9 Potential CFA Exam Failure Signs To Be Aware Of

If you’re studying for the CFA exam, how do you know if you’re doing OK? 

How do you know you’re not on the path to possibly failing?

Sure, some will say as long as you’re regularly putting in study time, you should be fine. But sometimes it’s helpful to have a quick check to see if you’re on track.

If any of these following 9 CFA exam failure warning signs apply to your situation, it might be worth having a second look at your study plan.

Starting CFA exam preparations too late


This is a common mistake amongst CFA Level 1 candidates, as there tends to be an underestimation of the amount of time needed.

Usually most candidates start studying about 5-6 months prior to the actual exam, with some candidates starting even earlier.

If you find yourself postponing the start date beyond that, drop everything and start now. Starting is the hardest – once you get going you’ll quickly find your routine and settle in.

As a rule, you should always start studying consistently around 6 months before your CFA exam day. Starting late either requires a fairly good grounding in finance either by education or work experience or having a very well-advised study plan.

Not using a study plan to manage your pace

300 hours rough guide to a solid cfa study plan planner 1 orig

Studying for the CFA exams is far from a small commitment. Candidates need a lot of discipline to get through the voluminous curriculum, and ‘winging it’ is not going to do.

Despite how well you may have done in studies and exams in the past, you most likely need to, at the very least, have a rough study schedule. This can be a simple rule of thumb (such as ‘X topic areas per month’) or an advanced adaptive planner. But making it up as you go along would not be a good idea.

If you’re keen to have a more comprehensive study planner, check out our upgraded, customizable and effective CFA study planner – it’s free to use!

It is very important to try and finish your LOS readings or study notes on time, so that you have enough time to concentrate on practicing for the actual exam.

If you are behind your study schedule and are struggling to finish your readings in time, double your efforts. Work towards a ragged finish if you have to, but don’t be tempted to skip topics – it is not likely to work out well for you.

If you need more help, we’ve written a guide on how to finish your study notes on time.

Studying too slowly

CFA exam day schedule computer based exam CBT

Wanting to learn more is a noble thing. But pacing yourself is important too.

Far be it from us to tell you to stop learning – all we say to that is to keep the main objective in mind, which is to pass the upcoming CFA exam.

Additional knowledge is always a good thing, but if it’s not included in the CFA exam syllabus, perhaps keep it for after the exam and focus on the next topic area.

You should be aiming to complete one read through your study notes when you’re halfway to the exam date.

Don’t make the mistake of spending too much time with through and detailed note-taking. There is nothing wrong with being thorough, but spending adequate time in all topic areas is essential.

If not, you’ll find yourself having a very good grounding on your early topics and a rushed, sloppy understanding of others without enough practice questions under your belt.

Keeping to the study schedule is tough enough – resist getting overly engaged in parts of the curriculum.

Time management is a key part of your success to the exam, it’s a good time to practice that!

Skipping Ethics

cfa ethics

Apart from showing up at the wrong place for the CFA exam, not a bigger mistake could be made in the CFA exams than underestimating Ethical & Professional Standards.

Some candidates new to the CFA exams may think that Ethics questions are similar to ‘do-the-right-thing’ questions they’ve had back in school. They’re not.

Ethics questions (and their correct answers) can be ambiguous, counter-intuitive, and difficult to discern unless you have studied the Ethics topic area thoroughly. 

And it’s not only that Ethics can be challenging – it’s a significant portion of the CFA exam, and also could be more significant than other topic areas because of something called the ethics adjustment, which basically means that if you’re on the borderline of passing or failing your CFA exams, the CFA Institute could use your performance in Ethics to be the tie-breaker.

If you need more guidance on Ethics, check out our top 10 tips to nail CFA Ethics (for all 3 levels) and CFA Level 1 Ethics cheat sheet.

Skipping other topics

skip or cancel

Anything in the CFA curriculum can be testedAnything.

In our opinion, there are no ‘safe’ topics to be skipped. As anything can be tested, you are taking a risk every time you decide to skip a topic.

And if you are a Level 2 or Level 3 candidate, the risk is even higher, as you could end up with a whole item-set question being based on just one topic that you happened to skip over.

Cover the basics of every topic area at the very least. You’re rolling the dice when you skip topics.

Not doing enough practice exams

fed up frustrated

Some candidates go into the exam hall having only managed to do 1 or 2 practice exams, or none at all.

Practice exams are so important as they are the one of the most effective study tools. They prepare you for the actual exam day from multiple angles, and our research shows that successful CFA candidates complete 4-6 practice exams by exam time.

You should definitely plan to complete at least a few practice exams. If you need to find some, don’t forget to check out our CFA practice exam guide and get the best available deals in our Offers section.

Not getting familiar with CFA Institute’s end of chapter questions and mock exams

CFA last week prep tips and to do lists

Sure, third party prep provider’s practice questions are super helpful in your CFA exam preparations, but don’t forget about CFA Institute’s own questions!

These are essential to your exam preparation so you have a good idea of exactly how the tone and focus of questions set by CFA Institute will be like.

This means you need to mix in practice questions obtained from CFA Institute – not just your study provider.

With CFA exam registration, you already get the end-of-chapter (EOC) questions at the end of each reading in the CFA Institute curriculum, as well as mock exams. Utilize them well – get a feel for how CFA Institute questions are like early in your study process.

Not preparing for the actual CFA exam day

CFA exam day checklist - what to bring to CFA exam

​After months of studying, many candidates in all levels proceed to screw it all up by not preparing logistically for exam day.

Do take some time as the exam day approaches to get full list of exactly what to bring, figure out transportation and make sure you arrive early.

It may be worth to take some time off work 1 week before the exam, making sure you eat well, have enough sleep, have time for some exercise (or desk stretches, at least) to avoid study burn out.

Failure to adequately prepare for any of these can increase your chances of CFA exam failure through distracted exam performance.

Not managing exam time properly

CFA Fast Track plan to pass CFA exams in the fastest way

Not having enough time to finish the exam is a lot more common to CFA candidates than you think.

In every CFA exam level, time-management is different.

In the CFA Level 1 exam, candidates only get an average of 90 seconds per question (assuming no checks or reviews).

In the Level 2 and 3 exams, candidates get more time, but the vignettes that accompany the item-set questions can span multiple pages and take a long time to read and comprehend.

Training yourself to complete the exam on time is key to doing well in the CFA exam – another reason why practice exams are so important. Make sure you get a sense of how much time you’ll need and sharpen those scanning (for information) skills.

We hope none of these situations apply to you, but if they do, it’s not too late! We are here for you, leave a comment below and we will try our best to help/advise.

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