Becoming a Chartered Financial Analyst: A Complete Guide

Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) is one of the most prestigious and sought-after designations in the financial services industry. The CFA program covers a broad range of topics including financial analysis, valuation, portfolio management, economics, and ethics. Obtaining the CFA charter demonstrates mastery of a rigorous curriculum and a commitment to the highest ethical standards. This complete guide provides an overview of the CFA program, its curriculum and exams, and the benefits of becoming a chartered financial analyst.

What is a Chartered Financial Analyst?

A chartered financial analyst is a professional credential awarded by the CFA Institute to candidates that pass all three levels of the CFA exam. The CFA program aims to develop the critical knowledge, skills, and ethical standards required for investment analysis and portfolio management.

To become a CFA charterholder, candidates must have an undergraduate degree, four years of qualified professional work experience in investment decision making, and pass all three six-hour exams. The CFA curriculum covers a broad range of topics including financial reporting, analysis, economics, corporate finance, equities, fixed income, derivatives, alternative investments, quantitative methods, portfolio management, and wealth planning.

CFA charterholders demonstrate expertise in securities analysis and portfolio management, uphold the CFA Institute Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct, and commit to ongoing continuing education to stay current in the field.

Benefits of Becoming a CFA Charterholder

There are many benefits associated with becoming a chartered financial analyst:

  • Prestige: The CFA charter is globally recognized and valued. Charterholders enjoy instant credibility and respect from clients, employers, and colleagues.
  • Career advancement: Becoming a CFA charterholder can fast track your career and open up new opportunities. Many senior roles explicitly require the CFA designation.
  • Knowledge: The rigorous CFA curriculum covers the full breadth of investment management. Charterholders gain in-depth knowledge highly valued in the industry.
  • Higher earning potential: CFA charterholders command greater compensation compared to non-charterholder peers and see an average increase in pay after obtaining the credential.
  • Client trust: The CFA Institute’s ethical requirements inspire confidence and trust from investors, clients, and employers.
  • Networking: CFA candidates and charterholders become part of a valuable global network of over 170,000 professionals.
  • Professional standing: Like CPAs in accounting, the CFA charter confers professional standing and demonstrates a commitment to excellence.

CFA Exam Curriculum and Format

The CFA Program curriculum provides a comprehensive framework of knowledge for investment management and financial analysis. There are three levels of exams required to earn the CFA charter. Each level focuses on distinct topics:

Level I

Level I introduces broad foundational knowledge and the basics of investment tools. Key topics include:

  • Ethical and professional standards
  • Quantitative methods
  • Economics
  • Financial reporting and analysis
  • Corporate finance
  • Equity investments
  • Fixed income
  • Derivatives
  • Alternative investments
  • Portfolio management

The Level I exam is administered in June and December each year. It consists of 240 multiple choice questions divided into two 3-hour sessions. Candidates must have at least four years of qualified work experience to register for Level I.

Level II

Level II expands on basic knowledge to apply analysis in asset valuation. Key topics include:

  • Ethical and professional standards
  • Quantitative methods
  • Economics
  • Financial reporting and analysis
  • Corporate finance
  • Equity investments
  • Fixed income
  • Derivatives
  • Alternative investments

The Level II exam is administered in June each year. It consists of 120 multiple choice questions and 8 sets of item set questions divided into two 3-hour sessions. Candidates must pass Level I to register for Level II.

Level III

Level III tests candidates on portfolio management and wealth planning skills. Key topics include:

  • Ethical and professional standards
  • Portfolio management
  • Wealth planning
  • Behavorial finance
  • Alternative investments

The Level III exam is administered in June each year. It consists of 100-150 multiple choice questions and 3 sets of item set questions in the 3-hour morning session. The 3-hour afternoon section has 8-10 short answer constructed response questions. Candidates must pass Level II to register for Level III.

Each level of the exam covers important concepts investment professionals need to know. Candidates should thoroughly understand the curriculum and expect an integrative exam with questions that blend multiple topic areas.

