A Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) is a level of certification which can be achieved in the financial industry. Holders of the charter all have a certain proven set of skills and must adhere to a strict moral code. The CFA is offered through the CFA Institute, and has been the standard in the financial industry for a long time. Over the years, the CFA program has emerged as a standard for measuring the professional competence of financial analysts. More specifically, the CFA is a big career boost for people working as investment managers, buy-side traders, sell-side traders, financial advisors, economists, etc. Better still, if you are working for a financial company where the CFA is part of the company program, you can even get your employer to sponsor your CFA costs.
In order to achieve a CFA charter, candidates must have worked for four years in the financial industry, complete the CFA Institute program, and pass three 6-hour long exams. Overall, the process from start to finish (beyond the time worked in the financial industry) can take approximately four years, assuming passage on the first attempt of the exams. When you register for an exam (which opens approximately 11 months before the test date), the Institute will send you a detailed curriculum for that exam.
The Level 1 exam focuses on knowledge and comprehension of basic tools in the financial industry. The exam lasts for 6 hours and contains 240 questions, which test an individual's knowledge in the areas of financial analysis and investment tools. While the practical section of the exam covers the basics of the financial industry, the ethics section is based on knowledge of the ethical standards for a charterholder. Don't be fooled by this exam being just knowledge and comprehension though. The passing percentage for this exam is only in the thirties; so rigorous preparation, using both the curriculum provided and probably a test prep service, will be required.
Focusing on asset valuation, the level two exam takes things just a little deeper, and requires more substantial analysis of financial situations and their inputs and outputs. The duration of the second level exam is 6 hours and it is divided into 20 item sets, each of which contain 6 multiple choice questions. As far as the ethical section on level two, test-takers will be asked to apply ethical standards in a much larger sense. No longer will it be good enough to know just the standards, one should know how to apply these in professional situations as well.
The final exam focuses on overall portfolio management, and the application of the ethical standards therein. As opposed to the other two exams, Level 3 has six essay type questions. This exam has the highest pass rate, as almost half those who sit for it pass it. However, don't be mislead by the numbers as the earlier two exams have already weeded out lesser candidates.
The majority of CFA exams are simply applications of skills and knowledge, and the best way to prepare for such a test is through taking regular practice exams. Once you are through with your study material, start taking model tests right away. By doing so, your mind will get used to answering questions and applying knowledge in the format in which you will be tested. At the same time, you will also learn some tricks about managing time and handling pressure. With regular practice and a concrete plan, nothing can stop you from cracking the CFA exams.