The Magic Number to Pass Level I

By Arif Irfanullah, CFA


Posted on 05-08-17 at 12:10 pm



In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asserts,“10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness”. After reading the book I began to wonder whether there was a ‘magic number’ in the context of preparing for the CFA exams.

Though most of you do not have 10,000 hours left to prepare, it is tempting to say that if you study more than x number of hours, you’ll pass. However, after many years of preparing candidates I’ve realized that there is no magic number of study hours. This is particularly true with Level I. The number of required study hours varies from candidate to candidate. Clearly a finance-major working as an investment manager will need much less time compared to a history major who has decided to sit the CFA exam.

While the relationship between hours spent studying and exam success is heavily influenced by a candidate’s background, there is another relationship that is less dependent on candidate-specific factors. This is the link between the number of practice questions attempted and success. If you have a finance background it is still very important for you to work through CFA exam-type questions. Once you start practicing you will realize that the CFA Institute has a unique way of asking questions. It is necessary that you familiarize yourself with their question style to avoid confusion on test day. Working through practice questions also helps to improve knowledge retention and improve understanding of key concepts.

This begs the question: Is there a ‘magic number’ of practice questions for passing CFA exam? By tracking the study habits and results of Level I candidates since 2008, I have observed a significant correlation between the number of practice questions attempted and success at passing the exam. While the rigor of my analysis is nowhere close to Gladwell’s, I’ve noticed that those who do more than 4,000 questions as part of their preparation typically pass. Therefore, in the context of Level I exam preparation, 4,000 appears to be the magic number. However, even this number comes with some caveats:

The questions should be of good quality. The MCQs in the CFA Program curriculum and on the CFA Institute website set the standard.

The practice questions should provide comprehensive coverage across all readings and LOs. Working though question banks which skip over parts of the curriculum is not a good idea.

Simply skimming thorough questions is not enough. You need to understand the concept behind the questions that you attempt. Getting a practice question wrong is not something you need to worry about as long as you understand and learn from your mistake.

Whenever you begin your Level I preparation you must prepare your study schedule as you will have limited time. When doing this you must consider the practice questions as part of the process of studying, and not as a separate exercise.

In terms of practice questions, the best sources are the curriculum and the assessments which you can find on the CFA Institute website. While these questions are very good, they may not be sufficient. Get more questions from your favorite prep provider so you can comfortably exceed the 4,000 mark.

The IFT Level I question bank is part of our packages or it can be bought on its own. Click here for more info.

Good luck!

Arif Irfanullah, CFA