When Derek Dedman wrote his Level III CFA exam in Ottawa, he was in an overflow room along with hundreds of people – a much different experience from when he wrote his two previous exams in his hometown of Regina.
“I felt like there was as many people writing Level 3 in Ottawa as there was writing all three levels combined in Regina at the exam centre,” said Dedman, vice president and portfolio manager at Watson Di Primio Steel Investment Management Ltd. in Ottawa.
“It was quite a different experience than Regina – much more people, even more hectic and longer time to get registered in and checked in and find out where you’re going and parking…everything about it was even more intimidating.”
He would have preferred a smaller centre, but given that he’d just moved to Ottawa, returning home to take Level III didn’t make sense.
And while he was more comfortable writing in a classroom that had less than 50 people in it, the small setting also came with a distraction: many candidates knew each other and wanted to chat or discuss exam prep, which was a distraction.
“I have a philosophy of going in, keeping your head down and not getting into the trap of talking to people, so it’s harder to do when you know lots of people,” said Dedman, who is one of the rare CFA charter holders who passed all three exams on his first try.
But not being in a massive crowd of people, getting seated quickly and being able to focus on the task at hand outweighed any other downside, in his case.
Chris Wiese, Head of Examination Development with CFA Institute, says the CFA Institute works to make the experience as consistent as possible across test centres, noting that, for instance, every location will aim to have the same desk sizes and number of proctors, and the procedures and exam are obviously the same anywhere you go.
“As many elements of the experience as we (can) control, we do, but at the end of the day, in smaller cities there will be a test centre with 200 people versus somewhere like New York or Beijing where it could be thousands,” he said.
While some centres are in a rental hall in a conference centre, a smaller city may host the exam at a university field house.
“Those environments are different … (and) there’s some people who choose a test centre in a smaller city specifically because they don’t want to be in a conference centre with several thousand other people,” Wiese said.
“When you look at one test centre versus another, there may be at smaller test centres more society involvement. There may be a party afterwards … or it may be easier to get in and out of. Certainly parking is a consideration, and there is room to consider those kinds of issues.”
The CFA doesn’t disclose exact exam location until admission tickets are printed for security reasons. The locations are chosen to make sure there are tests centres close to candidates, not only at major financial centres like New York, Toronto, London, or Beijing.
And while the CFA currently runs around 470 exam locations, Wiese suggests candidates go to places they know.
“It’s stressful enough, so if you pick a test centre that’s in a place that’s strange to you – in a city you haven’t been before or that you don’t know as well or that’s in a part of town you don’t know as well – you’re just adding one more stressor,” Wiese said.
“Now you have to figure out, well, how am I going to get there, do I need a hotel or not, how am I going to get where I need to be in the morning of the exam. People sometimes underestimate what it’s like not just getting to the test centre, but getting to the test centre at the same time as potentially a few thousand other people and what that may be doing local traffic and things like that.”
He also suggests keeping the centre’s surroundings in mind to make sure they’re able to eat lunch in the break between sessions.
“I know it seems trivial, but Javits Centre (in New York) is a good example – there’s not a lot of good lunch options nearby there and the few that there are tend to get mobbed,” he said.
“If I was testing at the Javits I would definitely pack a lunch.”
Dedman agrees that anything you can do to avoid piling on more stress on exam day is worth it.
“When I wrote in Regina it was at the U of R campus – I had been there many times and was actually where I wrote my CFP as well, so I knew it well,” he said.
“When I wrote in Ottawa, it was at Carleton University – and up until that day I had never stepped foot in that place – so if I could do it all over I wish I had gone and checked things out a few days earlier.”
You can read more about Dedman’s CFA experience and advice at: