[Updated for CFA Aug 2023 exams]
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.
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.
Overview of CFA Pass Rates Since 2014
The latest CFA pass rates are:
- 37% for Level 1 (Aug 2023)
- 44% for Level 2 (Aug 2023)
- 47% for Level 3 (Aug 2023)
As one would expect, the average pass rates increases as one progresses throughout the 3 levels. Since 2014, the historical CFA pass rates for:
- Level 1 ranges from 22%-49%, with a 9-year average of 40%;
- Level 2 ranges from 29%-55%, with a 9-year average of 44%;
- Level 3 ranges from 39%-56%, with a 9-year average of 50%.
The pandemic – which coincided with the introduction of computer-based exams and increased testing schedule – seems to have changed the pass rates trends significantly for all 3 levels, although there are encouraging initial signs to show that this trend is recovering to the average after the pandemic effects lessen.
There is insufficient data or insights on why this may be happening, although we have a few theories of why the CFA pass rates are so low.
CFA Level 1 Pass Rates vs. Candidate Volume
CFA exam’s popularity is evident in this chart, with Level 1 candidate growth accelerating steadily since 2015. This has taken a hit since the pandemic, with annual candidate volumes about 60% of previous years.
CFA Level 1 pass rates have remained relatively stable and above 40% since 2014 for paper-based exams. The December 2020 exam’s jump in CFA 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 Dec 2020 due to the ongoing pandemic situation, and this is reflected in Feb 2021’s data as well.
However, in May 2021, CFA Level 1 has experienced a monster drop in pass rates – since 2010, the historical CFA pass rates for Level 1 had been about 36%-49%, averaging 42%. This has dropped to 25% in the May 2021 exams, and further dropped in Jul 2021 to 22%, before rebounding to 26% in Aug 2021.
The latest Aug 2023 results are encouraging and seems to show that the pass rate trends are reverting closer to a new normal, but it does seem sticky at this range of pass rate since Feb 2022.
CFA Institute’s official guidance states that the minimum passing score reflects the score that can be achieved by a ‘just competent’ candidate, which is supposed to be consistent across the years, whether it’s 2010, 2015 or 2020. If we assume this holds true, this implies the average CFA Level 1 candidate quality for May to Aug 2021 was significantly lower compared to past exams.
CFA Institute has implied that this low pass rate is temporary, and due to pandemic disruption:
Going forward, we do expect the pass rate to approach pre-COVID historical levels in time — so long as pandemic conditions subside.
As we have said before, the exams and the process for setting the minimum passing score have not changed. Unfortunately, the many challenges posed by life during a pandemic have clearly made the process more daunting.Peg Jobst, Managing Director, Head of Credentialing, CFA Institute
A low passing score due to pandemic disruption does not explain why our MPS estimates have been increasing – that is, of course, assuming our MPS estimates are accurately reflecting what’s really going on!
CFA Level 2 Pass Rates vs. Candidate Volume
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 52-55% pass rates for Dec 2020 and May 2023 Level 2 candidates.
- Level 2 candidate growth has been accelerating since 2015 as well, but this has dropped to lower levels since the pandemic.
- Excluding the Dec 2020 ‘pandemic exam’, pass rates have been on a steady/downward trend since 2017 until August 2021. After the lowest pass rates ever in Aug 2021, recent results especially in May 2023 showed encouraging signs that the impact of pandemic disruption on pass rates is nearly over.
CFA Level 3 Pass Rates vs. Candidate Volume
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.
Similarly to Level 1 and Level 2, CFA Level 3’s pass rate experienced a big drop during the May 2021 exam cycle, recording a new low of 39% in Aug 2021 exam. One noticeable difference is the Level 3 Aug 2021 exam cohort is really small, with only 2,769 candidates taking the exam.
That said, it is showing initial signs of climbing back up to closer to the long term average with the latest Aug 2023 exam recording a 47% pass rate.
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.
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!
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