GUEST COMMENT: There is cheating in the CFA Exams

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Cheating (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I noticed that although there are tons of articles covering CFA qualification and how to prepare for the studying process, very few touch upon on cheating in the CFA exams. Actually, I found none whatsoever, just a few links to some tired candidates wondering whether cheating would happen during the exam day.

I assure you, it most definitely does happen. Cheating to exams is like weeds to a garden - it's not a question of whether it will happen, but when. In the past few years I've interviewed candidates and proctors on exam-day experiences and along the way have amassed a fair number of 100% true-life CFA cheating cases - I share the more interesting ones below.

First, I attach a warning:

Cheating is obviously dishonest and defeats the purpose of what the CFA charter is about. If you cheat at one level and get away with it, you won't be passing the next level on your own as you would have needed to master the previous level anyway. Also, if you're using this qualification professionally what use is it if you obtained it without the accompanying knowledge? Finally (perhaps most importantly), you will get busted. Every one of the below did.

Gum and sweets are not what they seem

Rick*, a proctor for 3 years running, introduced me to what apparently was one of the most common cheating methods not just in the CFA exams, but exams in general - replacing the original wrappers and printed material of anything you were allowed to bring into the exam with custom-printed material that were identical in design, but contained exam notes instead of the usual nutritional information. In the CFA this included things like gum wrappers and candy wrappers. Another similar ruse was to wrap folded notes with the sticks of gum themselves, and read them when you unwrap your stick of gum. To dispose of the evidence, one simply chews the gum and wraps the note and wrapper into one sticky mess.

This seems stupid. As a cheat, it’s not particularly bulletproof as CFA proctors tend to take out anything that has printed material (although sometimes they allow gum and sweet wrappers). Also, the hassle of extreme Photoshopping aside, how beneficial would this be, seriously? If you were diligent enough to print tiny bits of information onto tiny bits of sweet wrappers, surely you can memorize them for the 6-odd hours of the exam.

iPod in sleeve trick

Gina*, a CFA candidate, told me she has a particularly innovative method of cheating, using an iPod or any music player. She first isolated all her notes for the most impactful and difficult-to-memorize material. Next, she recorded herself reading all of these notes and formulae aloud and saved this into her iPod in 15 minute tracks. On the exam day, she had the full 'playlist' of exam notes saved on her iPod playing and set on repeat, and this was jammed into her pocket (she had a Nano so this didn't bulge at all). She then fed a pair of earphones through a hole in her pocket, underneath her jeans and shirt and up her left long sleeve, tucking one earphone to a band on her wrist. The earphone remote control would be approximately at her elbow underneath the sleeve.

To listen to her notes, Gina simply rested her temple on her left hand, allowing the earphone to be within hearing distance. To change 'tracks', she would simply operate the remote control at her left elbow using her right hand. In the context of an exam this pose looks completely natural - exactly like you were stopping for a moment to think hard.

Would it be worth it? Unlikely. Retrospectively, Gina doesn't think so either. "To prepare this you need to read the material quite a bit so by exam day I found myself knowing what I would be hearing anyway, so the risk wasn't worth it in the end. Plus worrying about whether I was going to get caught stressed me out a lot and that didn't help with the rest of the exam."

It's all in the toilets

The most common proctor-cheating story involves the toilet. The iterations of this are endless - passing notes in the toilet, hiding notes in the toilet, hiding notes on yourself but reading them in the toilet, the list goes on and on.

You can’t really blame the CFA Institute for being a bit mental about the use of toilets during exams.

One candidate even took out the entire toilet roll holder and tucked notes into the recess behind it - he got busted as he made some noise trying to get it out. He wasn't making a huge racket, mind you, but enough for the proctor to get suspicious enough to rap on the door - at which point he completely lost it.

Time zone arbitrage

In a category of its own is the alleged practice of candidates helping out others who are taking the same exam later in the day, in a different time zone. I understand that this does not happen out of the kindness of their hearts, but for cash.

To reiterate, yes, I understand that cheating happens in the CFA exams. No: I am not advocating it. It seems a pointless hassle that is unlikely to make much difference to your success, but may get you seriously black marked.

A version of this article first appeared on the blog 300 Hours, which is written by a CFA Charterholder based in the UK.