Computer-Based Level 1 CFA® Exam in 2021

CFA exam / Level 1 / CBT FROM 2021



CFA Exam is Held Worldwide


2021 Level 1 CFA Exam Finally on Computers

2021 is the first year for the level 1 CFA exam to be delivered on computers. So far, the exam has been paper-based. But now CFA Institute is finally moving to computer-based testing, which will better reflect today’s digital workplace and improve the testing process in many aspects.

IMPORTANT! There are no imminent plans to introduce computer-based testing for level 2 and level 3 candidates. The possibility of transitioning the L2 (and even L3) exam to CBT in 2023 is however investigated.


First Level 1 CFA Exam Date: February 2021

If 2021 is when computer-based testing starts, then 2020 is when paper-based testing ends for level 1 candidates. What follows is that the Dec 2020 CFA exam is the last paper-based L1 exam.

  • If you pass you can take your level 2 exam in June 2021.
  • If you fail you can retake your level 1 exam in May 2021.

From 2021, as many as 4 level 1 exams a year will be held. The first level 1 CFA exam date in 2021 is February. Then – May, August, and November:

LEVEL 1 EXAM:
4 TIMES A YEAR FROM 2021

February

May

August

November



However, even though the level 1 exam will be available 4 times per annum, you will be able to register only twice a year! That’s because CFA Institute wants to stick to the official rule of 6 months minimum between exams. So:

  • If you take your level 1 exam in February & fail you can retake in August
  • If you take your level 1 exam in May & fail you can retake in November
  • If you take your level 1 exam in August & fail you can retake in February
  • If you take your level 1 exam in November & fail you can retake in May

The registration for the February 2021 exam opens on 16 June 2020, i.e. about 8 months before the actual exam. Importantly, no significant change in CFA exam fees and scholarships is expected (new rescheduling fee of USD 250 is going to be introduced, though).


CBT for Level 1: What’s New?

Together with the transition of level 1 exam to computer-based testing, there’s a number of crucial changes to the exam itself:

LEVEL 1 CFA EXAM: PAPER-BASED vs COMPUTER-BASED

Before 2021 (CBT) When CBT is introduced in 2021
held twice a year held 4 times a year
193 test-centers around the world 400+ test-centers around the world
single exam day exam window: up to 7 days
240 multiple-choice questions in exam 180 multiple-choice questions in exam
6 hrs of testing time 4.5 hrs of testing time
whole exam day: 8.5 hrs whole exam day: 5.5 hrs
break between exam sessions: 2 hrs break between exam sessions: 30 min
printed questions + answer sheet digital questions: new question types possible
results released after 7.5 weeks faster results

For nearly 20 years, the level 1 exam was held twice a year: in June and December. Now it will be held 4 times a year: in Feb, May, Aug, and Nov. Also, many more proctored test-centers will be available globally when CBT is introduced. Moreover, beginning in 2021, there will be an exam window of up to 7 days when you’ll be able to self-schedule your exam. The exam window will depend on demand and can vary from city to city. Also, in some locations, the exam will be given twice a day. Finally, within your chosen exam window, you'll be able to reschedule your exam day. This additional service will be paid USD 250.

As far as the test goes, there will be fewer questions per exam session, 90 in the first session and 90 in the second session (for paper-based exams it was 120+120). But fewer questions means less testing time. In fact, the whole exam appointment will be shorter:

CFA EXAM DAY: DEC 2020 vs FEB 2021

Dec 2020 Level 1 Exam Day Feb 2021 Level 1 Exam Day
30 minutes of announcements 30 minutes allotted to pledge, tutorial, and survey
MORNING SESSION: 180 min SESSION 1: 135 min
BREAK: 120 min BREAK: 30 min
AFTERNOON SESSION: 180 min SESSION 2: 135 min
WHOLE EXAM DAY: 8.5 hrs WHOLE EXAM DAY: 5.5 hrs

There’s a bit of unknown that stems directly from the digital nature of the exam. To be more precise, because the exam will be taken on computers, CFA Institute will try to introduce new types of questions that would take advantage of CBT. This probably means you may expect for example some interactive charts or the like in the first year. Then, in the following years exam questions will get more and more advanced, i.e. they may include some excel or financial terminal data.

The good news is that CFA exam results are expected to be available sooner, i.e. in less than 7-8 weeks. It is not yet known when exactly but the first few CBT administrations should bring the answer. For the time being, you won’t be given your score right after taking the test but CFA Institute claims this is likely to happen after 2023.


What Stays the Same?

Even though the level 1 exam administration transforms greatly as of 2021, there are things that still remain the same. We think it’s worth highlighting, especially when you hear about so many changes:

  • level 1 curriculum stays the same, still over 3000 pages and 10 L1 topics.
  • It will still take you around 300 hrs to prepare for your level 1 exam.
  • Exam questions are still going to be multiple-choice (a-b-c) questions.
  • It’s still 1.5 min per question in your exam.
  • Topic weights will probably be the same (or similar).
  • As always, the Minimum Passing Score (MPS) will be established after each exam by a Board of Governors.

