What’s the difference between the CFA and the Actuarial Exams?

We’ve been seeing an increasing number of actuaries taking the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams, including many on the Coaching Actuaries staff! This is why Coaching Actuaries and Mike Carmody, FSA, CFA, MAAA (of StudyJAM fame) have launched AdaptPrep CFA, offering Adapt and our quality video learning experience to the CFA exams.

Adapt for CFA Level II
Adapt for CFA Level II from AdaptPrep

What is CFA?

The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) is a professional designation for investment and financial professionals offered by the CFA Institute. It is also a great option for actuaries who want to expand their role or move into investment, portfolio management, or securities related roles. Passing CFA Levels I and II also fulfills an actuary’s VEE requirements. I wrote a post previously on why actuaries would consider the CFA with more good info on why to consider it.

What’s the difference between the CFA and the Actuarial Exams?

If the exams were rivers, the actuarial exams would be deep, swift running rivers, while the CFA exams would be a wide river that gets deeper as it goes along but starts less deep. The actuarial exams go into depth on a limited set of topics and are math heavy. Often the challenge for actuarial questions is figuring out what even to do, as the problems can be tricky. The CFA exam covers 10 broad topics with much less math. The 10 topics are also independent and questions do not overlap across topics. The CFA is difficult because there is such a large amount of information to remember. However, while many actuaries take CFA exams, many CFA candidates would not want to venture the math-intensive actuarial exams (Edit: not because the CFA candidates are unable to go about it, but rather would not perceive as much benefit going through it).

Getting your CFA designation requires passing three levels (Levels I, II, and III) and getting professional experience. Getting your ASA, by comparison, requires passing P, FM, MFE, MLC, C, FAP, APC, and getting VEE credits.

Here’s a comparison between Exam FM and CFA Level I, just to give you an understanding of the differences:

Exam FM CFA Level I
# of questions 35 questions 240 questions (2 sessions of 120 questions)
Time 3 hours 6 hours (Two 3 hour sessions)
Time/Question ~5 mins per question ~1.5 minutes per question
Exam Format Multiple Choice, 5 answers, Computer-based Multiple Choice, 3 answers, Paper-based exam
Coverage 2 major topics: Interest Theory and Derivatives Markets 10 major topics: Ethics, Quantitative Methods, Economics, Financial Reporting and Analysis, Corporate Finance, Portfolio Management, Equity, Fixed Income, Derivatives, Alternative Investments
Pass Rate ~45-48% ~42-45%
Average Study Hours 150-300 hours 300 Hours
Sittings 6 times a year 2 times: June and December


While most of the preliminary actuarial exams are multiple choice (except MLC) and are consistent in format, the CFA exams change at each level:

Level I Multiple choice, single questions
Level III Item sets with a case and six multiple-choice questions
Level III Half written answer, half item sets like Level II

Have any questions about pursuing the CFA? Contact Tong Khon Teh, ASA, CFA by e-mailing support@coachingactuaries.com.

If you’re interested in preparing for the CFA exams, check out our products over at AdaptPrep CFA.

Example Level I video from Mike Carmody, FSA, CFA, MAA: