It's not unusual for people to ask whether it's possible to take the CFA exams even if mathematics isn't their strong point. This has always struck me as a slightly odd question. Wanting to pass the CFA exams without math is like wanting to prepare an Indian meal without spice - whether or not it is possible, what’s the point?
It IS completely possible to pass the CFA exams without a finance background. Given enough determination, you probably could pass the CFA exams even when you’re not great at math. You can’t avoid it, but you might be able to get your CFA charter.
But would that be a good idea?
How math-focused are the three CFA levels?
The first two CFA exam levels are significantly quantitative - there is literally a topic area called Quantitative Methods. This topic area covers subjects like time value of money, discounted cash flow, and lots of statistical concepts, probability distributions and hypothesis testing.
Although Quantitative Methods are only 10% of the curriculum, the concepts introduced there are also tested in other topic areas. Almost all topic areas, with the exception of Ethics, will involve calculation. For this reason, Quantitative Methods is an especially important topic area (we recommend this as the first topic area to study to our readers.)
CFA Level 3 is indeed more focused on the qualitative aspects of investment management, but you still can’t escape needing some quantitative knowledge. Even the ‘essay’ part often involves calculation: for example, as you evaluate different investment approaches and rates of return.
You can see samples of CFA exam questions here: Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3.
So to be clear, you won’t be able to complete any level of the CFA exams without having to do a lot of calculation and quantitative analysis.
But looking beyond the CFA charter - if you’re considering the CFA qualification, chances are you are considering an analytical career path, which likely involves some math or math-like thinking.
CFA charter ➔ Finance career ➔ Quantitative skills
The CFA charter is rooted in investment management. Unless you’re taking the CFA exam purely for bragging rights, you’re likely to want to pursue a career in investment management, or at least a finance related role.
For example, the top career paths for CFA charterholders include asset management, accounting and finance, IB/M&A and wealth management.
It’s hard to imagine how you would continue to avoid using quantitative skills in these career paths.
So if you’re hoping to pass the CFA exams while avoiding math as much as possible, maybe there is a deeper question to be answered: whether a career in finance is the right choice for you to begin with.
You can’t pass the CFA exams without any math. But the CFA Program might help you get better at it.
Completing the CFA charter depends on how bad your math is, and how willing you are to work hard to improve it.
I would suggest that instead of thinking:
“I’m bad at math, will I be able to take the CFA exams?
“I would like to improve my math, perhaps the CFA exams can help me do that."
If your goal is to obtain the CFA charter with the hope of somehow avoiding math, don’t waste your time, and do have a think about why are you considering the CFA charter in the first place.
But if you see the CFA Program as a chance to learn and improve your quantitative knowledge, then I would recommend exploring further, and perhaps taking the plunge and registering for CFA Level 1.
Zee Tan has been a CFA charterholder since 2011. He runs 300Hours, a free online help hub for CFA candidates.
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