Assuming that the level 1 topic weights stay the same (or similar), a highly possible number of questions per each topic for the Feb 2021 exam is as shown in the table:

TOPIC WEIGHTS vs NO. OF QUESTIONS IN 2021

Topics Level 1 Weights No. of Questions in Exam
Ethics 15% 27
Quantitative Methods 10% 18
Economics 10% 18
Financial Reporting and Analysis 15% 27
Corporate Finance 10% 18
Portfolio Management 6% 11
Equity Investments 11% 20
Fixed Income 11% 20
Derivative Investments 6% 11
Alternative Investments 6% 10
TOTAL 100% 180 questions


FAQ on CBT for CFA Exam Level 1

Is there a June 2021 level 1 exam?

No. Starting in 2021, level 1 CFA exams will be organized 4 times a year: in February, May, August, and November. So, there will be no level 1 CFA exam in June 2021. However, level 2 and level 3 exams will be still held in June.

What does it mean to self-schedule my level 1 CFA exam?

There’s no longer one single date when candidates are told to sit their exam. Instead, there’s an exam window of up to 7 days, e.g. from Monday to Sunday, when you can take your exam. You’ll be asked to self-schedule your exam. In other words, it’s up to you to decide on which day exactly you want to take your exam. When you make up your mind, you’ll have to register for the exam.

There’s one potential problem we anticipate with the exam window, namely we think that more people will want to register for Day 6 or 7 than Day 1 or 2. Why? Because this will give them a feeling that they have more time to do mocks before the exam. We may be wrong but in our opinion it is possible that even though you set your mind – say – on Sunday, you won’t be able to register if you’re too late and you’ll be asked to choose some other day available within the exam window. It's true that you can try and reschedule within the same exam window but the reschedule service will be additionally paid USD 250.

Can I take my exam at home using my computer?

Even though from 2021 the level 1 CFA exam will be delivered on computer, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to take it at home. There will be numerous proctored test centers available globally where candidates will sit their exam.

Also note that computer-based or digital does not mean online. However, the fact that the level 1 CFA exam will be delivered on computers will affect how the test will look like. For example, it’ll be probably like a huge QBank from which the test questions will be drawn. Also, some new types of questions will appear to better reflect the day-to-day application of tested concepts to professional work and reality.

What are the new test centers for Feb 2021?

Feb 2021 level 1 CFA exam will be held in over 400 locations worldwide, which means that test centers will open in many new locations. The complete list of test centers will be available in June 2020 when registration for the Feb 2021 exam opens.

Is the computer-based level 1 CFA exam going to be more difficult?

A computer-based exam is going to be different but the testing process shouldn’t affect the difficulty of the exam substantially. For example, there will be fewer questions in the exam (a change supported by psychometric research) but there appears a possibility for new types of questions thanks to the digital environment. Crucially, it’s still 1.5 minutes per question and the scope of the exam remains unchanged (still 10 topics).

NOTE: There have been many concerns about the impact of CBT on the value of the CFA exam. However, CFA Institute believes that this transition will enhance the quality of testing and the relevance of the exam.


Will I get through my CFA exams faster?

It is said that after the transition of L1 exam to CBT candidates will be able to move through the CFA Program at the same time as before. It’s all thanks to the rule of min. 6 months between exams, it is said. However, with 4 exam windows available, the rule of 6 months can complicate the picture a bit and make you wait for your L2 exam for over a year, which was never the case:

NOTE: For the CASES below we assume that you always take and retake exams on the next available date + for the sake of clarity we factor in only 1 retake.

CASE no. 1: You register for the Feb 2021 exam.

In line with the rule of 6 months, if you pass – you’ll be waiting for your level 2 exam until June 2022 (June 2021 is too close). But if you fail, you’ll always have the August exam window available for a retake before the June 2022 level 2 exam. In both scenarios, it’s over 2 years before you pass all your CFA exams:

Take L1 in Feb 2021 PASS Take L2 in June 2022 PASS Take L3 in June 2023 PASS

Take L1 in Feb 2021 FAIL retake L1 in Aug 2021 PASS Take L2 in June 2022 PASS Take L3 in June 2023 PASS

CASE no. 2: The quickest path starts in Nov.

If you register for your L1 exam in Nov 2021 and you pass, you’re on the quickest path. It’s just a bit over 1.5 years:

Take L1 in Nov 2021 PASS Take L2 in June 2022 PASS Take L3 in June 2023 PASS

However, if you fail, the optimal path gets extended to over 2.5 years owing to the 6-month rule:

Take L1 in Nov 2021 FAIL retake L1 in May 2022 PASS Take L2 in June 2023 PASS Take L3 in June 2024 PASS

CASE no. 3: The slowest path.

If you register in August and fail, you enter the slowest path there is. The first retake available to you is in February of the next year and the nearest level 2 exam you can take is yet another year after. It all amounts to almost 3 years:

Take L1 in Aug 2021 FAIL retake L1 in Feb 2022 PASS Take L2 in June 2023 PASS Take L3 in June 2024 PASS

CASE no. 4: The optimal path?

If you’re afraid you may need to retake your level 1 exam but want your path to be relatively short, it is best to register in May. This scenario is a bit over 2 years and allows for 1 retake in November without postponing your level 2 exam:

Take L1 in May 2021 FAIL retake L1 in Nov 2021 PASS Take L2 in June 2022 PASS Take L3 in June 2023 PASS


The truth is that the whole path (from first level 1 to passed level 3) gets extended by 2-3 months compared to what was before CBT. If you always pass at the first attempt, it will range from over 1.5 years to over 2 years for you (it used to be from 1.5 to 2 years). Should you need one L1 retake, the length of path can range from over 2 years to almost 3 years (it used to be from 2 to 2.5 years).