CFA Pass Rates: How Hard Are The CFA Exams?

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CFA pass rates are a factor in most candidates’ consideration on whether to sign up for the CFA exams. If pass rates are too high, it lacks prestigiousness. If it is too low, it is too difficult and may not be worth the effort.

Tricky, eh?

Often branded the ‘world’s hardest exams’, we often get questions from our readers on exactly how difficult the CFA exams could be. The short answer? It’s hard, but not the hardest?

In this article, we try to approach this question objectively, with historical CFA pass rates and third party benchmarking studies in order to help you decide whether CFA exams are worth the challenge.

Let’s go!


Overview of CFA Pass Rates Since 2010

cfa exam pass rates since 2010

The latest CFA pass rates are:

  • 49% for Level 1 (Dec20)
  • 55% for Level 2 (Dec20)
  • 56% for Level 3 (Dec20)

As one would expect, the average pass rates increases as one progresses throughout the 3 levels. Since 2010, the historical CFA pass rates for:

  • Level 1 ranges from 36%-49%, with a 11-year average of 42%;
  • Level 2 ranges from 39%-55%, with a 11-year average of 45%;
  • Level 3 ranges from 46%-56%, with a 11-year average of 53%.

Interestingly, Dec20 pass rates showed a big jump for Level 1 and Level 2 candidates who probably had significantly more time to study due to the pandemic exam postponements. Yet it remained stable for Level 3 candidates despite experiencing the additional time to prepare.


CFA Level 1 Pass Rates vs. Candidate Volume

cfa level 1 pass rates and candidate volume since 2010

CFA exam’s popularity is evident in this chart, with Level 1 candidate growth accelerating steadily since 2015.

CFA Level 1 pass rates have remained relatively stable and above 40% since 2014. The recent Dec20 exam’s jump in Level 1 pass rate to 49% is most likely due to the additional time candidates have due to multiple COVID-19 exam postponements.

Unfortunately not many candidates were able to sit for the exam even in Dec20 due to the ongoing pandemic situation, so we probably expect similar trends in relatively higher pass rates for early 2021 Level 1 exams as well.


CFA Level 2 Pass Rates vs. Candidate Volume

cfa level 2 pass rates and candidate volume since 2010

The story for CFA Level 2 pass rates and candidate volume is similar to Level 1:

  • Level 2 pass rates were relatively stable and above 40% since 2011, with a significant jump to 55% pass rates for Dec20 Level 2 candidates.
  • Level 2 candidate growth has been accelerating since 2015 as well, with Dec20 being an outlier due to pandemic restrictions.

CFA Level 3 Pass Rates vs. Candidate Volume

cfa level 3 pass rates and candidate volume since 2010

CFA Level 3 is a little different from other levels, whereby the pass rates are very stable and consistently higher than the rest. This can be explained by natural selection: Level 3 candidates by definition are highly skilled and knowledgable at this point, having passed Level 1 and Level 2.

Aside from the same limited candidate pool for Dec20, interestingly – and unlike Level 1 and Level 2 – Level 3’s pass rates remained stable despite the additional study time posed by the pandemic postponements. This could be due to the nature of the constructed response (‘essay’) section, which may be harder to improve on with practice, even with additional preparation time.


How Hard Is CFA?

OK we have seen all the historical trends in CFA pass rates, but that still doesn’t really tell us how difficult these exams are?

Perhaps a more objective way to assess CFA exam’s difficulty lies in the UK NARIC’s (National Academic Recognition Information Centre of the United Kingdom) benchmarks.

cfa difficulty comparison financial designation

According to UK NARIC, the CFA exams have been benchmarked individually by Level under UK Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF):

  • CFA Level 1‘s difficulty is comparable to a Diploma of higher education (Level 5 qualification under RQF);
  • CFA Level 2‘s difficulty is comparable to a Bachelor’s degree (Level 6 qualification under RQF);
  • CFA Level 3‘s difficulty is comparable to a Master’s degree (Level 7 qualification under RQF).

Considering that RQF Level 8 implies a difficulty equivalent to PhD programs, passing all 3 levels of the CFA exams is certainly not easy!


Hope you found the statistics above useful!

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

Sophie Macon
Author: Sophie Macon

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