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The CFA charter is considered the gold standard for those seeking to work in finance. But it has long been regarded as notoriously challenging – now, it’s become more accessible and appealing to a broader range of applicants
It’s long been known as the hardest qualification in finance. A rewarding, if somewhat daunting undertaking. But 60 years since candidates sat the first exams, the CFA Program has changed.
Mirroring transformations in the financial sector and society at large, the master’s-comparable qualification has become more accessible and appealing to a broader range of people than might have previously considered it – or even considered a career in finance.
“We’re showing young people that finance careers play their part [in tackling wider social issues],” says Peter Watkins, senior director for university relations at CFA Institute, the global association of investment professionals that provides the qualification. “Sustainable projects are financed – they need capital, they need people who manage it. So it’s all connected. Young people have a need to embark on a career that’s making a positive impact.”
The finance industry has become central to global efforts to shift to a low carbon economy. As well as better reflecting this new financial landscape, CFA Institute has evolved the CFA Program and its structure to make it more accessible and in tune with the way today’s candidates learn – as well as helping them to be better prepared for the workplace.
To appreciate these changes – and dispel some of the notorious myths around the qualification – it’s worth taking stock of why the CFA Program has long been regarded as the gold standard for those seeking to work in finance.
“Because of the global recognition of the CFA charter, it gives students global mobility,” says Watkins. “This is a qualification that’s recognised everywhere. The CFA charter has this global benchmark standard.” There are more than 190,000 qualified CFAs – or charterholders as they are technically known – in more than 160 markets worldwide.
Perhaps surprisingly, the course has very few prerequisites and you don’t need a degree in finance to embark on it. For example, Justin Kew, a CFA charterholder currently working for an asset management firm in London, studied engineering at university and was working as an engineer before job circumstances prompted a career change. “I had no idea what finance was at first but I soon became intrigued,” he says. “You realise it touches every industry.”
A firm grasp of business English and maths (especially algebra) are necessary, but you could have a degree in music production and still get on to the course. “About 7% of our candidates don’t have bachelor’s degrees, and have not been to university,” says Rob Langrick, general manager of the CFA Program.
“We’re seeing more people from non-finance degrees coming on to the CFA Program, particularly from Stem, as well as engineering and other subject areas,” says Watkins. “Employers find that very attractive. Having a combination of a particular [specialist] background with finance is appealing. So it’s broadening out”.
When the CFA Program first started in 1963, the minimum age to sit the exam was 30. Over the past six decades, and especially more recently, CFA Institute has removed certain barriers to entering the programme. It has become more accessible, which has cultivated a more diverse demographic to join.
Although there is still some work to be done to address gender disparities, stats show that the tide is beginning to turn. In 2012, the split between male and female students stood at 72% male compared with 28% female globally. This number now stands at 61% male compared with 39% female. This has been encouraged through progressive changes, including a women’s scholarship that was introduced in 2017. “There are some criteria that need to be cleared, but we have a generous portion of scholarships that are available for female applicants,” says Langrick.
As for the CFA Program’s tough reputation, it isn’t simply a case of being thrown in at the deep end. Prep communities are easily accessed online. These groups, such as the subreddit space on popular community network platform Reddit, give prospective students a chance to connect with others who are more experienced. There, they can ask questions and develop a better understanding of the course, what’s required of them and what it actually entails, in order to prepare themselves before embarking on it. Once studying for the CFA Program, these groups can also be used for guidance and clarity.
Similarly, pre-programme support is available in the university sector. “We have a very large network of affiliated universities that have aligned content with the CFA Program,” says Watkins. “So students at those institutions are covering similar topics to the CFA Program.”
From this year, CFA Institute has significantly increased the number of practice questions and mock exams that candidates can access, in response to surveys that found candidates felt they would benefit from these.
Another significant change is a reduction in the volume of study materials at Level I. “Our brand promise is that, on average, it takes 300 hours to get through [each level],” explains Langrick. “So it’s a sizable commitment – it’s not for everybody, it is a tough exam, and that’s why it’s valued by employers.”
Watkins stresses how important it is that students give the qualification enough time. “It correlates very strongly with starting early and giving it the time it needs,” he says. “It’s not something that you can do as a crash course. It’s more of a marathon than a sprint.”
Kew agrees. “You need to have a plan. You cannot cram everything into two weeks and it’s best to take it in bitesize chunks. But the most important thing is to have fun along the way. You cannot lock yourself away for four or five months or you will go mad.”
The reduction in the volume of study materials forms part of the biggest overhaul since the qualification’s inception. Another key development is that CFA Institute has allowed students to start registering and getting ready for the exam in the penultimate year of a bachelor’s degree. “We’ve increased that flexibility now and students can start to take the exam within two years of completing their degree,” says Watkins. “I think it’s going to be very popular because it’s a period of life when people are really focused. This is their study time.”
As the CFA Program has evolved, CFA Institute has introduced modules that offer the chance to learn practical skills. This is in direct response to demand, as savvy students recognise the benefit of having practical experience, which can be applied directly when they enter the workplace.
Similarly, CFA Institute is creating the option to specialise in private markets, due to the growth in private equity over the last 20 years.
The onward march of AI has also been on the agenda, with AI modules featuring in the CFA Program since the middle of last decade. One of the new modules introduced this year incorporates data science, AI and Python programming. “[AI] is going to keep growing as a portion of the programme, because the reality is that finance has become a technology job,” says Langrick. “We’re going to see more and more technology woven into the curriculum.”
If you’re interested in finding out more about the CFA Program, and how you can enrol, visit cfainstitute.org/en/programs

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