‘I’m thinking of enrolling in the CFA Program but I have a few questions’. This is how many of my clients begin a conversation which typically turns into a comprehensive analysis of their individual circumstances, including their time and financial constraints, academic and work background as well as their career goals. Based on these discussions I have compiled a list of the four most frequently asked questions which I often find myself answering:
- How much study time will I need to devote?
- How long will it take to pass all three exams?
- What are the costs?
- Is the CFA Curriculum alone be enough to pass the exams?
1. HOW MUCH STUDY TIME WILL I NEED TO DEVOTE TO THE CFA PROGRAM?
The CFA Program involves passing three gruelling exams, and as the CFA Institute reports in its CFA Charter factsheet, “on average, candidates spend 300+ hours of study per exam level”. In today’s day and age, time is often our biggest constraint and most precious commodity. Accordingly, you must consider whether finding these 300 or more hours of time will, in fact, be feasible.
Let’s run a little simulation. Say, you are considering registering for the Level 1 exam and you intend to spread your preparation over a period of six months, so that’s approximately 25 weeks. Let us additionally assume that you will indeed require roughly 300 hours to prepare for the exam. Dividing 300 hours by 25 weeks yields a result of 12 hours per week, which equates to one very long, intensive, 9am to 9pm study day each week.
DEVISE A REALISTIC STUDY PLAN
Ok, let’s be realistic, you will not be capable of studying effectively for 12 hours on end. Accordingly, you will need to break this down into smaller blocks. Probably planning shorter evening or early morning study sessions mid-week as well as some study time on weekends. Perhaps 3 hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening and another 3 hours each Saturday and Sunday morning? Wait, you take your kids to sports practice Sunday mornings? Then perhaps 3 hours Friday evenings instead? .. ah, that’s when you go out with friends … Well, this is where it becomes tricky.
The question which you must ask yourself is: does my current schedule contain enough leeway to accommodate the additional time load? If the answer to this one is yes, you’re in luck! For the majority of us, however, fitting those hypothetical 12 hours into our weekly schedules will mean spending less time on something else: entertainment, hobbies, work, friends, family, sleep. What you choose to cut back on will depend on your personal priorities and I am in no position to tell you how to manage those. I just want you to be aware of the need to think and plan ahead.
CONSIDER THE IMPACT ON YOUR NEAREST AND DEAREST
Additionally, I can’t stress enough how important it is to appreciate that the decision to reorganise you time schedule, will not affect you alone. Unless you live in a bubble, it will impact your ability to devote time to those around you, most importantly your family. Make sure to assess the impact that your decision will have on these relationships. Better still, involve those closest to you in the decision making process and your time availability assessment.
On a final note, bear in mind that the 300 hours cited in the CFA Charter factsheet is an average computed from survey answers supplied by past exam takers. In reality, depending on your background, especially your acumen in technical areas such as financial reporting, quantitative methods or derivatives, you may need to spend less or more time than this. Build in time buffers for unforeseen circumstances such as illness or hyper-important projects and tough deadlines at work.
Last but not least, a word of warning. Do not assume you will study on holiday and resist the temptation to take your books with you. You will just end up with a feeling of guilt at not completing your assumed holiday study plan. Worse still, you risk spoiling the holiday for yourself and everyone else. Trust me, I speak from personal experience.
2. HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE ME TO PASS ALL THREE EXAMS?
The CFA Charter factsheet states that “on average, it takes 4+ years to complete the full program“, reflecting the fact that the majority of candidates fail at least one of their exam attempts or decide to take a break during the exam-taking process.
At the time of writing this post – late July 2020, it is still possible to register for the Level 1 exam in December 2020, and if successful, attempt Level 2 in June 2021 and Level 3 in June 2022. Currently, this is the quickest root to passing all 3 exams. However, I would only recommend it if you are certain of your ability to allocate the necessary time to your study efforts.
3. HOW MUCH WILL THE CFA PROGRAM COST?
Participating in the CFA Program is no cheap undertaking, setting you back at least $2,550 (see my computations below). This however, is the optimistic, best case scenario, which assumes that you manage to take advantage of the early registration fee ahead of each exam (not so challenging) and that you pass each exam on the first attempt (very challenging).
Let us now consider the individual cost components one by one. First, you will need to pay a one-time enrolment fee of $450. This is charged when you register for the Level 1 exam for the first time.
Second, are the registration fees which entitle you to participate in the individual exams. This is a more complex issue. The fee depends on when you register for the exam. There are in fact three levels: early, standard and late. If you haven’t done so yet, I suggest you now go to the CFA Institute’s official Exam Dates, Cost, and Registration Fees page. Take some time to inspect the fee structure for yourself. For what its worth, here are my key takeaways:
LEVEL 1 EXAM IN DECEMBER 2020
- If you want to attempt the Level 1 exam in December 2020 and you register until August 19, 2020, you will be charged the standard registration fee of $1,000. Bear in mind that this is the last time when the Level 1 exam will be offered in paper form.
