7 Reasons People Fail Level I of the CFA® Exam

The financial services industry is filled with career opportunities. There are company-employed financial analysts, CFO’s, and advisors, investment managers, freelance financial planners, personal budget consultants, and, of course, all possible professional careers in the banking and insurance industries.

What gets you into the door for many of these careers, of course, is your degree, often at the graduate level. Beyond that, though, the best way to boost your career is to obtain the Chartered Financial Analyst® designation.

This is an endeavor that will take time, study, a bit of money, and the passing of three examinations. And the question you may be asking yourself is whether getting this certification is worth it.

The short answer is yes, it is worth it.

Benefits of the CFA Designation

Let’s unpack just a few of the benefits of gaining this certification.

  1. You become far more attractive within the financial services industry. And the largest and most reputable companies throughout the globe have CFA charterholders on their staff.
  2. You will earn more. On average, CFA charterholders earn about $60,000 more annually than financial services professionals without that certification.
  3. You become part of an organization with huge networking opportunities.
  4. You have a certification that is globally recognized.

The Examination

To obtain the Chartered Financial Analyst designation, you will be required to pass three exams in a sequence. You cannot take Level II, for example, until you pass Level I. However, you can re-take any level until you pass it.

It should also be noted that only an average of about 45% passes the Level I exam on the first try.

So why is this? Those who take the Bar Exam, for example, have a much higher pass rate.

There is no doubt – the CFA exam is tough. But why is the failure rate so high? This has been the subject of some study and research, and there are certain common factors among the percentage of failures.

Here are seven of these common factors.

Seven Reasons Why CFA Program Candidates Fail the Level I Exam

The Level I exam is often called the foundation test because it focuses on the principles of finance and economics. Many examinees will have been exposed to these principles before, though they will all have varying levels of knowledge and understanding. Still, the detail into which this exam will dig into these principles will require focused review and study.

Watch out for these pitfalls:

 1. Failure to Study Enough

The CFA Institute, the organization that develops and scores the test, estimates that the average preparation time for success on the Level I exam is 300 hours. What will that mean to you?

For most candidates, 300 hours is a huge chunk of time taken out of their lives. They have jobs; they have families; some may still be students; and some do have social lives, we assume. What will you have to give up to get in that 300 hours? Quite a bit, actually, if you plan to study within the shortest period of time possible.

Why the shortest period of time? Because there is a lot of content, and if you drag that study out too long, you will “lose” what you learned in the beginning.

Set a reasonable goal, divide 300 hours by the number of weeks you plan to study and get to it.

2. Study that is Inefficient

The CFA curriculum is large. You are best advised to review it all briefly before digging in. Make notes of those areas when your knowledge gaps are greatest and those in which you have greater knowledge. Prioritize your study time in each area accordingly.

The curriculum is well laid out – don’t try to “re-do” it by spending a lot of time taking notes as you go through the lessons – prepare brief outlines, make flashcards, etc. Do what you know worked for you when you had to study huge amounts of material for final examinations.

Involve as many of your senses as possible. Many find that reading aloud and repeating key information aloud helps – both eyes and ears are then involved.

No one can tell you what is most efficient for you, but you should already know. Do what has always worked for you.

3. Not Pacing Yourself

It has already been mentioned that you should take your time frame for study (e.g., weeks) and divide that into 300 so you know how much time to spend during each period of time. If you get off schedule, you will find yourself scrambling to catch up. Your test date is set, and you must be ready.

4. Insufficient Practice

It is one thing to master the concepts and principles that will be covered on the test. But CFA Institute, and many other prep programs, have lots of practice tests to supplement what you have learned. You cannot take too many practice tests. Each one you take helps you learn a bit more; and, with each one you take, you get better at taking the type of test you will actually see.

5. Bad Ethics Score

If you are on the borderline for passing, the Institute will take a long look at your ethics score. If it is high, you’ll pass. If it is low, you won’t. Your best strategy is to study the ethics curriculum toward the end of your time frame and to take as many practice questions as possible on the subject.

6. Test Anxiety Syndrome

Some unlucky students have this syndrome. They “clutch” when they have to take a test/exam. High levels of anxiety always produce lower results. During the time that you are preparing for the exam, you should also practice some proven relaxation techniques – make a habit of using these techniques on a regular basis so that they are “second nature” when you go into that exam.

7. Cramming the Day/Night Before

You might get a bit panicky and think you have to spend the entire day and night reviewing as much as possible, taking some more practice tests, etc. This will not serve you well. If you have stayed with your schedule, you are prepared. Going into the exam exhausted only means you will not be mentally alert. And people who are mentally tired make mistakes.

There you have it. These seven seem to be the most common factors in exam failure. Take them seriously, spend the time you need to spend, prioritize your knowledge gaps, take those practice tests, and you should be ready.

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