Ethics Adjustment: Can I Pass With a Low Ethics Score?

Study for the CFA exam

Why do CFA® candidates ask this question so much?

Well, there are several reasons:

  1. Ethics questions are particularly difficult
  2. Ethics is not ‘common knowledge’ or a much-discussed topic in most college finance curriculums
  3. Many candidates find Ethics less appealing and more complicated to read than the rest of the topics

The CFA Institute places Ethics as one of the most critical topics in the CFA Program. Ethics is a significant part of all three CFA exam levels. The CFA Program also measures your overall total score against all categories and uses it for ranking. If your score is significantly above the Minimum Passing Score (MPS) by at least a few points, you will pass, regardless of your Ethics score.

Also, the CFA Institute suggests that the Ethics results are a deciding factor for candidates who are marginally above or below the MPS. Therefore, the CFA Institute recommends that you score as well as possible in this section as an additional safety margin. Your Ethics score can determine whether you pass or fail if your score is just over or under the MPS.

What is the CFA exam’s ‘Ethics Adjustment,’ and how does it affect my pass chances?

The CFA Institute uses a factor called the ‘ethics adjustment’ for candidates within the passing zone. The CFA Institute states: “Starting with the 1996 exams, the performance on the Ethics section became a factor in the pass/fail decision for candidates whose total scores bordered the minimum passing score. The ethics adjustment can have a positive or negative impact on these candidates’ results.”

This adjustment signifies that if you are borderline but perform well in Ethics, you can have your score bumped up to passing. Conversely, poor performance in Ethics could result in you failing the CFA exam. While the CFA Institute advises that it’s more likely the Ethics Adjustment will result in candidates passing rather than failing, it still makes sense to score as well as you can in Ethics.

The Verdict

Yes, you can pass the CFA exam even if you don’t perform well in the Ethics category. However, if you are a borderline case, Ethics will be the tiebreaker, so don’t take it lightly! Instead, do your best to master the Ethics section to maximize your chances of passing the CFA exam. We wish you the best of luck in your preparation!


If you want to optimize your chances of success in the Ethics section and the overall CFA exam, click here for a FREE trial of our CFA Level I Exam prep.

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