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How Hard Is The CFA Exam? (Level 1, 2 & 3)
By Griffin Quick Updated on February 20, 2024

How Hard Is The CFA Exam? (Level 1, 2 & 3)

Before embarking on the long path to become a Chartered Financial Analyst, many professionals wonder just how difficult the CFA exams are

The test to become a Chartered Financial Analyst is one of the most challenging credentialing exams. With a pass rate of less than 11% for all three levels, the CFA passage rate is lower than most state bar exams. Virtually everyone who has taken all three exam levels will tell you it is one of the most time intensive and difficult exams they have ever sat for. In this article, we are going to break down the difficulty of each section and cover what makes each hard, as well as how you can best prepare for it.

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Just How Hard Is The CFA Exam?

The Chartered Financial Analyst credential is one of the most demanding exams on Earth when it comes to preparation and study time required. The average pass rate for the CFA Level 1 is only 41%. For Level 2, you’re looking at a passage rate of 45%. And Level 3 is not much easier at 52%.

Overall, less than 11% of all candidates pass all three levels of the exam and earn their charter. So, in short, yes, the exam is brutally hard.

This low overall passage rate can be partially attributable to the time commitment required to make it through all three levels. The study requirements are such that many people simply lack the actual time needed to adequately study the material. Another factor that frequently adds to the challenge is the time between the exams.

CFA Program

If you receive a “Did Not Pass” score on your attempt, you cannot retest for a minimum of six months.

This alone can be an incredibly challenging factor, as a lot can transpire during the time before next test window. This prolonged time period is enough to discourage many people from taking the exam in the first place.

CFA Level 1 Difficulty

Each level of the CFA requires approximately 300 hours of study time. The CFA Institute data indicates that only 41% of testing candidates pass the Level 1 exam.

The Level 1 exam consists of testing the following areas of content:

  • Ethical And Professional Standards
  • Quantitative Methods
  • Portfolio Management And Wealth Planning
  • Financial Reporting And Analysis
  • Corporate Finance
  • Fixed Income
  • Equity Investments
  • Derivative Investments
  • Alternative Investments
  • Economics

The hardest and most heavily weighted sections of the Level 1 exam are considered to be Fixed Income, Derivative Investments, and Financial Reporting and Analysis. You should plan extra study time for these three topics.

For optimal effectiveness, it is recommended that you first extensively study these three areas, followed thereafter by the remaining topics, then re-review once again the three main areas of focus, with a special emphasis on Ethics, before finishing.

CFA Level 2 Difficulty

The exam topics for Level 2 are the same as Level 1, so there are no additional areas you will need to prepare for. In addition, the topic difficulty and weighting typically does not change either, so you can retain your same study routine. Again, the CFA recommends a minimum of 300 hours of study preparation.

The Level 2 test is widely considered to be the most difficult of the three exams. The biggest change when moving from Level 1 to Level 2 is the questions taking the form of what is referred to as “item sets.”

CFA testing center

An item set is a short vignette or setup description, accompanied by an array of multiple-choice questions. The weighting for Level 2 varies to some extent from Level 1 depending on the number of questions for each topic, which can fluctuate within a given range.

CFA Level 3 Difficulty

Obviously, to reach Level 3 of the CFA exam, you will have had to pass Levels 1 and 2. Level 3 is considered to be the easiest of the three exams.

The Level 3 exam eliminates the testing of Quantitative Methods, Corporate Finance, and Financial Reporting and Analysis. Many of the weights have been realigned, with the largest share and main focus resting with Portfolio Management and Wealth Planning.

The questions also change again, becoming open-ended questions known as “constructed response questions.”

5 Tips To Make The CFA Exams Easier

The most important thing you can do to get ready for the CFA exams is study. But what methods are the most effective? There are numerous study techniques you can utilize while preparing for the 3 levels of the CFA.

#1 | Know the Material

The content of the CFA exam comes directly from the Institute’s curriculum. You can go to the CFA Institute’s website where they have study tips and exam prep materials available.

Using this material as part of your study preparation is highly recommended as you will not run into any questions that were not covered in the suggested study resources.

#2 | Understand The Schedule

The CFA exam is divided into three levels, which are each completed on separate test days. Each test day is split into a morning and afternoon session with an optional lunch break in between.

The Level I test has a 2.25-hour session in the morning and in the afternoon where candidates are required to answer 90 multiple-choice questions in each session (180 total).

The Level II test has a heavier amount of reading due to the “item sets” format.  In both the morning and afternoon 2.25-hour sessions candidates are required to answer 44 questions (88 total).

The Level III test is a little different. In each the morning and afternoon there is a 2.25-hour session. Each session will have either 6 item sets and 5 essay sets, or 5 item sets and 6 essay sets.

CFA exam

#3 | Don’t Understudy

When it comes to studying for the CFA exam, there is no way of knowing what combination of questions will be asked. The best study preparation method is to spend more time on the more heavily weighted topics, then splitting your time evenly between the remaining subjects.

#4 | Practice Tests

One of the best ways to prepare for the CFA is to review the study guides provided by the CFA institute and follow up with the Institute’s practice tests to gauge your readiness.

#5 | The 300 Hour Rule

One top priority should be to listen to those who have taken and passed all three levels of the CFA. And one rule of thumb that routinely comes up is the 3oo-hour rule. Candidates swear by this.

You need to study for 300 hours for each level. The CFA exam is not about being a brilliant analyst with a mind for finance. It is about being a grinder and studying hard.


Is CFA level 1 hard?

Yes, the first level of the CFA exam is the hardest of the three levels by pass rate. Historically, only 41% of test takers pass.

Is CFA level 2 hard?

Level 2 of the CFA exam is not as hard as level 1, but it is still tough nonetheless. Level 2 only has a pass rate of 45%.

Is CFA level 3 hard?

Level 3 of the CFA exam is considered the easiest of the three levels. However, compared to other major financial exams like the CFP and CPA, it is still brutal. The pass rate is just 52%.