Failure is a part of the CFA exam process. According to statistics from the CFA Institute, pass rates for the exams are around 50% for all three levels, and 80% of candidates fail at least one exam on their way to the charter. As of 2022, a candidate may only take each level a maximum of six times. While very few people are in danger of reaching that cap, at some point, you will likely receive the dreaded email stating the exam you just took earned a failing score. If you are serious about completing your charter, then the best way to respond to a failing score is to dust yourself off, find out what went wrong, and come back stronger. Here are a few ways in which you can use a failing exam to your advantage.

What to do if you fail the CFA exam.

Review your exam report to find areas to improve.

The score report emailed out by the Institute shows both your result on the overall exam, and your results by topic. The overall result shows a line graph of your score in relation to the minimum passing score, as well as the 90% and 10% percentiles. The results by topic show a line chart of your score against thresholds of 50% and 70% correct answers. An overall passing score generally means most topic scores are above the 70% threshold. A passing score is unlikely if a candidate scores in the 50% to 70% range in more than two or three topics.

If you have failed the exam, review your score report thoroughly and note the topics where you scored less than 70%. If you can, go back to your performance on exam day and remember the questions you saw within those problem topics. When you begin your studies for the next exam, keep that list handy and put extra time into the problem areas. If you are retaking an exam from a prior calendar year, be sure to make an additional note of any changes to the curriculum from your last exam. Don’t go so far as to neglect the topics where your score was high last time. Remember, all correct answers have the same value, no matter the topic.

Remember what went right and wrong on exam day.

Think back to exam day and remember whatever you can about it. How confident or nervous did you feel walking into the room? What specific questions do you remember, both hard and easy? Did you answer all the questions, or did you run out of time? Did you feel stronger on some topics than on others? Anything you can remember may be helpful. Your review should go beyond the material. Factors such as your state of mind, energy level, and environment may have influenced your score. Remembering the details of a day when you were under stress is more difficult than reading a score report, but anything you can recall may help. This exercise can be useful whether you pass or fail since it teaches you about the process in ways that will help you in future CFA exam levels.

Re-evaluate your strategy.

When you initially registered for the exam, you likely mapped out a study plan. As time went on, some parts of that plan probably worked better than others. One of the most common problems of a study plan to cover all the necessary material is setting a pace that is too ambitious. Did you overschedule and overwhelm yourself? Did you plan on studying 4 hours every day, but found that you lost focus after 2? Some candidates even fall hopelessly behind and quit the process altogether. After the exam, go over every part of your study plan. What worked and what didn’t? How can you make it more effective? Can you break down your study plan into even smaller, more manageable parts than last time? You may decide your plan just needs a few tweaks, or you may decide on a completely different approach. Again, this is a helpful exercise for retaking that level and for future levels.

Don’t get discouraged.

Failing is never easy, regardless of the context. You may be tempted to see a failing exam score as a sign that you are not cut out for this and would be better off trying something else. For most charter holders, their exam failures played just as significant a role as their passes. Earning a CFA charter is a lengthy process, and you should accept that, at some point, getting knocked back is something you will very likely have to go through. The real test of your mettle is whether you can come back from that failure, learn from it, and beat it next time.