained experience and understand the process if you do have to re-sit. This alone can support you and increase your confidence throughout your preparation.

If you need to re-sit the CFA exam, here’s what to keep in mind.

May 2021 CFA exam pass rates: what it means for you

May 2021 CFA pass rates: Level I

The CFA Institute recently released exam results for the May 2021 Level I exam. The global pass rate for the exam was 25%, the lowest pass rate in the history of the CFA program. The angst in the CFA community is high, which is understandable given the result.

It’s currently unclear as to why the Level I pass rate is significantly lower than previous exam sittings.

May 2021 CFA pass rates: Level II

Results from the May 2021 Level II exam were also recently released. The pass rate was 40%, which is lower than usual but isn’t a dramatic deviation from the average.

May 2021 CFA pass rates: Level III

The May 2021 Level III exam pass rate was 42%, which is the lowest pass rate ever recorded for this level of the exam. Similar to Level I, it’s unclear why the pass rate was so low for this exam.

For those who passed, congratulations! For those who didn’t, we can help you take the next step forward.

If you passed the May 2021 CFA exam

Getting through any CFA exam is a huge achievement, which you should be proud of. For those who passed Levels I or II, your next exam is on the horizon, and you may be wondering what exam window to register for. Your decision may depend on what you’ve been doing since the May exam. If you’re enrolled in the November 2021 exam, we recommend increasing the intensity of your preparation. This ensures you have adequate time to complete a proper final review, which should be done approximately one month before the exam.

If you haven’t started preparing for Level II or III, the timeframe to start studying for the November 2021 exam is approaching fast. We suggest you assess if you can commit to the amount of study required to adequately prepare for the exam. If you’re looking for the fastest path to completing the CFA program and are willing to devote yourself to preparing for the exam, November 2021 is still an achievable option. If you’re unsure or unable to commit to an intense study plan, February 2022 Level II or May 2022 Level III exams are the best options to give yourself more time to prepare.

If you didn’t pass the May CFA exam

The average candidate spends four years completing the program, which indicates most don’t pass at least one exam on their journey to becoming a CFA charterholder. By combining this with the historic low pass rate for the May exam, you can rest assured many smart and capable candidates are in the same boat as you.

While it’s easy to feel you’ve wasted hours of study for no reward, a positive way to approach the situation is recognising you’ve already completed a large amount of the study requirement for your next attempt. Although the CFA program curriculum changes every year, lots of the knowledge you’ve gained from the previous exam will still be relevant for your next attempt. We encourage you to not give up on completing the CFA program. Instead, view the time you’ve spent this year as an investment to ensure you pass the next exam.

Re-taking a CFA exam isn’t quite as time consuming as studying a level from scratch. You may even find it more manageable to balance your work, family and study commitments this time around.

Re-sitting the CFA exam

If you’re enrolled in the November 2021 exam, you may find the following benefits work in your favour this time around:

  • The curriculum for the May and November exams is the same. This means you won’t need to learn any new material, which can help advance your studies.
  • Momentum is on your side. Although you may have had a break since May, all the effort you put into preparing for the exam is still relatively fresh.
  • Access to Kaplan Schweser’s products extends through the November exam window, so you can leverage your existing study materials and insights from our platform to prepare for your next attempt.

If you’ve decided you aren’t ready to commit to the November exam, it’s best to take a break to refresh and prepare for a 2022 date. Taking time to re-energise is a good strategy, especially if it will benefit your performance in the next exam.

Whether you’ve decided to enrol in the November 2021 exam or wait until 2022, here are some recommendations for approaching your next exam attempt:

  • Carefully review your exam results and use them as a diagnostic tool to help guide your studies on the next attempt.
  • Organise your study plan to focus on areas where improvement is required first. Your study plan should be weighted heavily toward practising the material using the SchweserPro QBank and end-of-chapter questions in the CFA curriculum.
  • If you’re still performing poorly in your practise, revisit the SchweserNotes and OnDemand class videos to re-learn concepts you’re struggling with.
  • Continue this process 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 practising what you’ve learned with the Schweser Mock Exams. After completing a mock exam, thoroughly review the answers for the questions you’ve answered incorrectly. It’s important to understand the logic behind the correct answer. OnDemand Review videos are beneficial to sharpen your exam strategy and help you retain information. You can also get help through the InstructorLink tool if you’re still struggling with the material.

Takeaways from the May 2021 CFA exam pass rates

With limited information, it’s too early to conclude whether the May 2021 pass rates are an anomaly or the new normal. However, it looks like we’re seeing a higher minimum passing score in the era of computer-based testing.

What does this mean for candidates? To be better prepared going into the CFA exam. We suggest 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. Candidates should also keep in mind the more prepared you are for Level I, the easier the Level II and III exams will be. Setting the tone early in your CFA preparation and journey will pay off along the way.

No one likes to fail but given the difficulty of the CFA exams, very few candidates achieve first-time passes for all three levels. It’s sometimes difficult for candidates entering the program to accept this. The CFA Institute estimates it takes the average successful candidate four years to complete the CFA program. By failing one level, or even two, you still fit into the average candidate timeframe. Whether you passed or failed the May 2021 exam, whatever you do, don’t give up on your journey towards becoming a CFA charterholder.


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