CFA Level 1: All You Need to Know About the Finance World’s Biggest Exam

CFA level 1:  all you need to know about the finance world’s biggest exam

Bill Gross has it.  So does Howard Marks.  Sure, you need to pass all three levels to get your CFA charter.  But with an average annual turnout of over 150,000 candidates, passing CFA Level 1 is your first big task.

Every year on LinkedIn, there’s a flurry of self-congratulating posts.  They go something like this: “Thank you for all the help you’ve given me over this past year!  I’m pleased to announce I’ve passed CFA Level 1!”  Or… “I finally did it!  I’m a new CFA Charterholder,” accompanied by a snapshot of the congratulatory letter.

There’s a reason for this.  It’s common knowledge that the Chartered Financial Analyst examinations are finance’s toughest.  And sooner or later, it’ll be mandatory to have the charter to run money.  But in countries such as Hong Kong, Egypt, Netherlands, and Spain, just passing CFA Level 1 confers a world of benefits on the exam passer.

Let’s go a little further by laying out exactly what CFA Level 1 is.

What is CFA Level 1?

CFA Level 1 is what we could pejoratively call the “American” exam.  It’s a mile wide and an inch deep.  (Unlike Level 2, which is more “European”: very deep on fewer subject areas.)  Level 1 is a computer-based, 180 question multiple-choice examination given over two 135-minute sessions.  That means you have 1.5 minutes to answer each question.

CFA Level 1 Examination
Session 1 (135 minutes) Session 2 (135 minutes)
Topic Weight Topic Weight
Ethics & Professional Standards 15-20% Corporate Finance 8-12%
Quantitative Methods 8-12% Equity 10-12%
Economics 8-12% Fixed Income 10-12%
Financial Reporting and Analysis 13-17% Derivatives 5-8%
Alternative Investments 5-8%
Portfolio Management 5-8%

What are the fees for CFA Level 1?

The fees for CFA Level 1 are as follows:

Fee Cost
Enrollment Fee USD 450.00
Early Registration Fee USD 700.00
Standard Registration Fee USD 1,000.00
Rescheduling fee (in same exam window) USD 25.00

This isn’t a cheap undertaking, so it’s important to pass each exam the first time.

What do CFA charterholders do?

The most typical jobs for CFA charterholders are as follows:

  • Portfolio management
  • Research
  • Consulting
  • Risk analysis and risk management
  • Investment strategy
  • Relationship management and wealth management
  • Credit analysis
  • Chief investment officer
  • Trading
  • Accounting and auditing
  • Financial planning

The typical investment management sectors among charterholders:

  • Asset management
  • Private wealth management
  • Commercial banking
  • Investment banking
  • Insurance
  • Consulting
  • Asset ownership
  • Brokerage
  • Fintech

What is a CFA charterholder’s salary?

The range of salaries – and total compensation – is wide.  According to the CFA Institute, the average annual salary of a charterholder, as of 2019, is USD 178,600.  A charterholder’s annual average total compensation is USD 316,000.

Is CFA Level 1 difficult?

In a word: yes.  It’s a significant challenge even if you have a business degree.  From 1960 to 2020, the average pass rate for CFA Level 1 is 42%.

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