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This is the minimum score you can get on CFA Level 1, and still pass

CFA Level 1 minimum score

The June 2017 sitting of the CFA Institute’s exams is fast approaching. If you’re studying for them, good luck. You know you’ll need it: the CFA exams are notoriously hard and for Levels One and Two at least, most people fail. Last year’s miserable pass rates are show in the table below.

Level One has the lowest rate of success. Of the huge 59,627 people who sat the first rung of the CFA exams last year, 33,820 people failed. That’s a lot of disappointment. Given that the CFA Institute advises 300 hours of study per exam, that’s also 10m hours of study time wasted (assuming the candidates who failed actually put the hours in, which isn’t always the case).

To maximize your chances of passing CFA Level One, you need to do some mock tests. At this stage, successful candidates say you need to be doing a lot of mock tests under timed conditions. But when you score yourself afterwards, how will you know whether you’ve done well enough to pass the real thing?

This is the problem: you won’t.

The CFA Institute, which masterminds the entire process, is notoriously coy when it comes to explaining what constitutes a pass and what doesn’t.

To pass, candidates need to meet a minimum ‘net passing score.’  What is that minimum net passing score ? No one knows. It’s never given and it varies year-on-year according to how hard the paper was and how well everyone does in the exams.

When it’s working out the minimum passing score, the CFA Institute uses something known as the ‘Angoff Standard Setting Method’ (explained here) to determine the pass rate. This has something to do with a set of CFA Charterholders sitting down and working out how difficult the questions really are and how easy it ought to be to pass.

To confuse matters further, because the marks allocated to different topics vary (click here to see the allocation for June 2016), strong performance in one topic won’t necessarily compensate for weak performance in another.

If you fail the coming exams, you might therefore, wonder why.

So, what’s the minimum score you need to pass?

Based on results posted in various online forums, we’ve identified the candidates who’ve passed recent Level 1 exams with the weakest scores. This is, seemingly, the minimum you’ll need to get through:

1. You can pass with less than 50% in four subjects (Derivatives, Economics, Portfolio Management, and Quantitative Methods), with 51% to 70% in Alternative Investments, and with more than 70% in Corporate Finance, Equity Instruments, Ethical and Professional Standards, Financial Reporting and Analysis, and Fixed Income.

2. You can pass with Financial Reporting and Analysis under 50%, Economics and Portfolio Management over 70%, and everything else (seven other subjects) between 51% and 70%.

3. You can pass with less than 50% in Derivatives and more than 70% in Corporate Finance and Equity Investments, and between 51% and 70% in the other seven subjects.

4. You can pass with less than 50% in Quantitative Methods, Derivatives, Financial Reporting and Analysis, as long as you have more than 70% in Economics, Quantitative Methods, and Equity Instruments, and 51% to 70% in Corporate Finance, Ethical and Professional Standards, Fixed Income, and Portfolio Management.

5. You can pass with less than 50% in Alternative Investments, Derivatives and Quantitative Methods, so long as you have 50% to 70% in Economics, Equity Instruments, Financial Reporting and Analysis and Portfolio Management, AND more than 70% in Ethical and Professional Standards, Fixed Income and Corporate Finance.

So this, roughly, is the minimum passing score…

In other words, you don’t have to get more than 70% in everything to pass. You don’t even need to get more than 51% in everything to pass. It looks a lot like you can get less than 50% in three (or maybe four) topics, but you will probably need to counterbalance this with more than 70% in at least three subjects and with 51% to 70% in the rest.

The ethics adjustment 

Lastly, if you’re going to try super-hard for any of the subject areas, you might want to try very hard in ethics. For the past 11 years, the CFA Institute has implemented a so-called “ethics adjustment” when scoring exams, described on its website as follows:

‘What is the “ethics adjustment”?

The Board of Governors instituted a policy to place particular emphasis on ethics. Starting with the 1996 exams, the performance on the ethics section became a factor in the pass/fail decision for candidates whose total scores bordered the minimum passing score. The ethics adjustment can have a positive or negative impact on these candidates’ final results.

CFA Institute has a policy of not releasing either the minimum passing score or individual candidate scores. Consequently, CFA Institute does not release specific information about the ethics adjustment or the candidates who were affected. The adjustment has had a net positive effect on candidate scores (and thus pass rates) in most exam sessions. The published pass rates always take into account the ethics adjustment for borderline candidates.’

Good luck!

Comments (23)

  1. FRA is not forward rate agreements; it is Financial Reporting and Analysis-the most weighted aspect of the exam.

  2. Ah….Thank you.

  3. for the june exam I got above 70% for Ethics and Derivatives and 50%-70% for everything else

  4. I did L1 with only 2 days of study and got a letter from the CFA saying i got 100% in the exam.

  5. I failed with:
    >70% Alt Inv, and Corp Finance
    51-70% Derivatives, Econ, Equity, Ethics, FRA, Fixed Inc, Quants
    <=50% Port Mngt

  6. Passed

    >70% in 6 topics, 50% in Ethics, Port. Mgmt., Economics, Alt. Investment

  7. It looks to be highly subjective regarding a pass. I wonder if CFA is not that ethical since it is so subjective who will pass or not. Maybe they are simply generating more profits by letting people retake the exams.