CFA Exam Preparation and Pass Rates

The CFA exams have earned a reputation for being very challenging with pass rates ranging from 40-60% on average. Success requires extensive preparation and commitment. Here are some tips for preparing for the CFA exams:

  • Start early: Give yourself at least 6 months to prepare and begin studying well ahead of the exam date. The earlier you start, the more time you have to cover the material.
  • Study consistently: Set aside regular study hours each week and stick to a routine. Studying consistently over time is key to retaining the knowledge.
  • Utilize exam prep providers: Leverage prep course providers like Kaplan Schweser for structured curriculum, study materials, mock exams and more.
  • Take practice exams: Practice extensively with mock exams from prep providers to simulate the real thing and identify weak areas.
  • Focus on critical concepts: Allocate more time to more heavily weighted topics and big picture concepts versus granular details.
  • Join a study group: Studying with other candidates can help share knowledge and keep you accountable.

With diligent preparation, passing the CFA exams is certainly achievable for motivated candidates. The key is devoting the time and focus needed to thoroughly learn and apply the curriculum.

Maintaining the CFA Charter

Earning the CFA charter requires significant effort, but the work doesn’t stop after passing the exams. To maintain the charter, CFA holders must meet ongoing requirements.

Professional Conduct

CFA charterholders must annually reaffirm commitment to and attest compliance with the CFA Institute Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct. Ethical breaches may result in disciplinary action.

Continuing Education (CE)

Charterholders must complete a minimum of 20 hours of continuing education (CE) activities annually including 2 hours specifically related to Standards, Ethics, and Regulations (SER). CE keeps knowledge current and benefits clients.

CFA Program Annual Fees

There is an annual CFA Program membership fee determined by location. Fees range from $275-$350 and are due annually by 31 December.

Letting the CFA charter lapse due to not meeting requirements negatively impacts professional standing. Charterholders must fulfill all obligations annually to retain the designation.

Career Paths for CFA Charterholders

The CFA opens doors to a wide variety of sought-after roles. Typical positions for charterholders include:

  • Portfolio Manager: Manage investment portfolios aiming to maximize returns based on specific objectives. Develop and execute asset allocation strategies.
  • Research Analyst: Analyze investment opportunities through financial modeling, valuation, forecasting, and qualitative assessments. Publish recommendations through equity research reports.
  • Wealth Manager: Advise high net worth and institutional clients on investment strategies, portfolio construction, and wealth planning. Act as a trusted advisor.
  • Corporate Financial Analyst: Support financing, budgeting, forecasting and investment decisions. Participate in mergers & acquisitions, fundraising, and investor relations activities.
  • Risk Manager: Measure and mitigate risk through policies, controls, hedging, and modeling. Monitor compliance with internal and regulatory rules.
  • Quantitative Analyst: Apply mathematical and statistical models to quantitative problems in finance. Develop algorithms, analytics tools, and models.

A CFA opens up possibilities across the investment management field. The versatile skillset allows charterholders to take on leadership roles in various functions.

Is Becoming a CFA Charterholder Worth It?

Pursuing the CFA charter requires significant effort and commitment, so is it truly worth it? For the right candidates, the payoff can certainly justify the demanding path. Those that leverage the designation to advance their careers find the value well worth the endeavor. Key advantages like enhanced knowledge, prestige, compensation, and job mobility make the charter worth attaining for many finance professionals. Candidates should weigh the pros and cons relative to their career goals and circumstances when deciding if becoming a CFA charterholder is the right choice.


The CFA charter signals expertise, ethics, and excellence. For investment professionals, becoming a Chartered Financial Analyst can elevate careers to new heights. Earning the credential requires extensive knowledge, skills, and perseverance. Yet driven candidates that rise to meet the challenge position themselves to become future finance leaders. The CFA opens doors to coveted opportunities in portfolio management, analysis, and beyond. Professionals aiming for the most respected designation in finance have a long but rewarding path to follow on the journey to becoming a Chartered Financial Analyst.

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