8 Easily Avoidable Mistakes That Candidates Make At Every CFA Exam

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This article is originally from 300Hours.com. You can read the full article here.

As the exam approaches, we hope you're finishing up the last of your planned practice exams! Our CFA Analysis shows that passing candidates average one full practice exam more than failing candidates, so make sure you squeeze in as many as you can. If you need any extra practice exams, check out our Reviews and Offers section for discounts.

But how you actually perform on the day itself also depends on factors that have little to do with CFA knowledge. Here are 8 mistakes that many CFA candidates make every exam, that you can easily avoid (now that you know them!).

Make sure you read through every one of them. They all can change the outcome of your exam results significantly.

Mistake #1: Not eating well approaching the day
Result: An irritable stomach during exam day...or worse

On CFA day, you'll be in exams for a total of 6 hours. You want to spend those hours worrying about derivatives and financial statements, rather than wondering what the hell you ate yesterday that's giving you this crazy pain in your gut. 

On the days approaching the exam, play it safe. Everyone is used to different foods, so make sure you know what is safe for you to eat and stick to it. And in general, stay away from overly spicy or oily foods, or booze of any kind. Save those for after the exam!

If you want to go even further and stock up on brain food, you can find out more here:

Mistake #2: Not getting enough sleep
Result: Lack of concentration during the exam

It has been proven, time and again, that making sure you're fully rested is key to ensuring your brain is in tip-top condition for the exam. It may be difficult to make the judgement call: which is more important, getting an extra 2 hours sleep, or squeezing in one more practice exam? 

The day before exam day, it will be more worth it to sleep on time instead of delaying to cram in a bit more. Really.

You can read about our articles on sleep here:

Mistake #3: Not arriving early
Result: Undue stress rushing to the exam hall, being left out of the start of the exam

As we've spoken about before here and here, the exam will start earlier than the stated time. The proctors need time to check all calculators and show all candidates to their seats. So please, please show up at your exam hall early!

A common reason for being late is underestimating how packed the route to the exam centre will be. If you're not staying at a hotel near the exam centre, make sure that you factor in enough time for you to get there. The rush will be at least on par with work rush hour if you're at a large exam centre.

Our studies show that about 5% of candidates (that's 1 out of 20 of you!) that actually show up on the day will still miss the start of the exam. Don't let that be you.

Mistake #4: Not bringing what is needed to the exam
Result: Having to borrow, or make do without crucial CFA tools

In our chats with exam proctors, there was one thing they all agreed on: the number one forgotten item by candidates was their own calculators. By a LONG shot. Don't go to a war and forget your rifle.

However, the most painful stories to hear are stories of lost exam tickets or passports - you can't even borrow these. Here is the definitive list of what you need to bring to the exam. Make sure you tick every single one of them!


  • Wooden pencils - sharpened
  • Eraser
  • TWO identical calculators
  • Exam ticket
  • International passport


  • Small sharpener 
  • Watch
  • Jacket
  • Bottle of water
  • Ear plugs
  • Gum (why?)

For the full list and details on what to bring, read this article:

Mistake #5: Bringing TOO many things to the exam
Result: Having to find a secure place to keep your stuff, or being told off by the proctor

Apart from what we've detailed, in general everything else will not be allowed into the exam hall. Some exam centres are more lenient than others (they may allow you to keep your wallet on the floor, for example), but our advice is to leave nothing to chance. Make sure you only bring what you have to to avoid sticky situations where you suddenly have to find a place to hide your wallet or brand new iPhone.

There may not be an organised way to stash bags outside the exam hall. In general I find bringing a padlock that can go through all my backpack's zips work well to give me some assurance of safety. Instead of bringing my wallet, I simply bring a little bit of emergency cash, and an old phone.

Below is a list of items allowed into the exam hall for reference (click to enlarge).

Mistake #6: Not figuring out lunch
Result: Long queues to buy lunch, or even missing lunch

Lunch queues, as expected when cramming a large amount of people into the same place, can be record-breaking. In the larger exam centres, it can be quite common for queues at food stalls to be too long to actually get any food before you have to return to your exam hall for your PM session.

I find the best way is to bring my own lunch. I always buy two prepacked sandwiches the day before the exam: one for my breakfast, and one to bring to the exam. Prepacked is important: they're usually well packed enough to not be soggy by the time lunch time rolls around. If you try and pack them yourself, you may end up with a wet mess when you're trying to eat it.

Mistake #7: Writing on anything else apart from your question papers
Result: PCP disciplinary action, which will probably result in your exam being invalidated

You're not allowed to bring in scratch paper for the exam, nor will you be provided any. But the question paper is fair game - feel free to scribble as much as you want on it.