    Why not simply have a minimum score of 70% and simply scale the results. So if the highest individual would score 95% total than people who would get 65% would pass. This way they scale it if the exam was to hard. If someone would score 100% then the 70% would be the minimum score.

  8. I wonder why I failed when I gave my Level 1 exam back in 2008 because I scored far better than the above passing scores. And at that time we had to choose from 4 choices.

  9. Failed.

    > than 70%: Alternative Investments, Ethics

    51-70%: Derivatives, Equity, Portfolio Management, Quantitative Methods

    < than 50%: Corporate Finance, Economics, Financial Reporting and Analysis, Fixed Income

  10. This kind of analysis would be great for the FRM certification

    FRM test taker Reply
  11. For June 2015, my Derivatives & Fixed Income dipped below 50%; Ethics and Economics dipped was 51-70%; the rest is > 70%. It is a pass!!!! Good luck everyone!

  12. Whats your band?

  13. Passed

    70% in Corp Finance, Equity, FRA (3)

    I think this is really close to a fail, but just showing you the possibilities!

  14. Interesting article!

    That said, I am unsure what the correct info might be for Scenario #4, as it shows one can pass with “less than 50% in Quantitative Methods” but goes on to also say one needs “more than 70% in Quantitative Methods” too?!

    “4. You can pass with less than 50% in Quantitative Methods, Derivatives, Financial Reporting and Analysis, as long as you have more than 70% in Economics, Quantitative Methods, and Equity Instruments, and 51% to 70% in Corporate Finance, Ethical and Professional Standards, Fixed Income, and Portfolio Management.”

  15. dont see the problem here… every question is equally weighted. Therefore, all this if this, if that, etc. doesn’t help at all. Obviously it helps if you are good in the subjects that have higher weighting, but again, each question is equally weighted. And regardinghe minimum % to pass, no person knows. simple is that…

  16. how much did you score on the others sections ?

  17. Passed Level 1 June 2016.

    51% – 70% in Ethics, Financial Reporting and Analysis, Fixed Income and Quantitative Methods.

    Above 70% in everything else.

    All the best to whoever gives the exam. :)

  18. Passed Level 1 June 2016.

    51% – 70% in Ethics, Financial Reporting and Analysis, Fixed Income and Quantitative Methods.

    Above 70% in everything else.

    All the best to everyone who takes the exam. :)

  19. When I did the CFA about 10 years ago we worked out on a website called analystforum that you need about 63% to pass overall. ie the CFA take the average mark of the top 1% and you need to get 70% of that, so that implies the top 1% get in the low 90s. I dont expect its changed much, 65% seems a good target.

  20. Hello,

    I’m thinking about starting the CFA Program. If you had to study for part 1 again, would you change your strategy? If so, why?

  21. What band ?

  22. Passed – Level 1 Dec 2017

    I started studying mid August 2017 and by end of October I was done with all topics. November was only revision and tests.

    I studied from Schweser CFA for all topics except for Ethics, for which I only used the official CFA book.

    I used the last 3 days of November to read the CFA Institute Ethics book and it really gives some amazing examples that helps the candidate understand the Standards, Practices and Guidelines. There is no ambiguity and the explanations are straight forward.

    Practice exams and practice questions do only from the CFA Candidate resource. This helps you prepare better for the exam. If you are scoring low, like below 60th percentile then I suggest studying more. But if you are 70th percentile and above then you are doing good and can improve.

    Its very important that you read the questions properly as sometimes the question is asking what is NOT the right answer or what is LEAST likely the answer. Sometimes in a hurry we land up answering the right answer when we have to select the options that is least likely the right answer.

    During exam day carry 2 calculators (approved CFA Institute Exam calculators), an eraser, 2 pencils and a sharpener.

    Stay calm and focus on your paper. Good luck!

    I passed with the following:

    50% – 69% in Corp Fin, Eco, Ethics, FRA, PM, Quants
    70% & Above in Equity, FI, Derivative, Alternate Inv.

    The results for Dec 2017 are published in a new graphical format with 90th Percentile Line, 70% Line, 10th Percentile Line and candidate score line.

    If the entire Y-axis represents 0% to 100%, then:

    Corp Fin – 60%
    Eco – 60%
    Equity Inv. – 75%
    Ethics – 68%
    FI – 71%
    FRA – 60%
    PM – 68%
    Quants – 65%
    Others (Alt Inv. & Derivatives) – 70%

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