The best way to prepare for the CFA level 1 exam


Preparing for all three levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams requires a serious commitment to following a structured study plan. According to the CFA Institute, the average annual pass rate for the last 10 years for the CFA Level I exam is 42%. This statistic shows that only dedicated candidates will likely pass the exam, so be prepared to make the necessary sacrifices and put in the effort required.

Key takeaways

  • Passing the CFA Level 1 exam, which has a 42% pass rate over the past decade, requires following a strong study plan.
  • Successful Level 1 candidates spend approximately 300 hours preparing for the exam.
  • The best strategy is to allow at least 4 months (approximately 17 weeks) to finish all the reading material.
  • However, do not neglect the questions at the end of the chapter, which will help reveal weaknesses.
  • Allow four weeks before your exam date to review questions and have practice sessions, while also setting aside at least one day to simulate exam conditions at home.

Your biggest investment in the CFA is your time, so you need to spend it efficiently. According to the CFA Institute, selected candidates on average report that they spent around 323 hours preparing for the CFA exam in total.

The required preparation time may be longer for those with little subject training and shorter for those with a strong background in the subjects covered by the CFA curriculum. As a guide to a study plan, let’s use this estimate of 323 hours of reading and practice as a benchmark.

Pass your CFA exams on the first try

Reading material

The CFA Level I exam covers 10 topics, 19 study sessions, and 57 readings. Each subject has a different weight in the exam. A good way to manage your study time is to allocate study time according to the weight of each subject. The following table summarizes the distribution of 323 hours of reading in the different subject areas of the exam.

Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

On average, it is best to leave at least four months for readings and leave the last month for review and practice. If you read two hours a day Monday through Friday and eight hours on weekends, it will take you about 17 weeks (four months) to complete all the readings.

Weekends and non-working days are the best time to study for the CFA. During the week, you probably won’t have time for practice questions, aside from questions at the end of the chapter. So plan on spending an additional two to four hours on the weekend for practice questions. Don’t forget: the more you practice, the better your chances of being successful on the exam.

Questions at the end of the chapter

Don’t forget the questions at the end of the chapter and always write down the results to track your progress. The questions at the end of the chapter will give you an overview of the areas that are tested on the exam, so that you can focus more on these areas. Additionally, these questions will reveal the weakest areas that you need to focus on to improve.

The table below summarizes how to best allocate your study time for the various CFA exam topics if you were to spend approximately 323 hours and four months (120 days) studying. Use this chart as a reference point and customize your study routine to suit your circumstances.

Thematic area Weight Hours based on a 323 hour schedule Days to assign
Ethical and professional standards 15-20% 54 20 days
Quantitative methods 8-12% 31 12 days
Economic Sciences 8-12% 31 12 days
Financial reports and analysis 13-17% 46 17 days
Corporate finance 8-12% 31 11 days
Portfolio management 5-8% twenty 8 days
Equal investments 10-12% 35 12 days
Fixed rent 10-12% 35 12 days
Derivatives 5-8% twenty 8 days
Alternative investments 5-8% twenty 8 days
Total 100% 323 120 days

The last four weeks

After decades of paper-based exams, CFA exams have recently switched to computer-based exams as of January 2021. Beginning in 2022, the Level I exam is offered in February, May, August, and November. The level II exam will be offered in February and August, and the level III in May and November.

With these dates in mind, allow yourself four weeks before the exam date to review the questions and have practice sessions. During this period, you should practice more intensely than in previous periods. The CFA Institute will give you mock exams.

It is recommended that you reserve at least one day to simulate the exam conditions at home with the mock test. Two sessions of 2.25 hours with an optional break in between are recommended, to reflect the conditions of the new computer test. The mock exam will help you to be physiologically well prepared for the exam.

It would also be worth taking a study leave of two to four weeks from work during the final phase of your preparation.

The bottom line

The key to preparing for the CFA Level 1 exam is to study in a structured way for a period of at least 323 hours. Hopefully, after studying in a structured way for the exam, you won’t have any issuance to pass it.

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Mark Holland

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