6 Ways NOT to Lose Points on the CFA L3 Exam

This post comes from excerpts of our video(s) as part of our Level 3 class, complete with customized grading and detailed walkthroughs of dozens of problem sets that lay out how to structure and approach the most commonly seen types of problems.

Basic Test Taking Strategies for CFA Level 3

CFA Level 3 Candidates make a lot of the same mistakes. But the biggest reason people fail is being unprepared for the morning section.

As we've written about before the morning section is essentially it's own exam. It requires a different way of preparing than what got you through Level 1 and Level 2. You can drastically increase your chances of passing by internalizing this. 

(If you haven't seen the morning format before, start with this post on understanding how it is structured)

Let's start with the obvious sh*T.

1. Read the F**king question

I wish I was joking with this one, but it's so, so common that candidates don't answer the actual question that they're given.

In L1 and L2, you could deduce the question’s true meaning from the responses presented.  On level three you actually really need to understand what it is that they're asking you or you may find yourself frustrated when you spent time honing a perfect response only to realize from the model answer that they wanted something else entirely (leaving you with pretty much zero points). 

Here's a tip that is worth it's weight in gold...

Whenever you see a long passage SKIP TO THE QUESTIONS FIRST.

Doing this will prime your brain to see the specific details you'll need, and you can more easily pick things out of these long passages that are relevant.

2. Write the F**king answer

Once you have considered the question, really consider your response.  You should only write what you REALLY want to say. And this response should be as succinct as possible, i.e. write only the information you need to answer the question (and sometimes this will be only a single sentence).

Your answers can be bullets or sentence fragments, that's fine. PRACTICE short cuts!  The more practice exams you write, the more you will develop an intuition for the kinds of responses that get full marks.

The other thing you need to do here is pay attention to the command words in the question (usually bolded). If you are asked to justify your answer you need to:

  • Define the concept 
  • Talk about where specifically it shows up in the passage
  • Use specific details 
  • Link those details to why that justifies your initial response

Justify CFA L3 Response

Finally, and this is super basic, write your response in the designated space given--whether in the template or otherwise.

3. Watch the time & don't leave anything blank

The CFA L3 exam has this real time crunch component in the morning section. That bleeds into points #1/2 above where it becomes really tempting to look at the passage, scan it quickly jump into writing something because you think "I have to get this down, I have to move to the next one."

Resist the temptation.

Spend a breath or two understanding what it is you want to say, and then write a succinct response, giving only the information that you really need to answer that specific question. 

If you see a problem you know will be problematic for you. It's OK to skip it. You don't get credit for tackling the exam in order. But leave time to get back to it. The worst thing you can do for your odds of passing the exam is to leave an entire problem blank.

Finally, you should know that the morning part of the exam is worth 180 points. 1 point per minute. A rough guideline right is that each point might be worth a separate argument or a separate bullet point. These should be no more than a sentence.

4. Don't write more than you need to. But don't write too little either

If you give yourself too much rope, you might just hang yourself.

A question asking you to justify your answer with one reason really means you should only list one reason. 

Common CFA L3 mistakes

It's crazy common for CFA L3 Candidates to list a dozen reasons to justify their response when the question asks for one. Let me clear the air--you didn't just make it easier to earn that one point. Graders will read the first bullet and ignore the rest (at best). At worst they'll see incorrect bullets and laser in on those. 

It's also really common to see Candidates write long sentences and true short response essays to questions. That's unnecessary. Practice writing in bullets and skipping extraneous "intro" sentences. Those seconds saved add up.

Finally there is a difference between a two point question and a six point one. Which do you think warrants more explanation?

5. Make it easy for the CFA exam graders

The Charterholders grading your exam are not mind readers. They can't infer what you meant, even if they had time to.

The onus is on you to show the CFA L3 graders that you know the material.

So if you're engaged in a calculation problem, you should spell out what each number is. If you don't and the numbers are right, you'll be fine. If they're wrong, you lost a chance at partial credit:

 Showing your work - CFA Level 3
Basically, make it easy to follow what you're trying to do. 

One easy way to mess this up is to not write legibly. Imagine grading the same problem thousands of times. Do you think they'll be lenient with you if they can't easily understand what it is you're trying to say? 

They probably cringe when they see an exam with barely legible handwriting.

CFA Level 3 Grader

6. Practice a full length Level 3 exam

Obvious right? Yes it's helpful to get your timing down and learn where you can save time and where you need to spend a little additional time.

But it's also about building up stamina. Three hours for half the test is always a lot. But when you're WRITING full answers it's even harder.

So practice under real conditions so you can perform well on exam day. I can personally tell you I've talked with at least a dozen Candidates who have suffered through hand cramps on exam day because they hadn't written that much in years. 

Summary of how NOT to F**k up on the CFA morning exam

  • Understand what is being asked (both on individual questions and on the exam as a whole)
  • Answer the question and only the question
  • Manage your time. Skip hard problems for the end. Don't leave anything blank.
  • Don't write too much. Use bullets. Only give as many justifications as you are asked for
  • Make it easy for the graders. They can't read your mind
  • PRACTICE under exam-like conditions