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2021 CFA Program Level III Exam – Overview and Major Changes

By Arif Irfanullah, CFA

Posted on 08-10-20 at 6:22 pm

CFA is transitioning to computer-based testing instead of paper-based exams for all levels from 2021. Here is a summary of the major changes for the 2021 exams.

Study Sessions & Weights

Portfolio Management weight has been reduced since 2019 from 40-55% to 35-40%, and the weights for Fixed Income and Equity have increased. There are no changes in Study Sessions’ weights relative to 2020. Notice that the weights are given in ranges so that CFA Institute is not committing to a specified number of questions. For example, Fixed Income has a range of 15 – 20%. This means that Fixed Income questions can be 15%, 20%, or an average of 18% of the total questions. You should expect to see more questions on Fixed Income and Equity compared to earlier years.

Weight (%)
Ethical and Professional Standards Study Sessions 1&2


Economics Study Session 4   5-10
Fixed Income Study Sessions 7&8 15–20
Equity Investments Study Sessions 9&10 10-15
Derivatives Study Session 6   5–10
Alternative Investments Study Session 11   5–10
Portfolio Management

and Wealth Planning

Study Sessions 3, 5, 12-16 35–40

Exam Comparison: Paper-based vs. Computer-based exams

  Paper-based exams Computer-based exams
Scheduling One exam day/time offered Self-schedule your exam within the exam window

(up to a 10-day period).

Locations Proctored exam in 192 locations globally Proctored exam in 400+ locations globally, to include all locations currently offered in June.
Exam Length Two 3-hour sessions with break in between Approximately two 2.25 hour sessions.

Optional break in between sessions.

The exam appointment will include:

  • 30 minutes allotted to pledge, tutorial, and survey.
  • 135 minutes for session 1; 30 minutes for optional break; 135 minutes for session 2.
  • 3 minutes per question
  • Total testing time 4.5 hours
  • Total appointment time 5.5 hours

The December 2020 exam is the last paper-based exam; If you are re-writing the Level III exam in 2021, you will give a computer-based exam instead of a paper-based exam. Starting in 2021, all CFA exams will be computer-based. Let’s understand the basic differences.

In terms of Scheduling, there is one exam day, and a specific time is allotted for the exam in the paper-based exam. Whereas, in the CBT, you self-schedule your exam within a window that can be up to 10 days. The specific duration will vary from location-to-location. You need to schedule based on the window you have and your commitments/preferences. Testing will be in-person only, not remotely similar to current single-day testing.

In terms of location, the paper-based exam is offered in 192 locations globally. For the computer-based exam, the number of locations has more than doubled. Now the CFA exam will be offered in 400+ locations globally.

In terms of exam-length, the paper-based exam has two sessions, each of 3-hours’ duration with a break in between. The exam-length is 6 hours. For the CBT, there will be two sessions, each of two and a quarter hours. Now the testing time will be four and a half hours.

The total exam time includes – 30 minutes for the pledge (candidate’s pledge requiring your signature), a tutorial on how to take the exam, and a survey. Two sessions of 135 minutes each. A 30 minutes optional break in-between the sessions. We highly recommend that you take this break to recharge, take something to eat and drink, then get back to the second session of 135 minutes (21/4 hours). The total appointment time is thus 5.5 hours, including the testing time of 4.5 hours and two breaks of 30 minutes each. Candidates will have the same average time per question that they had under paper-based testing.

Exam Cycle Options

How often can a candidate take the exam? The good news is that the LIII candidate will be offered two exam windows instead of just one. You can take the exam in May or November.

When to start studying? This depends on what you know already, the time you have until the exam, and your learning ability. Generally, for an average candidate, a good time to start studying is November for the May exam and May for the November exam. This allows you sufficient time to learn the different concepts of the LIII curriculum. This study schedule is for a candidate who has a basic knowledge of the concepts learned in earlier levels. If that is not the case, more preparation time is needed based on each candidate’s understanding ability.

Exam Date When to start studying
May November
November May

Time Between Exams

Beginning in 2021, every candidate who does not pass his/her exam will have to wait a minimum of six months to retake it. Candidates will not be able to register for adjacent windows. For example, if a Level II candidate passes the exam during the August 2021 administration, he will not be able to sit for Level III until the May 2022 administration.

The following diagram given by the CFA Institute shows the path that can be taken to receive your charter.

If you gave the Level II exam in December 2020 and passed the exam, you can sit for the Level III exam in May 2021. If you gave the LIII exam in December 2020 and could not pass, the next exam option is May 2021. Along with passing the Level III exam, you also have to complete the 4 years of the requisite work experience to earn your CFA charter. Notice the time taken to receive your charter is much shorter than what it was before.

CBT Exam Format

Level III will use the same item set and essay format that has been used in the past.

In 2019 the CFA Institute began introducing some item sets with four multiple-choice questions (MCQs) per set instead of just the standardized six MCQs per vignette. The mixed length of four and six-question item sets will continue for 2021, and the total number of item sets on the exam may vary slightly.

Regarding calculations in the essay exam, candidates are not required to show their work. A correct numerical value will receive full credit. If a candidate wants to show the steps, it is possible to use the equation editor that is part of the exam software. This allows you to build a formula as part of a response. You can alternatively choose to include a simple written description of the steps used in a calculation. If you choose to show your workings, it will be evaluated as part of the response and can result in possible partial credit in cases where the answer is not entirely correct.

What you Get from the CFA Institute to Study and Prepare

When you sign-up for the Level III exam, you get:

  • Curriculum – you will be tested on the curriculum provided by the CFAI. Many candidates find the Level III curriculum complex as it brings together concepts learned in the earlier levels. That is why they rely on prep providers like IFT to help them prepare for the exam.
  • Interactive Study Planner – We suggest that you look at the planner; if you find it helpful, use it.
  • LIII Study sessions Outlines – Review the study session outlines.
  • Exam Calendar – Check the calendar for exam-related dates and deadlines.
  • Practice questions on Study Sessions – The CFA Institute provides candidates with a practice questions dashboard with questions/answers for each study session. We strongly recommend that once you complete a study session, work through these questions.
  • Mock Exam – Close to the exam, you get access to the Mock Exam. Do this exam to help you prepare for the actual exam.
  • Gamification options and flashcards – These are entirely up to you to use.

IFT Material comprises of over 80 hours of video, including detailed lectures and High-Yield lectures. IFT Study Notes, Practice Questions, and Mock Exams will get you exam ready.

For finding out about the IFT material,  Watch this video!

Best of Luck in your Studies!

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