But do not write on anything else apart from the question and answer papers. Do not write on the exam ticket, passport, table, calculator, eraser, or even yourself.

You may think this is being a bit paranoid, and you may be right. But if a proctor decides that you're looking a bit fishy, that's it. They'll write you up, and you most likely will get your exam invalidated, and maybe get a few years' exam ban in the process.

Don't. Write. Stuff. Where. You're. Not. Supposed. To.

Mistake #8: Discussing questions after the exam
Result: PCP disciplinary action, which will probably result in your exam being invalidated

Besides writing in places where they're not supposed to, the other common reason candidates get their exams invalidated is discussing questions after the exam.

Don't do this, be it verbally after the exam, or (even worse) online. The CFA Institute monitors online activity closely before and after the exam, and if there is evidence of exam question discussions on social media or on forums, there will be a swift response.

To learn more about PCP and how devastating it can be to your CFA journey, read this article:


Comments (15)

Dec 5, 2013

Taking level 1 on Saturday. Thanks for all of the info!

Dec 5, 2013

Thank for the info but are two IDENTICAL calculators a strict requirements? Can I bring one type for fast calculation and another one for bond pricing?

@ all: Brace ourselves and may the curve be with us! GL everyone!

"He never chooses an opinion, he just wears whatever happens to be in style"
(Leo Tolstoy - War and Peace)

Dec 5, 2013

Taking Level 1 in 2 days! Thank you for posting this! +SB for you.

Dec 5, 2013

Taking Level 1 in 2 days! Thank you for posting this! +SB for you.

I guess we'll know how you did if you change your username. Best of luck!

Dec 5, 2013

Thank you. I hope it will be CFACandidateLevel2 in 3.5 weeks.

Dec 5, 2013

I'd also add exercise during the days before the exam, it can really help you focus and reduce stress

Dec 5, 2013

Yeah, good luck everyone. I'm sitting in June and have already started a little and am (for the first time) dreading this spring.

Edit: You should have two IDENTICAL calculators? That doesn't make sense to me, as I'd bring an HP 12c and then a regular Ti-82 (or w/e). They have to be "identical"?

Dec 5, 2013

I just checked on Wikipedia (so take it for what you will) and apparently they only accept the HP 12c and the TI BA II Plus. So no TI 8x. As far as having to have two of the same one, I could not find mention.

Dec 5, 2013

Yeah, good luck everyone. I'm sitting in June and have already started a little and am (for the first time) dreading this spring.

Edit: You should have two IDENTICAL calculators? That doesn't make sense to me, as I'd bring an HP 12c and then a regular Ti-82 (or w/e). They have to be "identical"?

I think the reason he said two identical calculators is because there are only two types allowed (HP 12C and TI BAII Plus) and they both operate differently (HP uses reverse polish notation, TI doesn't I believe) which takes some getting used to, so it's better to have two of the same. HP will be faster just in terms of requiring less buttons to punch in and save precious seconds but if you haven't used it before there is a slight learning curve, though the actual calculator manual does a pretty good job explaining how it works.

Also, I strongly disagree with the suggestion to bring wooden pencils and manual pencil sharpeners. While I'm generally a fan of big yellows in the office just because I often like classic things and I'm not the biggest proponent of being super modern, in exam time mechanical pencils are much much better and I never had an issue. There were always people (mostly fobs) on exam days who brought in big bundles of yellow pencils and like three pencil sharpeners and they looked like clowns.

Lastly, I would not follow the water bottle suggestion either. If memory serves me correctly they do not allow you to drink a water bottle at your desk so it serves no purpose to bring one, especially since they provide water there in a central area that you drink in little plastic cups.

Dec 6, 2013

This is really helpful. Thanks

Dec 5, 2013

Sitting for L1 Saturday as well, best of luck to everyone

Dec 5, 2013

In regards to #8, how is this done? For example, let's say I posted an exam question here. It's not like they're going to be able to tell what my name is?

Once I did bad and that I heard ever. Twice I did good and that I heard never.

Dec 5, 2013

Good luck everyone!

Dec 6, 2013

#1 reason prepared candidates fail (IMO) is not finishing. Don't get hung up on a question (L 1, 2, and especially 3), there are questions after it you will find easy so mark a bubble and move on (just circle the question # to come back to on long answer). If there is time at the end come back. I am always in awe when I hear about people having like 10-20% of the questions in the exam blank (or L 1&2 just furiously randomly filling in bubbles at the end) because they didn't stay on pace. Regardless of how many you guessed on, there is something super-refreshing about filling in the final bubble, seeing 30-60 mins left on the clock, and and being able to now go back to the ones a wasn't sure on. You will be able to tackle these without the stress in your second look at them, and things will start to jump out at you. Stay on pace and good luck.

Dec 6, 2013