So, you failed CFA I. Here's what to do next

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Failed CFA Level I

You failed CFA I? Get back on the horse

The results of December's CFA I exam were released yesterday. More people passed than for many a year - but most people still failed. If you're in the majority who are now wondering whether to have another go, this is what you need to do next.

Re-evaluate your study plan 

Did you fail because you didn't study hard enough? "There is a strong correlation between study time and exam success," says Steve Horan, managing director and co-lead for education at the CFA Institute. On average, you need to study for 300 hours, but if you study longer and harder, your chances of passing will increase. "Even a score in low score band can be remedied with sufficient preparation time," says Horan.

What if you studied 300 hours+ and you still failed? In this case, Horan says you need to look at your study strategy. "If a candidate’s performance was in one of the lower score bands among unsuccessful candidates and the candidate invested significantly more than the average 300 hours studying the curriculum and preparing for the exam over a six-month period, then giving it another go should be given serious contemplation and accompanied by a very clear improvement plan that could involve additional tools and services such as tutoring in weaker topic areas, practice and mock exams, etc."

"If you scored less than 70% in most modules, go back to the drawing board," says Nathalie Columelli, a former Deutsche Bank trader who now trains CFA candidates. "If you do decide to press ahead and study for the next Level I exam, you will need to review your study methods and allocate 200-300 hours if you have any chance of passing level I."

Recalibrate your expectations

"The CFA is a long game," says Columelli. "It requires over 1,000 hours of study over several years, so don’t let one set-back put you off."

Data from the CFA Institute shows that most candidates require more than one attempt to pass CFA I (across all candidates the average is 1.5 sittings before a pass is achieved). Failing first time is normal. 

"Before starting out, you need to be aware of how much of your life studying for the CFA will take up and the impact it will have on your daily life," says Columelli. "It might seem like you’ve put your life on hold for no reward, but remember the reasons you’re aiming to become a CFA charterholder in the first place – increased employability, professional development, better promotion prospects and better international mobility."

Look on the bright side: you'll be better prepared for CFA II

If you failed CFA I, you will be better positioned to pass CFA II. "Failing level I is an opportunity," says Columelli. "You can really nail down your study programme and get to grips with the subject matter, which in my experience usually prepares candidates better for level II. Yes, passing first time would have been good news, but what if you only just scraped through? Usually, candidates fail to account for the increased hours of study necessary for level II and instead employ the same methods because it worked for them last time around."

For CFA II, Columelli  says you need to add 30-40 hours if your scores across the various modules were almost all above 70% on level I and add 60-75 hours if you have two or more topics where you scored lower than this.


Failing the CFA programme at the first hurdle can be debilitating. Don't throw yourself back into it without taking time to recover. "Catch up on some rest and emerge reinvigorated for the level I exam in June," says Columelli. If you're going to pass the programme, you'll need to manage your energy levels over a three year period (at least).

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