How Not to Run Out of Time During the CFA Level I Exam

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As we’ve advised many times before, practice exams are key to ensuring a pass for the CFA exams. Practice exams give you, well, practice, in answering questions similar to the actual exam, and also informs you if you’re lacking in a particular topic. This applies to all 3 levels, but each level is unique in its own way.

In CFA Level I, time will most likely be your enemy. And in this article, I will teach you how to fight it.

“Time” is your arch-nemesis in CFA Level I


The Level I exam is all about time.

If you’ve gone through a few fully-timed practice exams, I’m sure you’ll know what I’m talking about. The Level I exam has 240 questions in total, to be done in 6 hours (360 minutes). This gives you 90 seconds per question, from reading the question to marking it in your answer sheet.

That’s not a lot of time.

This makes ‘Time’ the key villain in Level I. (In Level II it’s ‘Breadth’ and Level III, ‘Essay’). If time has never been an issue for you, I’d keep tabs all the same. If you’ve always been struggling for time, you need to be strict with yourself and grab as many easy points as you can early.

Your Counterattack: Grab Points Using the 3-Sweep Approach

Know yourself and how you answer questions. Learn how to anticipate and estimate how long you’ll spend on a question when you first read it. You should be able size a question up and see if you’d be able to answer it quickly, or you’ll need a few minutes to do calculations, or rack your brains.

I’d recommend approaching the exam using three ‘sweeps’, covering the three kinds of questions in the exam:

Sweep 1: The Easy Ones

For your first sweep, you should go through all the questions in a quick-fire round. I normally go through them in order, as I believe that I may confuse myself and leave out questions if I jump around. With a very short deadline per question, assess each question and answer the ‘easy’ ones. For the ones that you know you a lot more time to either think or calculate, simply mark them out and move on. You should try to answer at least two-thirds of the questions in the first sweep.

Sweep 2: The Ones Playing Hard-to-Get

For your next sweep, attack the questions that you know you’d need some time to work on. Check yourself on time at this point, and based on the time left decide how much time should you roughly spend on each question. Try and address all the questions left, unless you literally haven’t a clue.

Sweep 3: The Ones Where You Have No Chance

The final sweep. This should be a quick round, if anything. Hopefully after the first two sweeps there isn’t many questions left, but if they are, they’re either:

  1. Questions you just don’t know anything about
  2. Questions that you couldn’t do in time in Sweep #2 (e.g. too complex, or you suspect you’re doing it wrong)

Look at each of these questions, and pick an answer. If you want to have another go at trying to get an answer, be quick about it. But make sure you choose one, and choose quickly.

Should I Make Time to Double-Check My Answers?

In my opinion, I strongly believe in making enough time to check your answers. This has always been my strategy for all my CFA exams, and it has served me well. Two main reasons for this:

  • It prioritizes finishing early: Finishing all answers early is key to putting your worries about not finishing to rest, then your brain can calm down and you’d be in a better state of mind to check for mistakes.
  • Your brain gets a second go: Leaving a question and rereading it later also helps get a fresh look into it and you’ll be able to spot earlier mistakes much more easily than if you were checking as you go.

Have you decided on an exam approach, or have one that works really well for you? Share it with us here!

Reminder: Get Your Free L1 Practice Tests for Level I


If you haven’t done so, remember to make the most of our free CFA Level I Practice Tests (Test 1 and Test 2). Containing 60 questions each, after taking the online test, you’ll be sent your score, a personalised results report and detailed answers of all questions.

This is free practice. You know how important practice is to CFA success – make sure you take it before your exam day. 

​You can take the online practice test directly by clicking on the buttons below.


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Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan


4 thoughts on “How Not to Run Out of Time During the CFA Level I Exam”

  1. That’s exactly how I work. The one thing I would stress though: Make sure that if you skip a question, you also skip a space on the answer sheet or you will be doing a lot of erasing. I hate erasing on Scantron sheets because I’m never sure I did a good enough job erasing the wrong answer; if the computer thinks you put in two answers, it’s automatically wrong. I once made this mistake back in middle school and learnt my lesson. Also, instead of going back and forth between question booklet and answer sheet, I find it more efficient to mark the answers on the question booklet first and then input the answers in bunches (e.g. every time I’m done with a page of questions). This also helps to make sure I skip a space if necessary.

    • I actually use a rather risky tactic – I only fill in the answers in the Scantron sheet in Sweep 2. That way I minimize the risk of mixing up question numbers, but I HAVE to finish Sweep 2. The batch-by-batch approach works well too!

  2. That’s exactly my point – a clearer mind the second time. You’re not worrying about whether you’re going to complete, so you’re in a calmer state of mind to check!

  3. For me, going back and checking answers is a necessity. On each of the four sessions I have taken so far (L1 morning/afternoon, L2 morning/afternoon) I have gone back and rechecked answers, and changed at least 4-8 answers per session. You have a clearer mind the second time you approach the problem. When doing mocks, keep track of which ones you go back and change, and I think you’ll find that you switch from wrong to right more often than you switch from right to wrong.


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