The exam itself takes place on December 5, 2020 and you should expect to receive the results in late January 2021. If you are successful, and want to sign up for Level 2 in the next possible slot, i.e. June 2021, the early registration option will no longer be available, and you will have until 17 February 2021 to take advantage of the standard registration fee of $1,000. If you pass Level 2, you will need to wait until June 2022 to take a shot at Level 3. This time however, the early registration fee of $700 will be available to you.
|One-time enrolment fee||$450|
|Dec 2020 Level 1 standard registration fee||$1,000|
|Jun 2021 Level 2 standard registration fee||$1,000|
|Jun 2022 Level 3 early registration fee||$700|
LEVEL 1 EXAM IN FEBRUARY 2021
- If you want to give yourself more time, and take the Level 1 exam in February 2020, you have until August 13 to take advantage of the early registration fee of $700. However, attempting the Level 1 exam in 2021 means that your earliest shot at Level 2 will be June 2022 and Level 3 in June 2023, setting you back one year when compared to the first option. This approach does, however, offer the advantage of allowing you to sign up for all three exams under the early registration fee.
|One-time enrolment fee||$450|
|Feb 2021 Level 1 early registration fee||$700|
|Jun 2022 Level 2 early registration fee||$700|
|Jun 2023 Level 3 early registration fee||$700|
It is important to stress that the above calculations assume that you manage to pass every exam on the first attempt. What is more, I have assumed that the cost of the exams will not change from its current level. Bear in mind that if you don’t succeed at passing any one of the CFA exams, you will need to sign up for it again, suffering the registration fee again.
COST OR SPEED – CONSIDER YOUR PRIORITIES
In a nutshell, the two options descrived above are $600 apart but perhaps more importantly, the first allows you to, at least in theory, complete the CFA Program one year earlier. Think about what is more important for you: keeping costs down or completing the process as early as possible.
Perhaps your employer operates a scheme for covering at least some of the costs of the CFA Program? This is especially true if you work for a financial institution, such as a bank or investment fund. Similarly, such schemes are common at consulting and advisory services companies. Talk to someone in the Learning and Development team and find out how it works and whether you qualify. What if your employer is not willing to participate in the cost of your journey towards the CFA Charter? Maybe they will, at least, grant you some paid study leave before the exam. It is always worth asking.
4. WILL THE CFA CURRICULUM ALONE BE ENOUGH TO PASS THE EXAMS?
The CFA Program is often described as a self-study qualification, implying that all of the questions which you will be asked in the exam are based on the CFA Curriculum – a lengthy set of e-books, six for every exam level. The good news is – you receive electronic access to the Curriculum as part of the exam registration fee.
THIRD-PARTY STUDY RESOURCES
If you talk to colleagues who have already registered for the CFA exams, they will often reference third-party study material. The most popular of these is a comprehensive set of study notes produced by Kaplan Schweser. What third-party providers do is dissect the curriculum and condense it into material deemed critical from an exam-point of view. If you are hard-pressed for time then third party resources may come in useful.
What about a prep course? Courses typically run for anywhere between 50 to 100 hours per exam level. Evidently, even the top of that range does not even come close to the 300 hour study time average. In other words, even the best course will not relieve you of the need to study on your own.
So, what’s the benefit of a course? If delivered well, it should help:
- organise your study time,
- maintain the necessary study discipline,
- keep you focused on the most critical areas of the Curriculum,
- gain access to a tutor capable of addressing your queries and issues.
At this point, let me encourage you to take a peek at A4 Training CFA Program course offer. We are currently offering online prep courses for the upcoming Level 1 exams in December 2020 and February 2021.
RESEARCH BEFORE YOU COMMIT
I strongly encourage you to perform your own, independent research before enrolling in a prep course. First, consider whether you actually need it. Second, take the time to research the tutor. Watch them deliver a CFA Program lecture, attend an open evening – face to face or online. Similarly, if they are offering a support hotline, send them a message to see how quickly they respond. Moreover, be sure to check whether the tutor providing the training has actual first-hand experience of the CFA Program. The fact that someone is a genuine expert in a specific subject matter is no guarantee that they will be able to successfully teach it with the goal of maximising your chances of succeeding in the CFA exams.
If there is anything else that you want to ask about the CFA Program, just ask. You can do so:
- by leaving a comment below this post and I’ll try to respond as quickly as possible, or
- by joining one of our regular CFA Program – live Q&A ZOOM meetings. This will give us the opportunity to handle your question in a live discussion format. Pick from the list of upcoming events in the sidebar.