What are the top finance certifications?
If you’re considering a career as a financial analyst, or are already working as one, having a professional finance certification can significantly increase your earning power, reputation, and ability to deliver high-quality financial analysis. This guide will walk you through each of the top finance certifications and designations for professionals around the world who are looking to advance their careers as financial analysts.
List of the top finance certifications:
- Chartered Financial Analyst® (CFA®) certification
- Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification
- Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA®) designation
- Certified Financial Planner® (CFP®) designation
- Financial Risk Manager (FRM®) certification
- Financial Modeling & Valuation Analyst (FMVA)® certification
Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) certification
The CFA designation is highly sought after by finance professionals around the world. It consists of three levels and takes an average of about 4 years to complete all 3 levels. It is widely regarded as one of the top finance certifications.
The main focus of this finance certification is on portfolio management and investment analysis. The main exam topics include ethical and professional standards, quantitative methods, economics, financial reporting and analysis, corporate finance, portfolio management, equity, fixed income, derivatives, and alternative investments.
The designation typically costs between $4,000 and $5,000, depending on whether or not you have to rewrite any exams, and how early (or late) you register for your exams. The pass rate to obtain the full certification program (all 3 levels) is below 20%.
Highly regarded and internationally recognized as one of the leading financial certifications. It is a requirement for many jobs in asset management and equity research. Completing this designation demonstrates a certain level of intelligence and a solid work ethic (it’s a good filter for employers to use in finding the best employees).
This designation stands out from other finance certifications because the pass rate is so low and the amount of material covered is so vast. It may be an expensive goal that you never actually achieve. The curriculum is heavily focused on portfolio management, which may not be relevant for many career paths in corporate finance.
Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Certification
Many finance professionals choose to have an accounting designation instead of a finance certification. CPA is the gold standard in the accounting world and also plays really well in a finance career path. The CPA curriculum consists of auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts, financial accounting and reporting, and regulation.
The total cost of a CPA certification (start to finish) is about $3,000 and is typically covered by the student’s employer. The pass rate per exam varies, but for a first attempt is about 50%.
If you want a career in accounting, then this certification is essentially a “must have”. If you want a career in finance it can be a great differentiator and excellent for anyone who wants to ultimately have the CFO’s job.
CPA only has a minor focus on corporate finance and thus is more suitable just for accounting jobs. Additionally, the journey to complete the accreditation can be long.
Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA) Designation
The CAIA certification is focused on alternative investments and geared towards people in the asset management and hedge fund industries. The main topics covered in the CAIA are ethics, hedge funds, private equity, real assets, structured products, asset allocation, and risk management. CAIA is one of the top finance certifications.
The cost of the CAIA finance certification is about $3,000 (in total) and the program consists of two levels. The pass rate is about 70%.
This certification is great for niche areas of finance, such as managing alternative investments such as private equity, real assets, and hedge funds. It only takes 12-18 months on average to complete.
Since it’s so focused, it is not as versatile as broader designations or an MBA.
Certified Financial Planner (CFP) Certification
Earning a CFP designation can be a great path for anyone looking at a career in investment or wealth management. As the name implies, it’s focused on financial planning, which is the retail or high net worth segment of investment management. CFP is one of the top finance certifications.
CFP is one of the finance certifications that represents great value, as it usually only costs about $2,000 but can be higher or lower depending on how many course materials you purchase. The pass rate is about 67%.
It is good value and a great differentiator for retail banking, private banking, and wealth management careers.
This certification has a fairly narrow focus and is not very portable to other finance careers outside of wealth management.
Financial Risk Manager (FRM) Certification
The FRM certificate is designed for professionals pursuing careers as risk officers, risk analysts, and other positions in risk management. The cost of the designation is about $1,500 and takes approximately a year to complete. The pass rate is approximately 50% for the FRM.
This is a good path if you want to have a very specific career in risk management and differentiate yourself. Compared to the above finance certifications, the FRM is one of the most niche and targeted certifications. It’s very cost effective and time effective as well.
The FRM designation is newer, and thus less as globally recognized than designations have been around longer. It’s less portable to other areas of finance outside of risk management.
Financial Modeling & Valuation Analyst (FMVA)® Certification
Another popular option for corporate finance professionals is to obtain a financial modeling certification from an Institute such as CFI. Course topics range from how to build a financial model to advanced valuation techniques and sensitivity analysis, all using practical applications in Excel. The full Financial Modeling & Valuation Analyst Program (FMVA)® at CFI is a real bargain at just $497 and comes with over 20 courses and over 50 hours of video instruction. The pass rate is approximately 70% for the FMVA™ test.
The most practical analyst skills learned in this certification include:
- Financial analysis, ratios, and company performance in Excel
- How to build a financial model in Excel step-by-step
- Business valuation methods (most common techniques used in industry)
- Real estate, e-commerce, retail, and other industry-specific financial models
- Advanced applications such as mergers and acquisitions (M&A) modeling, sensitivity and scenario analysis
- Creating PPT presentations, Excel dashboards, charts, graphs, and outputs
Compare the 6 designations
Below is a comparison table of various criteria, timing, cost, duration, and focus for each of the 6 financial designations.
|Number of Levels||3||1||2||2||2||1|
|Costs||$4,000 to $5,000||$1,000 to $3,000||$3,000||$2,000||$1,500||$497|
|Exam Pass Rate||30-50%||40-50%||70%||67%||40-50%||70%|
|Content Focus||Portfolio Management, Investments||Financial Reporting, Audit||Real Assets, Alternative Investments||Financial Planning||Financial Risk Management||Financial Modeling, Valuation|
|Career Application||All Encompassing||Accounting and Finance||Asset Management||Retail and Wealth Management||Risk Management||All Encompassing|
|Study Time (hrs)||300 - 350 per exam||Varies||200 per exam||Varies||200 - 300 per exam||100 - 200 total|
|Completion Time||3-5 years||2.5 - 5||1-2 years||4 years||<1 year||<1 year|
|Work Experience||4 years||1 year||1 year||3 years||2 years||n/a|
The above table was prepared without prejudice, from publicly available information on each designation’s website.
More financial certification resources
CFI is on a mission to help you advance your career. That means providing all the tools, training, and templates you need to be a world-class financial analyst. Armed with the ability to distill large amounts of complex information into clear takeaways and recommendations, you’ll have the confidence you need to rise through the ranks.
In addition to the financial modeling and finance certifications listed above, we also have a wide range of free resources to help you develop your skills as a certified financial analyst. CFI’s most popular free resources include: