2021 CFA Exam Changes: 10 Lesser-Known Updates You Should Know

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2021 is the year of change for CFA exams.

You probably already know that not just Level 1, but all CFA exams are transitioning to computer-based testing (CBT), with higher testing frequency available and a reduced test duration.

However, CFA Institute tends to announce other smaller – yet important – changes via its website or by emailing candidates directly.

So here’s a list of 10 recent CFA exam changes which you ought to be aware of.

1) Online Proctored Testing (OPT) option may be available to some cancelled February 2021 candidates

2021 CFA Exam Changes: 10 Lesser-Known Updates You Should Know 1

On 12th Jan 2021, CFA Institute sent an email to existing February 2021 candidates mentioning that it is exploring a limited-capacity online proctored testing (OPT) option!

OPT is not available for candidates in mainland China due to government regulations.

Additional details, including testing environment, as well as computer system requirements will be announced on 2 February 2021.

Big news indeed.

2) February 2021 candidates are now allowed free deferral to any 2021 exams

In the same email on 12th Jan 2021, CFA Institute also allowed candidates a free deferral option to any 2021 exams given the current pandemic situation.

More details on deferral option will be made available on 2 February 2021.

3) Twice-impacted February 2021 candidates are also entitled a refund

Any February 2021 candidate whose exams have been cancelled twice due to COVID are entitled to a refund. An example would be if a Level 1 candidate first registered for December 2020 and postponed to February 2021, and subsequently cancelled again due to the pandemic.

CFA Institute will contact impacted candidates for a refund option after the February testing window.

4) CFA Level 1 CBT exam format: 10 topics now split across 2 sessions

cfa exam format topic weight summary

Level 1 CBT now feature two sessions of 2 hours and 15 minutes each, with 90 multiple-choice questions per session.

However, the crucial change from paper-based exams is that the 10 Level 1 topics are now split across the two sessions:

  • The first session covers 4 topics: Ethics, Quant Methods, Economics, and Financial Reporting and Analysis.
  • The second session covers the remaining 6 topics: Corporate Finance, Equity, Fixed Income, Derivatives, Alternative Investments and Portfolio Management

For more information, check out the latest:

5) CFA Level 2 CBT exam format: 44 multiple-choice questions per session

With 25% of reduction in testing time to 2 hours and 15 minutes per session for CBT, CFA Institute has confirmed that there will be 44 question per session, making 88 questions in total for CFA Level 2. Each question is worth 3 points.

This means that there is slightly more time per question with Level 2 CBT (3 minutes 4 seconds per question) , compared to the previous paper-based version (3 minutes per question).

Odd that CFA Institute didn’t make it 45 questions per session to make same time per question just like the paper-based version…

Unlike Level 1 CBT, it seems that all 10 topics for Level 2 are tested in both sessions as there is no mention of different topics tested per session.

6) CFA Level 3 CBT exam format: Constructed-response (essay) session now has some multiple-choice questions (!)

OK sure, you may already know that there is 2 sessions of 2 hours and 15 minutes each for Level 3 CBT.

However, one surprising news – to me at least – is the announcement that the first Level 3 session with constructed-response questions now includes some multiple choices too.

7) Key exam deadlines for new one-off exam cycles in 2021 announced

CFA Exam Dates Deadlines and Schedule For Your Calendar

Just in case you weren’t aware, a few new one-off CFA exam cycles were announced for all Levels on 7th December 2020:

  • Level 1: March (postponed candidates only) and July 2021
  • Level 2: Nov 2021
  • Level 3: Aug 2021

CFA Institute has just announced the key deadlines and when registration opens for these new exam cycles.

Refer to our CFA exam dates article for more info or use add our free CFA calendar to yours to stay up to date.

8) New exam cycles may change your CFA registration plans

With the new one-off exam cycles introduced (see #4), there may be important repercussions to your CFA journey due to the “6 months rule” between exams: mainly that it is now possible to proceed faster through the CFA program assuming consecutive passes. And this only applies in 2021.

cfa registration journey planner

For more information on this, check out our CFA Journey Planner article for the full picture, to understand the timeline of what happens if you pass or fail at each level.

9) There is now a maximum of 6 attempts per Level

In addition to CFA candidates only allowed to take a maximum of 2 exams a year (i.e. the ‘6 month rule’ mentioned in previous point #8), there is also now a maximum limit of 6 attempts per CFA level, according to the latest CFA Exam eligibility policy for computer-based exams.

