What can your CFA exam results charts tell you? More than you may think.
To help you get the most out of your CFA exam results, we’ve put together a clearcut guide with:
- CFA results samples,
- step-by-step guidance on how to interpret CFA results charts, and
- how you can use this to improve your performance.
Understanding your results charts can really help you in facing your next exam – use the tips in this guide and take the time to analyze your results!
- How do the CFA exam results look like?
- How to read your CFA exam results charts
- How to read your CFA exam topic performance chart
- CFA Level 3: How to read your essay and item set chart
- Got your results? Put them on your resume and LinkedIn profile, the right way.
- Help our research. Send us your results PDFs.
How do the CFA exam results look like?
CFA Institute changed the way they report CFA candidates’ results in December 2017, the first time this has happened in at least 10 years.
Candidates now receive a pass/fail result through email around 60-90 days after exams (see our predicted results release dates here), and can retrieve a PDF of their results charts from CFA Institute.
Although they don’t reveal your actual scores, the details that they do share allow you to interpret how well or badly you did, and use that information to better prepare for the next exam, whether you’re retaking or advancing to the next level.
Want a sample of the real thing? You can download CFA exam results samples PDFs for any level using the buttons below:
CFA results first page: Results summary
The first page of the CFA exam results PDF shows your pass/fail score, as well as your overall exam results chart.
CFA results second page: Topic performance charts
The second page shows your performance on a topic-by-topic basis.
[Level 3 only] CFA results third page: Essay and item-set performance charts
If you’re receiving your CFA Level 3 results, you get a third page showing your essay and item-set performance charts.
How to read your CFA exam results charts
Your CFA exam results chart will look something like this:
At first glance, this may just look like a haphazard mishmash of lines, patterns and colors, but it’s actually quite easy to read once you understand what the lines mean.
Let’s go through them one by one.
The minimum performance score (MPS) line
The MPS line is represented as a thin black dashed line on your exam results charts.
In your exam performance chart, the MPS represents the minimum score a candidate has to achieve to pass the CFA exam.
Any score below the MPS will not pass, although borderline cases might be able to scrape a pass from the ethics adjustment (more detail on that here).
Your score line and score box
Your score line represents your score in the actual CFA exam. A score line below the MPS line means you failed, whereas a score line above the MPS line means you passed.
The score box brings it one step further – CFA Institute reasons that your score line represents only one snapshot of your performance and level of preparation.
The score box is therefore CFA Institute’s estimate of your performance given different sets of circumstances, such as:
- The actual exam topic mix favored, or did not favor your topic mastery
- Your state of rest and alertness during the exam
- Lucky or unlucky guesswork
- Actual exam conditions
The top part of the score box represents an estimate of your ‘best-case score’ if all factors went your way, whereas the bottom part of the score box shows your ‘worst-case scenario’ if all factors for you, well, sucked.
The 90th percentile and 10th percentile lines
To give additional context, CFA Institute also show where the scores of the 90th and 10th percentiles of the total candidate pool.
What can we conclude from the 10th percentile and 90th percentile lines:
- 10% of candidates for that exam performed better than the 90th percentile line.
- Given that the pass rate for the CFA exams are about 40%, this means about 1 in 4 passing candidates would perform above the 90th percentile line.
- 10% of candidates for that exam performed below the 10th percentile line, or about 1 in 6 failing candidates.
- 80% of candidates therefore scored between the 10th and 90th percentile lines.
Reading and interpreting the CFA results chart
The image above shows the three basic cases how your results might look like.
Interpreting the lines on the chart is quite simple:
- If your score line is above the MPS, you passed.
- If your score line is below the MPS, you failed.
- The higher the score line, the better you did in the exam.
The chart is just to illustrate your relative performance – the final pass/fail result is stated clearly on the first page.
You probably would have noticed from the charts that the y-axis doesn’t actually have values, so unfortunately you don’t know what the MPS is, nor your actual score.
(We’ve estimated the MPS for every CFA exam since 2012 though, in case you’re curious.)
How to read your CFA exam topic performance chart
Looking for guidance on what CFA exam topics to focus on? Your topic performance chart can show you a wealth of information if you know how to interpret it properly.
Here is an example of a topic area performance chart, and our analysis:
How can you analyze your own results charts? Pay attention to these metrics below.
