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Computer-Based Testing: Fit for the Modern World

Why Is the CFA Exam Shifting to Computer-Based Testing?

Our highest priority is to uphold the value and rigor of the CFA® charter. Modernizing how the exam is administered protects the relevance and value of the CFA charter for the long term. Beginning in 2021, CFA Institute will transition to Computer-Based Testing (CBT) for all three levels of the CFA Program. Advances that come with this evolution include greater flexibility, faster results, an improved candidate experience, and an exam that reflects today’s digital workplace.

For several years, we have thoughtfully prepared to implement computer-based testing to more effectively evaluate candidates’ knowledge and competencies. 


The investment and the education worlds are both evolving rapidly. For CFA Institute to remain the gold standard in investment credentialing it is critical that we evolve too. As the industry deploys more sophisticated tools and techniques, it is imperative that candidates demonstrate not only their understanding of financial theories, but that they can appropriately apply that knowledge to add value in the workplace. A paper-based exam does not lend itself nearly as well to demonstrating the kind of mastery that employers and practitioners are looking for in new charterholders.

The testing industry as a whole has shifted to computer-based testing over the past 25 years. This technological progression addresses how global testing and credentialing practices have changed and recognizes that the investment profession operates in a digital world. Further, this change addresses the learning and exam preferences of today’s candidates. Offering the exams and learning experience in a digital environment allows CFA Institute to better model the tasks and work experience of today’s investment professionals. While a few may lament the loss of pencils and paper, the world has moved on and CFA Institute is moving with it.

Flexibility and Convenience

Just as finance is evolving, the education industry is rapidly evolving and thus candidate needs and expectations are changing as well. For the CFA Program to stay competitive it is imperative that we provide a learning and testing experience that is more flexible and adaptable to candidates’ lives. This is one reason why we have created a compelling digital learning experience for exam preparation. And, it is a reason we believe it is important to offer our exam within multiple testing windows per year. This allows CFA Institute to provide smaller exam settings, and more exam dates, with more locations, enabling more flexible scheduling options in an increasingly overscheduled world.


Technological advances in computer-based testing enable us to meet the growing global testing demands of candidates and will improve their accessibility and experience as well as offering a wider selection of test venues, including many in smaller communities.

Our challenge is to strike a balance between evolving the candidate experience and maintaining the intensity and the rigor of the learning experience and the examination. We believe we have attained that balance to ensure the CFA charter will remain intensely meaningful for the relative few who are able to successfully complete the program.

Does a shorter exam with fewer questions mean an easier one?

CFA Institute invested in independent psychometric research which clearly showed that a shorter exam would not affect our ability to reliably determine who has demonstrated the required competency to pass the exam, applying the same standards of difficulty as we have in the past.

Just as a thermometer does not provide more accurate readings with longer measurements, a longer exam does not actually provide more insight into a candidate’s knowledge or mastery of the material.

Each additional exam question provides incrementally less information about candidate knowledge and ability. For example, once we have asked about 100-120 questions at Level I, we already have an accurate assessment of whether the candidate should pass or not. And, by the time we have asked 160-180 questions we are in an excellent position to gauge performance. Increasing the length of the exam from there adds little. This is quite similar to a stock portfolio. If you had a well-diversified portfolio of 180 stocks, increasing the size of the portfolio to 240 stocks would do little to further reduce diversifiable risk. Each additional exam question provides incrementally less information about candidate knowledge and ability. 

Will employing computer-based testing lead to higher pass rates?

We use robust statistical analysis and processes to ensure that 'the bar' remains unchanged. In other words, we employ techniques that are well established in the psychometric world to ensure that the exam is not easier because it is shorter or administered in a computer-based setting.

Will offering more frequent testing times per year increase speed to completion of all three levels?

Once fully mapped out, the absolute fastest path through the program is about the same as before. If the timing is perfect and the candidate passes each level on the first attempt, it can be just slightly faster, but by no more than three months and then only for those that start Level I in February or August.

Candidates must sit out one administration before taking another attempt if they fail. Thus, there will always be six months between attempts when there is a failed result. When one passes Level II, the rule about not being able to sign up for adjacent testing windows means that they must wait 9 months before attempting Level III (Levels II and III alternate quarter to quarter).

Did CFA Institute shorten the work experience requirement?

We did change the expression of the professional work experience requirement from years to hours. Our members voted to adjust the work experience requirement from four years to an equivalent 4,000 hours, completed in a minimum of 36 months. By changing the unit of measurement for work experience, but not the amount of experience required, we aimed to promote greater inclusion of professionals who meet the high standards of membership and address shifts in the global investment management workforce—namely, an increase in flexible schedules, part-time professionals, and remote work arrangements.

Learn more about how the CFA exam is transitioning to computer-based testing