CFA Level 3 Essay Questions: How To Self-Grade Accurately

The CFA Level 3 essay questions, also known as the constructed response section, is often a significant challenge to Level 3 candidates

Our research has also estimated that more than 93% of Level 3 candidates performed worse in the essay paper compared to the item-set paper, so improving your essay performance can really help your chances in the CFA exam. The CFA Institute also confirms that the essay scores are materially lower than item set questions scores.

But although we can find constructed response practice questions, how do we grade them properly?

Here’s a clear guide to grading CFA Level 3 essay questions accurately, drawing from our discussions with third party study prep providers and CFA Institute, which you can easily implement when doing mock exams.

Let’s take a look!

Two principles when grading CFA essay questions

self grade cfa level 3 essay questions

1. ​Be dispassionate

First and foremost, you must be dispassionate and objective.

Do not take it personally, which is hard to do when evaluating your own work and under exam prep stress.

Instead, put yourself in the position of the grader. The grader is neither your friend nor your enemy. The grader is working from an answer key (which is not released) and evaluates how many of the elements of a correct answer you included. Getting CFA Level 3 partial credit during grading is normal.

2. Guideline answers are (intentionally) overkill

Second, realize that the Guideline Answers (GA) you see for old exam questions are not the Grading Key and do not reflect what successful candidates write.

Guideline answers:

  • generally include explanatory information not needed to answer the question.
  • do not exist (in their final form) when your paper is graded – the CFA Institute has made these same disclosures.
  • are generally too long to write under exam conditions.

For time management purposes, consider 1 point to equal 1 minute of time to be spent on that essay vignette.

As a rule of thumb, a good CFA Level 3 essay answer can generally be written is less than half the time allotted for the question. The rest of the time is to think.

Two CFA Level 3 essay questions examples and how to grade your answers

idea brainstorm thoughts

What makes a good answer is one that directly answers the specific question that was asked using the relevant case facts and the CFA material. The structure of the question itself directs how to grade it.

Let’s look at this via two examples from a previous CFA Level 3 exam:

​​Question 1C: Determine the most likely effect (decrease, no change, increase) of each change on the fund’s reported Sharpe ratio. Justify each response. Note: Consider each change independently. (6 minutes)

How to grade this question:

  • Six minutes means that a total of 6 points out of the 132 points for the full exam are possible. There were two changes to comment on in this question. To score your answer, break that down as a maximum possible of 3 points related to each comment. 
  • For each comment give 1 point for the correct determination and then 2 points for a correct justification. The guideline answer will tell you if your determination is correct. It will guide you to determine the key issue to include in your justification.  
  • If your determination is wrong, the justification does not count and you get 0 of 3 points. 
  • If the determination is correct but not the justification you get 1 of 3 points.  
  • It is possible that the justification could be partially but not fully correct and you receive 2 of 3 points. That determination is beyond the scope of what we can cover here, but use your best judgement when grading your mock exams. Better yet, write a better answer next time.

Question 1D:  Discuss two weaknesses of using this benchmark to measure the performance of Matterhorn’s hedge fund. (6 points)

How to grade this question:

  • You can earn 3 points each for two reasons. The Guideline Answer includes four correct items that could be used to answer the question. 
  • Another challenge in self grading is you must know the material and directly apply it to the case specifics. For example there are several other weaknesses discussed in the readings that generically apply to question 1D, but the case facts are written such that they do not apply in this case and receive no credit.

Bonus: CFA Level 3 essay tips

teaching learning class classroom online students
  • Do not try to fool the grader. They have marked thousands of papers and such efforts will demonstrate you do not know the answer. Instead answer only what was asked and do it directly. If the command is for two weaknesses, then only the first two you give will be graded.
  • Don’t hedge. Do not waste time restating what the question was. Directly answer the question. If you do not know the answer, skip it and come back later if there is time. When you come back to the question, remember the question is solvable from the case facts and CFA material. If you are stuck, find another way to look at the issue.
  • Understanding the grading process tells you how to improve. Go back and retake some questions. Give answers that directly respond and are easier to read and follow. Cut out extraneous wording and comments.
  • It is possible that there maybe other answers not shown in the Guideline Answer that also receive credit.  There is no way to know. However if you frequently (more than 10% of the time) diverge from the essence of the Guideline Answer, you are on the wrong track.  
  • Don’t forget multiple choice questions are half the exam value. There will be 44 item set questions worth 3 points each for 132 of the 264 total points on the exam. Focus on a strong multiple choice paper to increase chances of passing.

Hope the above helps your Level 3 essay preparations! Do you have further tips to add that worked for you? Let us know in the comments below.

Meanwhile, here are some related articles of interest:


4 thoughts on “CFA Level 3 Essay Questions: How To Self-Grade Accurately”

  1. I am wondering if I can find an objective third party to grade my essay portion of the mock. Any recommendations?

    • Hi AM, I’m not aware of any party that does that. I personally just looked through my answers (hopefully they are brief, to the point in bullets) against the marking guidelines, and did not assign any mark per se and moved on. The purpose is really to see if you can do the essay bit on time (which is more important in my opinion), and then if the calculations are correct (this is objective and easy to mark for), and finally are you getting the broad strokes in your subjective answers vs. guidelines. I wouldn’t worry about specific points to award and move on!

  2. I found this article helpful especially these messages 1) guideline answers are overkill – don’t follow it; 2) to allocate half the time allowed to each question to writing the answer.

    • Glad you found it useful Pope G! I remember checking my answers on the constructed response part years ago and felt stressed, so thought we would remind candidates out there! Hope your L3 exam went well.


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