CFA Exams: 20 Things I Wish I Knew Beforehand

Umpteen years ago, after checking that I met the eligibility requirements, I signed up for my CFA Level 1 exams as a sprightly, wide-eyed innocent.

Now that I’m a CFA charterholder, I wished I had someone who’d gone through everything to point out the potholes of the journey I’m on. For example, warning me about the difficulty of Level 2 would have saved me a lot of trouble!

Here are 20 things I wish I knew before going through the CFA exams. May they help you on your own journey!

#1. CFA exams are not easy, and Level 1 is just the start

a girl sweating at the thought of cfa exam difficulty

Commonly cited as one of the world’s hardest exams, CFA Level 1’s difficulty is comparable to a diploma level and gets harder from then on. But I didn’t know that it’s never-seen-before-and-by-the-way-you-could-definitely-fail tough.

​Oh, and by the way, Level 2 and Level 3 are way harder than Level 1, although which is the most difficult CFA level is up for debate.

Although Level 1 and 2 are multiple-choice questions, Level 3 introduces half the paper in constructed response (‘essay’) format too.

Or if you’re a half glass full kind of person, it could also mean that you’re more likely to pass Level 2 and Level 3 once you passed Level 1.

According to CFA Institute, about 50% of successful candidates passing the CFA Level 3 exam passed each exam on the first attempt (i.e. sat a total of 3 exams,) while about 25% sat a total of 4 exams.

#2. I’d have no weekends for the 6 months before each exam

​That’s at least 18 months of no weekends, or 153 holidays’ worth of time. Hopefully sticking to your study plan.



#3. That it is crazy difficult to juggle work, life & studying

productivity habit

Between a hectic full time job and having a young family, it took some real discipline and ruthless time management to balance so many different priorities.

Got pretty burnt out in the end.

#4. That I will have nightmares of malfunctioning calculators

Closer to the exams, I developed a sudden paranoia of calculators running out of batteries, or forgetting how to set up my BA II Plus again if a proctor does it to mine on exam day.  

#5. That the low CFA pass rates EXCLUDES no-shows

Oh yeah, no wonder we all have a cold sweat when CFA difficulty is discussed – it’s one of the world’s hardest exams (see #1).

Erm, should I be taking the CFA exams in the first place? Or look at CFA alternative courses?

#6. That I will not have the willpower to study on weekdays

CFA Level 3 Study Tips Advice

The combination of the long day at work plus the CFA exams is just a bit too much for me personally.

​But fret not, lots of CFA candidates manage to grab 1-3 hours of studying on weekdays to minimize the weekend load. Do what works for you.

#7. That the CFA Institute study material is dry as hell

Disclaimer: Candidates find it much better now, but I found it very challenging to digest due to the sheer amount of text when I was a candidate.

Third party study materials are hell of a time saver!

#8. ‘Mock till you drop’ is the name of the game

​​That the key to passing CFA Level 1Level 2 and Level 3 is to practice the hell out of the mock exams, preferably under timed constraint.

Here’s our free practice exam guide roundup, and what ‘safe’ target mock scores to aim for.

#9. CFA Institute provides a free mock exam For candidates

Yeah, I didn’t know this until Level 2.

*face palm*

Use it wisely, as it’s the best practice you can have.

#10. CFA is not necessarily a silver bullet for my dream career

It certainly helps, but it’s definitely not the answer to everything as many candidates think/hope it would be.

It’s worth checking out our career switching guide, typical charterholder career paths, as well as asset management outlook guide to figure out if a CFA charter could be useful for your career.

#11. That CFA proctors are extremely strict

curious glasses inspect

A little more than wiggling around and fidgeting could get me accused of cheating and my exam disqualified by the CFA Institute’s Professional Conduct Program (PCP).

There is some regional variation (London usually is more reasonable), but the proctors don’t screw around.

Be good during the exam.

#12. The security during exam is impressive and tight

Especially with the new computer-based testing security procedures.

Be at least 30 minutes early to give yourself time to go through the procedure calmly and unflustered.

#13. The CFA exam experience is special

​Someone will probably show up for the exam in a suit. And on the opposite spectrum, someone will probably show up looking only slightly better than a homeless person.

You’ll experience a lot of different ups and downs emotionally on the day itself. There’s nothing quite like this.

#14. That you can’t bring water into the computer-based test room

CFA exam day checklist - what to bring to CFA exam

Nor a second calculator, or chewing gum.

Check out the latest CFA exam day checklist updated for computer-based testing.

#15. The start and end time for CBT exams seem to be more flexible vs. paper-based exam

Previously for paper-based exams, you’ll be kept outside the exam room if you’re not in there before your exam start time.

However, we have heard some first CBT candidate reports that some started earlier than their official test time (and ended earlier), whilst some were 15 minutes late and it was still OK.