The 70% line and 50% line
There is no minimum passing score for each topic area, so CFA Institute shows a 70% line as a reference point – representing 70% of available points for that topic.
According to CFA Institute, ‘although this level is somewhat arbitrary, consistent scores above 70% of the available points is a reasonable signal of topic mastery.’
Recent results also includes a 50% line, although this has varied across the years – some years did not include a 50% line.
Our analysis into previous MPS scores also tell us that if you reliably score above 70% for all topic areas, you should expect a passing score – although there are obviously no guarantees.
Pro tip: Assess your score box size and percentile lines
Wider score boxes (i.e. confidence intervals) mean lower consistency
You’ll also notice that the score boxes in the topic area charts are a lot wider than in the results chart.
This is naturally due to fewer questions per chart (i.e. smaller sample size), and sometimes with a wider dispersion of responses.
Higher relative position to 10th and 90th percentile lines shows a better performance
Looking at the chart above, although both score boxes show the same score, the score on the right is much closer to the 90th percentile line, showing a better performance than the one on the left.
How to identify topics to focus on and ways to improve
By evaluating your own score, your score box, and the scores of other candidates via the 90th and 10th percentile lines, you should be able to identify the topics you did well in, and the topics you should focus on, and HOW you should work on them.
Going back to our initial example, we see low-performing topic areas, but for different reasons. Corresponding to the numbers in the chart:
- The actual score line and upper end of the score box both did not perform well in either the absolute scale or the percentile scale. Improvement is needed significantly.
- These were the best performing topics, but the score was still significantly under 70%. These do need to improve, but other topics need focus first, especially since these are lower-weighted topics.
- This had a low score, but a large score box. This suggests that the candidate could have performed well in this topic area. Recommend a quick review and emphasize focus on practice questions.
- Low and narrow score box – suggesting that the candidate would consistently perform poorly here. The implication is that base knowledge in this topic is low. Need to invest more time to better understand topic.
- Good scores in these topic areas, with high consistency. Maintain your performance here and you should have no problems.
Hope the examples above help you understand your own chart!
CFA Level 3: How to read your essay and item set chart
In the Level 3 exam, the exams are divided into structured response (‘essay’) and item-set questions.
CFA Institute has also indicated that their results details will include a performance chart split by item type, so that you can compare your performance and see whether you were a stronger performer in the essay paper, or the item-set paper.
Our own analysis on exam data has shown that candidates are highly likely to perform better in the item-set paper.
Got your results? Put them on your resume and LinkedIn profile, the right way.
Want to flaunt your new CFA status professionally? Read our definitive guide on how to update your CFA status on all professional communication, including your CV/resume and LinkedIn.
Help our research. Send us your results PDFs.
If you’d like to help us better understand the results format, just send your results PDF to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We understand the trust that you are giving us when you do so, and will not be sharing your information with anybody else, and will only use it to perform anonymised analyses that continue to help present and future CFA exam candidates.
If you’re expecting your CFA exam results soon, good luck! If you have any more questions on understanding your results, just pop them in the comments below.
8 thoughts on “CFA Exam Results: How to Interpret CFA Results Charts”
I didn’t receive the 3rd page for my level 3 explaining the essay and item set. Any thoughts on why CFA removed this page?
I got my Nov 2021 Level 3 result, but I don’t have the 3rd page showing breakdown of essay and item set. Wondering if they changed format. Thanks.
Can we get the papers of CFA level 1 of previous quarters/ years?
Hi Agam, unfortunately CFA Institute does not publish previous exam papers.
Thank you Zee.
Quick question: do you know if the overall exam result chart is to scale?
I.e., if I used a data tool to try and back out what my exact percentile was, would I actually get an accurate reading?
Very random I know, but curiosity killed the cat.
It seems to be to scale. It wouldn’t make sense to show relative 90th and 10th percentiles otherwise if the distance between lines mean nothing.
how can the pass rate for May level 1 exam be as low as 25%? seems ridiculous to me
The cohort for each exam is different, and the content for each exam window is different, so it’s possible.
In theory, the MPS shows how hard/easy the exam is (high MPS = easy). And also in theory, the pass rate shows the average candidate quality of each exam cohort (high pass rate = high quality).
So I would say with the numbers as they stand, and assuming CFA Institute’s methodologies on pass rates and MPS are as they say, this points to a lower average candidate quality for the May’21 CFA exams.