How Your Work and Education Background Relates to Your CFA Exam Performance

Want to pass your exams? Start preparing the right way.
My email is and I'm preparing for
By Christine

This article is based on analysis from our CFA Insights all-in-one guide. You can get a copy online or in print.

If you don’t have a finance-related background, are you disadvantaged when it comes to the CFA exams?

Since 2012, we’ve set out to find some clues to shed some light on just that. In our CFA Results Analyzer, we have a question where candidates can input their work and education background, indicating whether their backgrounds were finance-related or not. (Note: The CFA Results Analyzer only applies to CFA exam results before Dec 2017 – it no longer works if you receive results in the new format)

Given enough of a sample size, we could then compare the various background profiles with pass rates, and see how pass rates varied across candidates that had different backgrounds in work and education.

The results were quite surprising. Read on to find out!

The chart above, taken from our latest CFA Insights guide, shows the 4 different profiles possible based on the data we collected on CFA exams for the recent years:

  • Finance-related work and educational background (Work & Edu)
  • Finance-related work background only (Work Only)
  • Finance-related educational background only (Edu Only)
  • No finance-related background (No Background)

We then deduced the pass rate for each profile, as illustrated in the chart.

The surprising thing was that the profile with the lowest pass rate was not necessarily the No Background group, which was what we initially expected. In CFA Level II, the group at the bottom of the pass rate chart were actually candidates from the Edu Only group. In other CFA Levels, No Background and Edu Only groups have similar levels of performance, and both consistently underperform the other two remaining groups.

So why does the Edu Only group sometimes end up performing the worst? 

Of course, there are many possible causes to what we’re seeing, but our theory on this is complacency. Common feedback we get from readers who write in is that candidates with finance or economics degrees may take it easier than other candidates. Additionally, without a work requirement to spur them on, candidates may find it difficult to maintain the drive and discipline necessary to complete their preparations properly.

What you need to know

  • Not having any finance background doesn’t mean you’re hugely disadvantaged. Your drive and study discipline will be a far stronger determinant in your CFA exam success than your background.
  • A finance-related education has a real threat of being undermined by complacency. The CFA exams are challenging. Don’t assume your background in finance will allow you to take it easy in your preparation.
  • Some CFA levels may suit you more than others. Depending on what you’re strong at and your contextual knowledge, you may find some CFA levels easier than others as the approach and content vary significantly, especially in Level III.
  • The important thing is to remain driven, regardless of what advantages you may think you have.

More advice, tips and analysis in CFA Insights
CFA Insights includes analytical results from literally tens of thousands of actual CFA results, submitted by our readers over the years. Through these data points, we’ve been able to estimate past Minimum Passing Scores (MPS), show when and how candidates prepare for their CFA exams, analyzing performance by topic area, including what makes the difference between passing and failing candidates.

In addition, the guide contains the best tips from our own experience across the 300 Hours team – a unique team where all of us have completed the CFA program. From just considering whether the CFA program is for you, to receiving your CFA charter and making the most of it, we have combined our collective experience into one guide you can use throughout your CFA journey.

Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan

300Hours founder


6 thoughts on “How Your Work and Education Background Relates to Your CFA Exam Performance”

  1. I’m under the *Finance background in work only* category….I’ll admit not having the educational side of things (as firm foundation) does sting slightly; however, the combination of CFA study material and being in the investment world does have it’s advantages…. Keep these great posts coming 300HOURS 🙂

  2. Wow, amazing results. Almost everyone where I work that presented the CFA have passed. They all had finance background in both study/work. The results are mixed though, and the one common theme is that whenever someone failed a level, they said they didn’t study enough, that they relaxed too much after passing a previous level. About half of them had to repeat level 2.

    • Yep – to be honest, studying for the CFA, you’d always understand the topic you were reading at the time. Comprehension and understanding is not really the issue here. It’s taking the time to practice the exam format and questions, and having the discipline to cover the wide range of topics. Complacency is the true enemy here.

  3. Interesting! I fall in the “finance in education only” bucket so I’ll make sure to not take the exam too lightly. Thanks again!


Leave a Comment