Updated: July 09, 2024

CFA exam / Level 1 / CBT STRUCTURE

CFA Exam Format & Candidate Experience

What’s the CFA exam day like? What kind of experience do you need to be prepared for?

Here are some simple answers that explain the CBT level 1 CFA exam format and candidate experience told in their own words .

CFA Exam in the CBT Format

In 2021, CFA Institute introduced computer-based testing (CBT) for all levels of the CFA exam, which means that all CFA exams are now delivered on computers in many proctored test centers around the world. An online CFA exam from home is currently unavailable, though it was given in the past.

CFA exam delivered in the CBT format means:

  • fewer questions during an exam session,
  • shorter exam time which is reduced from 6 to 4.5 hours,
  • an optional break of 30 minutes between the 2 sessions.

Before CBT, CFA exams were traditional pen-and-paper tests.

Level 1 CBT CFA Exam Structure

In your computer-based level 1 CFA exam, you will find a total of 180 exam questions. Level 1 CFA exam questions are free-standing multiple-choice questions. Only one answer is correct but there’s no penalty for choosing the wrong answer. The CBT CFA exam is divided into 2 sessions, 135 minutes each, with an optional break meanwhile. You can expect 90 multiple-choice questions in each session.

In your level 1 CFA exam, you'll be tested on 10 topics: Quantitative Methods, Economics, Corporate Issuers, Financial Statement Analysis, Equity, Fixed Income, Derivatives, Alternative Investments, Portfolio Management, as well as Ethical and Professional Standards. This is the level 1 topic sequence as given in your CFA exam syllabus.

The topics you'll be tested on will be divided into 4 groups: (I) Ethics, (II) Tools, (III) Portfolio Management & Analysis, and (IV) Assets. You'll find Group I and Group II during SESSION 1 and Group III and Group IV during SESSION 2. Questions may be shuffled within a group. Once you finish the first session you won’t be able to go back. But you can go back and forth within one session.

Level 1 CFA Exam Day Structure
pledge, tutorial, and survey 30 min
SESSION 1 2 h 15 min
BREAK (optional) 30 min
SESSION 2 2 h 15 min
WHOLE EXAM DAY 5-5.5 hrs

Here's what the level 1 CFA exam structure looks like for computer-based testing:

SESSION 1 (135 min)

  • 90 multiple-choice (a-b-c) questions
  • average time per question = 1.5 min
  • Group I: Ethics questions
  • Group II: Tools (Quantitative Methods, Economics, and Financial Statement Analysis) questions

SESSION 2 (135 min)

  • 90 multiple-choice (a-b-c) questions
  • average time per question = 1.5 min
  • Group III: Portfolio Management & Analysis (Corporate Issuers and Portfolio Management) questions
  • Group IV: Assets (Equity, Fixed Income, Derivatives, and Alternative Investments) questions

TOTAL = 2 x 90 = 180 multiple-choice questions

As many as 20 out of the 180 questions are expected to be trial questions, which makes it 160 questions that will really count (still you need to answer all the questions 'cos there’s no knowing which questions are pretesting and which are for real).




Here's how your level 1 CFA exam experience may look like question-wise:

Level 1 CFA Exam Topics Topic Group Topic Weights No. of Questions
(Estimated for CBT)
Quantitative Methods II 6-9% 16
Economics II 6-9% 16
Corporate Issuers III 6-9% 12
Financial Statement Analysis II 11-14% 25
Equity IV 11-14% 20
Fixed Income IV 11-14% 20
Derivatives IV 5-8% 11
Alternative Investments IV 7-10% 13
Portfolio Management III 8-12% 14
Ethics I 15-20% 33
TOTAL / 100% 180 questions

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CFA Candidates Share Their Exam Day Experience

Here we regularly post about the CBT CFA exam experience that candidates share with us so that others can know better what to expect and avoid the mistakes that others made. Shakil wrote to us:

I took my CFA exam in November and felt fairly prepared to tackle it on test day but wanted to make sure I was familiar with the site the CBT exam was being held. I came in a couple hours early to make sure I knew where to park, where the washrooms were, and ask the very friendly test administrators some question about the testing process and materials allowed/provided for the exam - which basically aligned with the CFA Institute's policies and procedures. The first half of the exam went pretty much as expected and I was able to go to my car after to drink some water and eat a snack before heading to the washroom and back to the exam room for part two. About 40 minutes in and I realized I REALLY needed to go to the washroom which was about a 30 second walk from the exam room. The only issue was the sign out/check in procedure would take at least another 10 minutes or so out my exam since the washroom was outside the exam room. I was stuck with either going to the washroom and killing at least 15 minutes of my exam time or holding it in and being uncomfortable through the rest of it - I chose the latter. It was super distracting and probably slowed me down quite a bit through the rest of the exam. I recommend two things to all test takers. First, be mindful about how much water you drink during their break even if you do go to the washroom right before the second part as the liquids will likely take some time to go through you. And second, if you do need to step out during the exam, account for the time it'll take you to check out and back in with all the covid and security measures in place. Shakil

Sihem wrote:

Hi friends, The exam day was as stressful as when it was paper-based, I had to manage time and pass some extra time on some challenging questions. As a mother of two little daughters and a CFA exam retaker, it was a huge endeavor to prepare for the exam and to keep concentrating during the exam day. I'm confident and full of hope. Thank you Soleadea Team for your usual cooperation and support. With my best regards, Sihem

Dudu wrote:

My country does not have a test center just as yet, hence I had to travel to the neighboring country to attempt my exam. Being in a country I am not very conversant with, attempting a tricky exam did add to my stress levels. Also the format used for the exam was very different from the one used for mocks by the CFAI.

Once I had settled into the alien country atmosphere, I think the exam was rather fair. The questions were evenly distributed among the 10 topics according to their respective weights and the question practice and mocks on the Soleadea website and CFAI website definitely helped even if I was not very confident that I was adequately prepared for the exam (I started studying for the exam less than 1 month before the scheduled exam and it took me a while to go through the Soleadea content that helped me during my exam preparation). Nevertheless, the CFA exam is as difficult as I previously thought or as difficult as most websites made it out to be. If you study and do enough question practice, you should comfortably attempt the exam.

Although my question practice was lacking for most of the topics (I only had less than one week of question practice), after experiencing/surviving my first CFA exam in person, I believe I am now equipped with the exam day knowledge to confidently move forward with this Course regardless of how I did during my previous exam.

Don't hesitate to contact us if you want your story told, as well .

Or share right away by using the comments below .

Published: Jan 18, 2021

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CFA Exam Calendar & Deadlines Explained
Level 1 CFA Exam in Detail
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