May 2021 CFA Level I Results at Historical Low, only 25% Pass

The May 2021 numbers for the level I exams have recently been made public, a result that saw only a quarter of test takers get a pass. This is an extremely low pass rate and to put this number into context, this is the lowest pass rate in the exam’s 58-year history. By looking at the historical pass rates published by CFAI, we can see that the percentage of candidates passing the exam is between 40-50%.

woman biting pencil while sitting on chair in front of computer during daytime


Given such an abnormally low pass rate, it is inevitable for the exam difficulty to be criticised however, CFA Institute were quick in addressing this providing the below official statement as reported by Bloomberg:

The degree of difficulty of the May Level I exam was consistent with previous Level I exam administrations, and this is the case whether we look back to paper-based testing or computer-based testing, which we introduced in February this year,” CFA Institute spokesman Matthew Hickerson said.

If we were to accept that difficulty was actually consistent with past exams, then it’s inevitable for the discussion turn to the preparation of the average test taker. I would like to share in this post some recent changes that I personally think could have contributed to this outcome (opinions are my own):

(1) The impact of increased test windows
Before the recent changes, Level I could only be taken twice a year, in December and June. Now exams are offered in February, March, May, July, August and November. I suspect that there might have been a lot of candidates who might have ‘lightheartedly’ registered with the idea of just retaking the exam at the next available sitting. I truly believe that candidates who have to wait another 6 months before being able to re-take the exam are more likely to approach it more seriously as compared to candidates who can just wait 1-2 months (yes I am aware that candidates are still wary of having to pay the hefty examination fee).

(2) How did the various training providers do?
Most candidates who prepare for the CFA exam end up relying on well-known training providers for their exam preparation. I was no exception. These training providers add value by guiding students in helping them study the most relevant topics. These companies are also very good at formulating high quality questions which gives candidates exposure to questions that are likely to come up on test day. A sharp drop in pass rates leads me to think that there might have been a slight disconnect between available mocks and the questions that actually came up on test day. It would be interesting to see individual training providers share their pass rates.

(3) COVID
Needless to say, the recent pandemic has affected so many people and test takers are no exception. Preparing for an exam whilst being affected directly or having had close friends and family affected by the virus adds to the unnecessary mental strain. COVID has been very unsettling and I have no doubt it has had a big impact in test takers trying to focus on passing their exams.


These are some of the points that could have accounted for only a quarter of candidates passing but, in order to get an accurate conclusion we would have to take a look at the question pool which is not an option. For those 75% of candidates who failed, don’t get disheartened about your results. Passing the CFA exams requires a good amount of preparation and exam passing technique, so my advice is to look at the areas that dragged you down and see if these constitute core topics that you should be focusing on before your next test. The best thing that you can do now is to take a step back and think rationally of improvements points so you can start preparing for the next sitting. Thanks for reading and good luck with your exams.

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