I suppose this really shouldn’t be an issue for most candidates, since if you were to attempt a CFA level 6 times, it may be a sign that the CFA Program isn’t really for you.

10) When would computer-based CFA exam results be released?

When will CFA exam results be released

CFA Institute announced that CFA Level 1 and Level 2’s CBT results would be released around 60 days after the exams, whilst Level 3’s CBT results would be available within 90 days from the exams.

While this is the same statement as per paper-based exams, historically CFA Institute have announced the CFA exam results earlier:

  • 52 days (or approx 7.5 weeks) after exams for Level 1 and Level 2
  • 66 days after exams for Level 3

So hopefully CFA Institute are just being conservative here and would maintain or beat the paper-based exams results announcement schedule.

Stay up-to-date on when the latest CFA exam results would be announced →

Hope you have found this useful. Were there any CFA exam changes you learned about from the list above? Or do you have more to add? Leave a comment below!


16 thoughts on “2021 CFA Exam Changes: 10 Lesser-Known Updates You Should Know”

  1. What does it mean by ‘6 attempts’? Registrations or sittings? If I am registered but do not sit is that considered an attempt?

      • Thank you Zee. Where / How you got that confirmation? In the website there’s nothing about it and I did not receive any confirmation from Institute about this. To be honest I don’t get it why would that be an attempt as I always heard (so I cannot say it is true as I do not know any case myself) that some people when no prepared missed the exam to be able to claim they passed on first attempt. So if that is the case, those claims cannot be stated.

        • On the subject of claiming ‘I passed on my first attempt’, none of that is officially endorsed by CFA Institute so people can interpret those however they want, usually to maximize boasting advantage.

          It would make sense for CFA Institute to penalize a no-show, since no-shows are something they are keen to reduce. If not showing up for an exam means it’s ‘not counted’, then you’ll see a rise in no-shows. But in any case we will check with CFA Institute to double-check this.

          The only thing that no-shows are not counted in is the pass rates – they neither count as a pass nor a fail, but are excluded from the calculations.

        • Hi Andre, CFA Institute have responded to this:

          To clarify, the candidate needs to see content for it to be an attempt. So, no shows do not count.

          Hope that helps.

          • Thank you very much for the follow up Zee.

            That makes sense to me as reasons for refund are narrow and with the 6 attempts it would penalise the candidate twice (by having to re-register and with less one attempt). It is also consistent with what I mentioned, not existing a “framework” for those claims of passing on the first attempt.

            But I think it should be more clearly stated . As we had a different interpretation many more will have it for sure. But thank you again! I appreciate your support to all of us in this journey!

  2. Hi I am currently registered for the march exam. However, in my country, the number of cases is again on the rise. Is there a possibility to defer to May exam?
    Please respond to my question.
    Thanks a lot

    • Hi Khanna, I think you will need to prepare and assume the exam is going as planned in March. Let CFA Institute and your test center worry about whether it is safe to conduct the exam as they will follow the latest safety guideline. If the cases rises too much by then, CFA Institute or your test center will be in touch with your options. Your job is now to focus on your last preparation and assume it will happen.

      I don’t think there are options to defer to May now as it is already full and closed to new registration.

      Good luck!

  3. maximum of 6 attempts per Level is ridiculous. I heard many candidates took 8-10 time for level 3 esp non-english speaker.

  4. I’ve registered for level 1 in February. Will I be allowed to defer to March? Or is the option to defer allowed only to May, August and November?

    • Hi Nikita, our understanding is that March21 is by-invitation only, as it is reserved for deferred Dec/Feb candidates. If you’re eligible for March deferral, the March option should have appeared if you log in to your CFA Institute account.

      Otherwise, you can defer to May, July (this is also a new one-off slot for 2021 only), Aug or November.

  5. Hello, my CFA level 1 exam cancelled twice (Jun 2020 and Dec 2020). Then I scheduled my exam on Feb 2021. But in our country, we’re currently faced with quarantine situation. So, I just wondering is there any possibilities that I can refund my exam before facing my Feb 2020 exam.

    Please respond to my questions.
    Thank you.

    • Hi Manduul, your question is a good one, and I had to check with CFA Institute directly as their policy is not crystal clear.

      I’ve some good news though, CFA Institute said that: “If a candidate was cancelled in June and December, he qualified for a refund or a deferral. Choosing a deferral to Feb would forfeit his eligibility for a refund. HOWEVER, if his February exam is actually cancelled and Prometric cannot reschedule him, he would once again be eligible for a refund”.

      Hope this helps reassure!


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