How Much Harder is the CFA® Exam Level III Essay Section? We Analyze Exam Data and Find Out

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By Zee

A short but powerful piece of analysis for you guys today – it’s common knowledge that the essay section in Level III of the CFA exams are tough, almost certainly tougher than the item-set section. But how much tougher? Is there any evidence-backed analysis to show this?

In our CFA Exam Insights book, we’ve provided analysis into this in the past years, and with the new results format, we can draw further conclusions on this. Read on to find out the answers to these questions:

  • How likely are you to perform worse in the essay section?
  • To what degree is the underperformance likely to be?
  • What can you do to counter this?
96% of candidates underperform in the CFA exam L3 essay section
In our research for CFA Exam Insights, we analysed thousands of actual Level III candidate results across multiple years. Although the results format did not report an actual result, we were able to determine a reasonable estimate, and was able to compare the essay scores of each Level III candidate with their corresponding item-set score.

The results showed that based on candidates’ results, the essay section was overwhelmingly difficult. Only 4% of Level III candidates score higher in their essay sections compared to their item-set sections.

So we know most of us will score less points in the essay section of the L3 exam. But how severe is the average underperformance?

On average, candidates scored ~20% less points in the essay section

The recent exams introduced a new format to the results, and with it, new information to be gleaned.

The chart above illustrates the approximate 10th, 50th and 90th percentiles of candidates’ scores in the 2017 and 2018 exam, split by essay and item-set sections. From reading the chart, we learn two important points:

  • As with previous years’ data, candidates consistently scored more points in the item-set section compared to the essay section.
  • The degree of underperformance is, on average, about 20%. This means if a candidate scored 70% on their item-set section, on average they would have scored just 56% in the corresponding essay section.

Here’s what you can do to fight back

Essay questions are difficult to practice on. Besides taking a longer time to complete, they also require subjective grading and scoring. The following articles can help you ensure you stay on top of your CFA exam essay skills:

Some providers also offer great essay workshops if you want to take advantage of some professional help:

Thoughts? Questions? Let us know in the comments below!

Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan


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