Why I Think CFA Level III is the Toughest CFA Exam of Them All

Want to pass your exams? Start preparing the right way.
My email is and I'm preparing for


By Sophie

Despite passing Level III some years ago, the feeling of helplessness and pure terror that I’d experience is something I won’t forget. There you go CFA exams, you’ve scarred me for life!

While I agree with Zee that Level II is a big step up from Level I in terms of sheer volume of content,  however in my opinion that is not comparable to the extra complications that Level III brings with the essay format. Let me explain why.

What is the difference between going from Level I to II, and from Level II to III?

Level II is Level I on steroids. They are both multiple choice questions, but Level II has more words, yet half the amount of questions vs. Level I. The big difference being Level II has 4x more content to learn compared to Level I. The approach there is more of the Level I approach – more hours with doing tons of practice papers.

Going from Level II to Level III on the other hand is less fun. A somewhat more unpredictable essay format is introduced which generates subjectivity in your studiesthis is what makes it tougher, because it is difficult to measure progress precisely. 

What’s the big deal about Level III essays?

The problems manifests itself in 3 main ways:

1) The perceived ease of studying when you’re glancing over words, instead of looking through calculations to make sure you understand the formula that you know you have to know for Level II. The passive reader in you will glaze over the endless paragraphs of texts, making your study session less efficient as you may have to reread them later when you hit the practice exams and realised that you don’t know anything.

2) Unlike Level I and II, where you can measure your progress objectively as you progress through all the practice papers, doing Level III practice papers is a double-edged sword. Your answers almost always won’t exactly match the ‘model answers’ given, and it is tough to take a fair judgment in marking them yourself as you’d want to ensure that it is a fair representative of the exams marking guidance. Too harsh, and you’ll discourage and stress yourself unnecessarily; too lenient, you may give yourself a false sense of confidence, only to crumble in the actual exam. Not having an objective way to mark yourself means that you have less certainty of measuring progress, which isn’t great as you need to measure it to improve it.

3) As a result of the 2nd issue above, quite a few candidates choose not to do the practice sessions of essay papers under time-based conditions as well, instead focusing on making sure they understand the answer style that is required and learning how to apply the principles learned in Level III syllabus without over stressing themselves about scores. That’s what I did too. However, that lack of practice of time management may also manifest itself during the exams, like it did to me.

So how do we best tackle Level III then?

The CFA designation is certainly not easy, but I hope I have some good news, and light at the end of the tunnel for you guys. While I don’t have a formula to pass Level III for sure, but you’ve already taken the first step of improving your chances to pass by acknowledging the upcoming issues above. There’s a few more things you can do to better equip yourself:

  1. Read the Level III commandments – it’s FREE and are solid advice accumulated from our seniors who have gone through the exams and became Charterholders. 
  2. Get the latest CFA Exam Insights to understand how previous Level III candidates have performed, what topics they did well in and not, and learn golden nuggets of wisdom that would stand you in good stead when your time comes.
  3. Do tons of practice exams (despite what I said above), preferably under timed conditions, but don’t keep scores nor worry about the specific numbers too much. It’s more important to practice, revise and stay on time and learn how to answer essay format questions succinctly without fluff.  
  4. Make sure you’re strong on your item set paper –  odds are it is the paper that is going to pull up your average.

Are you facing the CFA Level III exam soon? If you have any thoughts or questions, drop them in the comments!


Leave a Comment

Get our free guides: subscribers are 16% more likely to pass.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.