Notes from the 2015 CFA Program Candidate Survey

The 2015 CFA Program Candidate Survey presents some interesting facts and study hints for other candidates

The CFA Institute surveys candidates each year before and after the exam to help improve the curriculum and the CFA Program candidate experience. The survey results offer an interesting look into what type of candidates are attracted to the CFA Program and the overall candidate profile.
The Institute surveyed nearly 16,500 candidates before the exam and almost 25,000 candidates after the exam. The response rate varied between 21% and 31% for each cohort.

Results of the 2015 CFA Program Candidate Survey

Candidates for the June 2015 CFA Program exam ranged from age 21 through 65 and from more than 141 international markets. The majority (75%) were employed full-time along with 15% students, 6% unemployed, 2% self-employed and 1% unemployed but not looking for work.

CFA Program Candidate Employment Status

CFA Program Candidate Employment Status


There was even a small percentage of candidates (0.05%) that reported being retired. The CFA Program exams are a challenge to which many aspire. I’ve talked to a few candidates that were already retired and hear that many people always wanted to take the exams but never felt they had the time or failed several times during their busy careers. Taking the exam while retired gives many the chance to accomplish their goal even if they don’t plan on using it professionally.
Nearly half (41%) of candidates reported employment in one of six job functions including portfolio management, research & analysis, risk management, consulting, corporate finance and accounting.
The part of the CFA Program candidate survey that I’m always most interested in seeing is the section on exam preparation. The CFA Institute surveys candidates on how long they prepared, resources used, emotions leading up to the exam and many other topic areas.
As is almost always the case, candidates reported spending just over 300 hours on average to prepare for each of the CFA Program exams. Actual averages from the 2015 candidate survey were:

  • 308 hours average across all three exams
  • 287 hours average for the Level I
  • 315 hours average for the Level II
  • 327 hours average for the Level III

Most candidates (78%) reported using the official CFA Institute curriculum and 72% reported using the Institute’s mock exam to prepare. Nearly two-thirds (61%) reported using third-party prep materials as well. Only 5% of candidates reported taking part in a local study group.
What I thought was a little disturbing was that only 51% reported doing the end-of-chapter problems in the curriculum. That means about a third of the candidates that used the official curriculum didn’t bother doing the end-of-chapter problems. What did they use then to test their retention?
I won’t get into a rant on the importance of working practice problems but high fail rates on the exams shouldn’t surprise you when so many candidates neglect some of the best resources available.
More than a quarter (28%) of respondents thought the exam questions were more difficult than they expected while 63% thought they were as difficult as expected. Most candidates (73%) felt the questions were all or mostly clearly written while 2% felt many of the questions were not clear.
The Institute asked candidates to rate the most difficult three topics on each exam.

  • On the Level I exam; Fixed Income, Ethical & Professional Standards, and Financial Reporting were claimed as the most difficult
  • Level II CFA Program candidates had trouble with Fixed Income, Derivatives and Alternative Investments
  • Level III candidates reported Derivatives, Ethical & Professional Standards, and Portfolio Management as the most difficult topics

The fact that candidates reported these topics as the most difficult should give you ideas on studying. Many of these difficult topic areas are also high-value topics on the exams so you might want to spend extra time making sure you master the material.
A third of the candidates reported taking the CFA Program exams for career advancement or development while increased competency and professional status also ranked highly as candidate motivations. The CFA Institute also asked candidates to rate their expectation for employment opportunities over the next 12 months. On a global level, there were about an equal share of candidates expecting more and less opportunities. The tool allows you to filter by country so check it out.
The results of the 2015 CFA Program candidate survey are available here. You can view the results by web-page or in the pdf version. Even if you don’t learn anything from the results, it makes for an interesting look into the candidate profile.
‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

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