What To Expect On CFA Exam Day

CFA exam hallWhen I was enrolled for CFA Level 1, I had no idea what to expect on CFA exam day. I had studied intensively for the past six months and felt somewhat confident with the material and the exam structure, but the one unknown variable was the exam conditions. In this article I describe how I experienced the exam conditions and the setting of the exam center. I will not describe contents of the exam here, that would be in violation with the CFA professional standards (which one? Just kidding!).

Pretty much all of the exam centers around the world are set up in a similar way. In my case, I took the CFA level 1 exam in Zurich/Switzerland. You should research where exactly the exam center is located beforehand. My impression was that there must have been about 1,000 candidates sitting for level one alone. In other professional designations I prepared for there were a total of 100 candidates, so a crowd this large was unexpected. I arrived about 2 hours before the actual exam and this was not too early, as there was already a large group of candidates gathered outside the locked doors. When they opened, everybody streamed inside the exam center to secure one of the lockers. I definitely recommend you also scramble for one as soon as the doors open, as you cannot take anything into the exam room. I then locked my belongings and took pencils, a pencil sharpener, an eraser, the calculator, my identification and CFA exam confirmation and my earplugs with me. That I was wearing a track jacket with pockets was valuable in this case, as there were no plastic bags allowed into the exam room. I had also wondered whether to bring drinking water, but luckily, this was provided in the exam room courtesy of CFA institute.

CFA Proctor vestAfter an ID check we were admitted into the exam room. “Exam hall” would be a more apt description, as this was just a huge hall otherwise used for trade shows where tables and chairs had been installed. Normally, there are two candidates seated next to each other on each table. Some of these tables are a little shaky, so if there’s an issue, immediately alert a CFA proctor. Proctors in yellow vests were hovering about the place to ensure adherence to CFA exam rules. In front of the room was a podium where the head proctor was seated, giving instructions, like “Do not stand around the water tables! Go back to your table and sit down!” This seemed comical at first, but CFA Institute takes exam rules extremely serious, so you better obey whatever a proctor demands of you. My advice would be to use the restroom before the exam begins, as there may be a line and about 15 minutes before the exam begins, no one will be admitted to the restrooms which left some candidates in a bind. Don’t drink too much water before the exam, otherwise you lose valuable time with bathroom visits.

Then the exam started. I hope you have solved enough practice exams to know what this part looks like. At any time, make sure you never give the impression of cheating or looking at someone else’s answer sheet. This will be noticed by the proctors and get you in hot water or even get you banned. If you need to use the bathroom during the exam, raise your hand and wait for a proctor. Tell them you want to use the restroom. They will then take your answer sheet and wait at your table until you return. My advice is to strictly obey by what the head proctor says. When he announces “Stop writing now!”, immediately lay down your pencil and sit back in your chair. This may sound funny, but you really want to avoid any issues with the proctors at any stage.

CFA exam bento boxAfter the morning exam there was a lunch break. There was a small cafeteria in my exam center, but I brought my own lunch. I was glad I did, as the cafeteria was quickly sold out. I saw some candidates scramble for food, and this must have been rather stressful during the short break. Definitely bring your own food, either sandwiches or a bento box, whatever you like. The lunch break is a good time to relax a bit. I would advise against engaging with other candidates and discussing exam questions, save this for after the exam. Just relax and get ready for the afternoon session.

The afternoon session was similar like the morning session. Strangely, about half into the exam session, the exam hall got extremely cold, perhaps because of a glitch in the AC. I put on the hood of my track jacket and continued, but saw other candidates visibly distressed by the cold. In general, modular clothing is useful, as the temperature in these large exam halls can vary.

I hope this gave you a perspective of the exam conditions. They are based on my own experience sitting for the level 1 exam, so this may vary from country to country, but you should get the general gist of it. I wish you all the best for your CFA exams!