Written by: Nik Ventouris

Last updated:

CFA Designation


Breaking down everything you need to know to get started with the CFA designation.

Cartoon man holding CFA icon

The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) credential is a prestigious designation recognized globally as a standard for measuring competence and integrity in the investment management field.

If you’re considering a career in corporate finance, especially areas related to investment analysis, portfolio management, and investment strategy, you might find the CFA charter to be an advantageous addition to your qualifications.

In this What is a CFA guide, we’ll provide a general overview of what a CFA designation is, as well as how you can go about getting started.

Recommended: For all of your CFA needs, StateRequirement recommends Kaplan’s study materials.

4.7 out of 5 starsKaplan Schweser

General Overview

A CFA Charterholder is a finance professional who has successfully completed three levels of exams as set by the CFA Institute, and has therefore demonstrated their knowledge and skill in investment analysis and portfolio management.

CFAs are recognized for their rigorous understanding of a broad range of investment topics and real-world portfolio management skills.

The Three Levels of the CFA Program

The CFA Program consists of three levels. Each level is built on the last, culminating in a comprehensive understanding of financial analysis and portfolio management.

Below we have provided a small overview of what each level entails.

Level I

Level I forms the foundation of the CFA Program. Here, candidates are introduced to a broad range of financial concepts, covering asset classes, investment tools, and ethical and professional standards. 

At this juncture, you’ll be expected to develop a firm understanding of the tools and terminology used in investment finance. You’ll also explore the ethics and professional standards that guide the finance industry. 

This level tests your knowledge and comprehension through multiple-choice questions, paving the path for the analytical tasks that follow in the subsequent levels.

For more information, we recommend having a look at our CFA Level I page.

Level II

Level II shifts focus to complex analysis and application, particularly in asset valuation. You’re expected to employ the knowledge acquired in Level I to solve analytical problems and make decisions in practical scenarios.

Here, you’ll delve deeper into understanding asset classes and learn to apply ethical and professional standards to situations commonly encountered by investment professionals.

The complexity ramps up, and you’ll find the question format changing to item-set questions, where you’ll use real-world scenarios to test your analytical skills.

For more information, we recommend having a look at our CFA Level II page.

Level III

The final stretch, Level III, places emphasis on portfolio management and wealth planning. At this level, your task will be to demonstrate how you can integrate all the knowledge that you will have gathered from the previous levels to manage wealth and optimize portfolio returns effectively.

This is the most demanding level, and will challenge you to apply your learning to practical cases. It’s here where your problem-solving skills will need to truly shine, as you will be required to navigate item-set and essay questions that simulate real-world investment scenarios.

For more information, we recommend having a look at our CFA Level III page.

All in all, the journey through the three levels of the CFA designation is both challenging and enriching.

It’s worth noting that each level builds upon the knowledge and skills acquired at the preceding level, ascending in complexity and depth. Remember, the CFA designation is a marathon, not a sprint; with determination and disciplined preparation, you should be able to navigate through all levels successfully.

Recommended Course

Interested in getting started? Have a look at Kaplan’s CFA Study Materials. 

4.7 out of 5 starsKaplan Schweser

Is the CFA Charter Right for You?

Deciding to pursue the CFA charter is a significant commitment. In order to make an informed decision, you will need to weigh out the pros and cons, and consider factors such as your:

  • Career Goals
  • Time Commitment
  • Financial Capability
  • Market Recognition

Career Goals

A CFA charter is an asset if you’re aiming for careers in investment analysis, financial research, portfolio management, or advisory roles.

We recommend evaluating how this designation will enhance your professional journey in order to ensure that it aligns with your long-term career goals.

Time Commitment

The CFA program demands a robust time commitment.

With recommended study hours nearing 300 per level, it’s undoubtedly a rigorous process. Before you get started, you should reflect on your current responsibilities and ask yourself whether you will be able to dedicate such a substantial amount of time and effort towards this qualification.

Financial Capability

Pursuing the CFA involves several costs, including enrollment fees, exam fees, and possibly additional study resources.

Even though these are generally quite small in comparison to the financial benefit that can be sowed as a result of pursuing a CFA designation, you should still ensure that you take some time to consider these expenses before starting.

Market Recognition

Navigating the world of finance often involves enhancing your qualifications. The Chartered Financial Analyst designation is a powerful credential that could open many doors. However, it requires careful consideration. Evaluate your career aspirations, the time and effort you can invest, and the financial commitment required.

If these elements align, the journey towards becoming a CFA charterholder could be an exciting step in your professional growth.

Preparing for the CFA Exams

Preparing for the CFA exams requires strategic planning and relentless commitment. Here’s a few pointers to help you prepare as effectively as possible:

  • Exam Format Acquaintance: Each CFA level follows a specific format. Make sure that you understand this beforehand in order to structure your study plan effectively
  • Study Plan Design: Design a comprehensive study plan encompassing all curriculum topics. Consistent revision and adherence to this plan are critical for retaining information
  • Resource Selection: Use the study materials provided by the CFA Institute. If needed, complement these with reputable third-party resources, such as those provided by the Kaplan Institute
  • Emphasize Practice: Use the practice questions and mock exams from the CFA Institute. Reviewing and understanding your mistakes directs you to areas needing extra focus

Embarking on your journey to become a CFA Charterholder can be a daunting task, considering the program’s rigor and breadth.

However, effective preparation, consisting of familiarizing yourself with the exam format, following a robust study plan, using the right study resources, and above all, consistent practice, can significantly ease this challenge.

It’s about creating a disciplined routine that incorporates these elements and sticking to it. Yes, it requires commitment and dedication, but remember, the result is an enriching investment in your future career in finance.

Note: You will need to satisfy certain CFA professional conduct admission criteria in order to get started.

What is a CFA FAQ

What does a CFA actually do?

A Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) primarily performs financial planning & analysis, investment management, and portfolio strategy. They are often involved in managing investment portfolios, assessing financial risks, analyzing securities, or guiding companies on investment decisions. For more information, see our What is a CFA article.

Is CFA harder than CPA?

Comparing the difficulty of the CFA and CPA exams can be subjective as it depends on one’s academic background and skills. However, the CFA is often considered more challenging due to its extensive focus on investment decision making process analysis and portfolio management, as well as due to its lower pass rates compared to the CPA exam. For more information on these courses, have a look at our How to Become a Financial Advisor page.

What is the difference between a CFA and a CPA?

While both Chartered Financial Analysts (CFAs) and Certified Public Accounts (CPAs) are respected designations in the finance industry, they have different areas of focus. A CFA focuses on investment management (e.g., equity investments, portfolio strategy, etc.). On the other hand, a CPA, or Certified Public Accountant, specializes in accounting, including auditing, tax, financial reporting, and consultancy. For more information, have a look at our CFA vs CPA article.

Is the CFA harder than the bar?

Again, difficulty is subjective. Both the CFA and the bar exam (for lawyers) are considered extremely challenging. The CFA focuses on rigorous financial analysis and investment management, and requires a significant commitment over multiple years. The bar exam tests a broad spectrum of legal knowledge and requires intense preparation but is typically completed in a shorter timeframe.

How much does the CFA cost?

CFA program costs varied. Standard registration is currently at $1,250, however early registration can also be available (depending on the time of the year) for a discount of around $300. Having said that, you will also need to factor in additional costs, such as the costs of preparation, tutors, and/or preparation materials. For more information, we recommend having a look at our How to Become a CFA guide.