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Should I Give Up on the CFA Exam?

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I got a band 4 in CFA® level 1, should I give up or continue? I've also started studying for CPA.

–Nikita P.

Oftentimes CFA candidates will ask me what it takes to pass the CFA exam at Level I, II, or III. In my opinion, passing any level requires hard work, time, and dedication. However, that may not always translate into a passing score because your result is relative to all other candidates (at your level) who sat for the same exam.

I studied diligently for the CFA Level II exam in 1994, but despite countless hours reviewing the CFAI curriculum readings (then known as AIMR's readings) and even using a prep provider's materials, I did not pass the exam. I was disappointed in my results, but I realized my study methodology was flawed. In short, I did not prepare myself well because I did not allocate enough time to doing an adequate number of practice questions. I focused too much on knowing as much material as I could, rather than simulating the real exam with practice tests and questions. So, I was unable to manage my time on the real exam appropriately. When I shifted my strategy the next year and studied well, but also did enough practice problems, my result was dramatically different. I passed the Level II in 1995.


That being said, I do not think that the band number you are in when you fail a CFA exam should lead to you decide that the CFA designation is not for you or to "throw in the towel." A decision to give up is a personal one but it should be based on whether the CFA designation is important to you or not. If you are interested in achieving this prestigious designation, want to learn much about investments and managing portfolios, and you envision the designation playing a role in your future career, then I would not give up. I would continue and I would not be discouraged by a Fail, Band 4 result. It simply means you need to study harder in addition to doing more practice exams to master the material and develop good time-management skills.

Pursuing the CFA designation along with other degrees (e.g., MBA, PhD, JD, etc.), accreditations or certifications (e.g., CPA, CAIA, FRM, etc.) is not a wise decision. I don't think it is possible for any person to allocate enough time to mastering the CFA curriculum and get the most out of the program while pursuing other accreditations. So, you should dedicate your time and resources to either the CPA or the CFA but not both simultaneously. Choose the one you really think is more important to you and will further your career more and go for that one first. Then decide at a future point in time whether the other accreditation is necessary and worthwhile.

A final note, please think hard before you pursue the CFA designation, or any degree or designation for that matter, to ensure that it will not only provide you with an education but that it has direct relevance to your future goals. Many people think that having every accreditation, degree, or designation on their resume will make them more attractive to a potential employer. Many employers will not admit this point, but a candidate with too many degrees and designations looks unfocused and just wants a lot of money as a starting salary. That can obviously backfire and not even land you the interview where you can shine.

–Nathan Ronen, CFA

Have a CFA prep question? Send it to the editor, and we will ask one of our CFA Prep Instructors. Please include your name and whether or not you are a Level I, II, or III candidate (if applicable). Questions can also be kept anonymous. O. Nathan Ronen is the lead CFA instructor at NYSSA and has helped over 20,000 candidates to pass the CFA exams. He has been teaching CFA Levels I, II, and III for over 16 years and has a unique understanding of each level. Ronen’s knowledge and real-world finance experience helps bring the theory to life. Ronen worked as a supervisory analyst training government regulators, an accounting analyst, and a corporate finance analyst. Ronen has also taught in-house CFA seminars at Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, and many other major financial institutions. He holds an MBA in finance and accounting from the University of Chicago.

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