Everybody on Wall Street knows that the CFA is one of the most grueling tests on the street. The CFA designation after a person’s name bestows upon them an assumption of a fluent understanding of economics, derivatives, complex valuations and ethics.
The CFA Institute warns that each of the three levels of the exam takes about 300 hours of studying to pass, according to Bloomberg. Many who seek out the CFA designation spend years studying, taking and retaking the tests.
The test’s difficulty is why the CFA pass rate, despite ticking up slightly over the past few years, still remains below 50%.
But in recent years, a curious trend has appeared. Test takers from China have seen their pass rate rise significantly, despite the language barrier. Applicants from Asia, and especially China, have been “flooding” into the exams, overtaking interest from all other regions.
One of the reasons for this is that many people in China consider the CFA a cool-down exercise after taking the Gaokao, China’s infamous college entrance exam. A work ethic bar had already been set, and many applicants did not mind spending “much more” than 300 hours studying for the CFA.
Ranger Yu, who described the CFA test as “pleasant” after studying 18 hour days for the Gaokao, says that “diligence is key” to getting ahead in China’s financial industry. He made time to study before and after work and spent weekends in the library or in all-day class at Golden Education, one of the country’s largest CFA prep schools. Many of these schools tout pass rates of 70% or 80%, far exceeding the average global pass rate of about 45%.
Golden Education charges about $1,500 for its program and it starts with a “crash course” on financial English.
Niu Jia, a senior lecturer for the school’s CFA program said: “We have the language barrier. But there are also other challenges for Chinese test-takers. The exam relies on accounting principles and valuation models that sometimes differ than those most often taught in universities.”
The school assigns every customer an “inspector” to track their progress (and who even prepares a lunch on exam day). ZBG Education, another school that’s based on Guangzhou, offers 15 day camps with weekend classes and online courses. They claim a 70% pass rate and recommend 400 hours of studying, instead of the normal 300.
Jason Pi, a senior lecturer at ZBG said: “Most of the CFA takers are top students in China. For most of my students, a few hundred hours is really not a big commitment. It’s nothing compared with the efforts you need to make to squeeze in a top university in China.”
Nick Pollard, Asia-Pacific managing director for the CFA institute, said: “We encourage candidates to use approved prep-providers, and we provide information about how to select and research a prep-provider to meet a candidate’s learning needs on our website. CFA Institute publishes average passing rates every year, and candidates should use this information as their best guide to what is generally achievable.”