Don’t chance it though, it’s best to arrive at least 40 minutes before your exam for the check in and security procedures.

#16. That I couldn’t tolerate other people using the term ‘CFA’ as a noun

​(I probably make this mistake all the time too, but I can’t let it slide when I do realize.)

#17. Figuring out what relevant work experience means isn’t straightforward

What constitutes relevant, qualified work experience? How is it investment-related? Does this particular work experience count? How do I write my work experience properly?

All these are clarified in our CFA work experience guide.

#18. How to correctly display my current CFA exam status is a minefield

How to display CFA status on resume CV LinkedIn Business Cards

I mean, there are digital badges now.

Yes folks.

An image. Of some badges. For social media.

#19. That people will start saying silly crap to me

Bless them, but no one will quite understand what a CFA candidate goes through until they are one.

But saying “oh, you’ll be fine” will just bug the hell out of me.

#20. It doesn’t matter how awesome I was in exams before this

The chance of failing is very real, and will present a huge dilemma – do I retake? When do I give up?

I hope you’ve enjoyed my rant -_- ||.

Meanwhile, here are some related articles that may be of interest:


21 thoughts on “CFA Exams: 20 Things I Wish I Knew Beforehand”

  1. Hi, I am a junior doing my bachelor’s in finance. I have no work experience. Can I still take the CFA exam in my senior year?

    • Hi Mitali, in fact CFA Institute has recently relaxed the entry requirement and you can register for CFA Level 1 whilst still in university. The earliest you can start is when you have 2 years remaining in your Bachelor’s degree for L1 registration. In particular, your selected exam window must be 23 months or fewer before your graduation month for your bachelor’s degree or equivalent program. Degree program must be completed prior to Level 2 registration.

      See this article on CFA entry requirements for more details.

  2. I think point 11 is the hardest one to swallow. Lots of hard work and sacrifice, yet nothing is guaranteed after passing. The fact is that completing the CFA exam is only the beginning of your career and many employers view it as a ‘plus’ that is secondary to your real world experience.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I think it can be a pretty powerful force to help your career. It’s just that many candidates (especially academically oriented ones) think that it somehow replaces their need to know the job market, network, acquire interview skills – basically to graft and hustle. No qualification can really be a ‘guarantee’ for a job.

  3. I have not one but TWO HP12C calculators, and the batteries on both of them failed within 48 hours prior to taking Level II. Fortunately, I was able to refresh them in time, but I did not take that as a good sign. (I did pass, though, so who knows.)

  4. This is all awesome to hear. I was originally planning to register for June, but after digging into the material and watching the deadlines creep up, I decided to register for December instead. Now that I’ve successfully spread out my study time frame, any advice on how to ease into the material without burning myself out too early?

    • Hey Joe! Thanks for dropping by! Definitely start off light and easy. Don’t feel like you have to study in order – start with the ones you think you’d find easy or more interesting. Establish a routine (time of day, place, session length) that you think works, and stick to it. Good luck!

  5. Hey I’m a level I candidate.. Have been reading through your posts andiI chanced across one where the author says that the End of chapter questions aren’t exactly in the same format of the actual questions.. is this true?

    • Schweser EOC questions are simpler and to the point, so they aren’t good examples of actual exam questions. CFA EOCs are different – much better at approximating exam questions so make sure you do them!

      • I would recommend that you do both the Schweser and the CFA curriculum questions to make sure you understand the concepts. The Schweser ones are more simple but it gives you an idea of whether or not you need to study that topic some more before going on to the curriculum questions.

  6. Hi There! Just bumped into your website while pouring over sites related to CFA prep. I know people who have started studying for the June 2019 L1 like last year! But is it too late to start prep from the end of February? Too harsh? Or is it advisable to prepare for the December 2019 L1?

    • End of Feb is aggressive but definitely not impossible. If you have a solid schedule and plan to stick to it I’d say go for it. Good luck!

  7. Keeping in mind the very first point you made, when did you start studying for Level 2? Did you actually wait for the results to come out or started cracking earlier? I’m thinking of at least “opening the Ethics book” of Level 2 after the holidays

    • Hi Work_in_Progress I usually wait until the holidays are over to start studying. I took my Level I in June though, so I don’t have your Level I results issue. Sophie, our guest contributor, took the Level I in Dec and wrote about your issue in her Level II blog post – she advises to take time off start after the results are out (I think they’re out mid-Jan anyways). Here is her post: But obviously if you think you should start earlier by all means! Good luck!

  8. It’s ironic that point 17 states your intolerance to using ‘CFA’ as a noun, and yet in point 18 you refer to ‘the CFA’…

    • Hey Matty J My peeve is more with people being referred to as ‘a CFA’. But having said that, referring to the exams as ‘the CFA’ is something that I don’t like and yet a mistake I keep making. It’s now corrected, but this probably isn’t the last time I’ll make this mistake!


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