How Hard is CPA Exam?

CPA Exam is considered one of the most demanding professional credentialing tests in accounting. Here we discuss factors that contribute to the complexity of the CPA Exam along with some expert tips to pass. Besides other factors, how hard you may find the exam primarily depends on your preparedness and approach to the exam. 

Passing the CPA examCPA ExamThe CPA Exam assesses accounting professionals not just on their financial knowledge, but also on their ability to review and seek out key abilities.read more is one of the prerequisites to attain a CPA license. The following entities are involved in administering the exam:

  • American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
  • 55 US State Boards of Accountancy. 
  • National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA)
  • Prometric

To understand the level of difficulty of the CPA exam, you should be aware of its scope, format, timing, testing, and grading process. The knowledge of these helps you channelize your efforts in the right direction. Also, it gives you an idea about the level of preparation required of you.

Let’s start with understanding the various aspects of the exam and its influence on its perceived difficulty.

What makes the CPA Exam Hard?

The key factor that influences our opinion about the difficulty of any exam is our level of preparation. Besides that, the main factors that make it so hard are discussed below.

Format

The exam tests the expertise of aspiring CPAs in the following four sections: Business Environment & Concepts (BEC), Regulation (REG), Financial Accounting & Reporting (FAR), and Auditing & Attestation (AUD).

Each of these sections has to be taken separately. Each section contains five testlets to be finished in four hours. Moreover, you have to take all the testlets consecutively with only 15 minutes break (after the third testlet). Hence, this format requires you to prepare yourself physically and mentally to be focused for a long time.

With a large number of questions and not enough time for each, the exam also requires you to practice thinking on your feet. Moreover, there are a fixed number of questions in each testlet and no option to review a testlet once submitted. This exerts extra pressure to answer all questions in a testlet correctly before submitting.

Type of questions

There are three types of questions asked in the CPA exam:

  • Multiple-choice questions (MCQs) – Two testlets
  • Task-based simulations (TBSs) – Three testlets (two for BEC)
  • Written communication tasks (WCTs) – One testlet (for BEC)

You get the MCQ testlets first, then TBS and finally, the WCT (only for BEC). MCQs present multiple answer options, while TBSs give out real-life case studies. On the other hand, WCTs tests your writing ability. With a variety of questions, it is challenging to adapt to and time them to ensure you complete the test on time.

Though MCQs provide answer options, the tricky part is that there may be more than one correct answer to a question. So, you have to use your judgement to come up with the right as well as the best possible response. Generally, TBSs are considered to be the most challenging. This is because they expose you to the real-life workplace scenarios and test your ability in dealing with them.

Furthermore, each testlet has a fixed number of operational and pretest questions. The operational questions add to your final score, while the pretest questions don’t. However, there is no way of distinguishing between them. So, there is a possibility of wasting a lot of time on tricky pretest questions, which do not count on your final score.

Scope of information tested

The extent of information covered in each of the sections is exhaustive. Each section covers numerous topics in various accounting and business areas. The AICPA’s Exam Blueprints gives a detailed account of topics covered in each section.

Besides, each section has several representative tasks that you must be able to perform as a CPA. There are around 570 representative tasks listed in the Blueprints. You must make an effort to go through each task to ensure you have covered everything from a topic.

Apart from the exhaustive syllabus, the AICPA also keeps changing the curriculum every few years. This is to ensure that the exam reflects the changes happening to the accounting profession. So, the exam requires you to keep yourself abreast of all recent reforms to taxation and other laws.

What makes this exam difficult is the extensive coverage of various topics in such a short period. However, if you take the time to understand and learn the exam content thoroughly, your performance will undoubtedly improve.

Skills tested on the exam

The exam tests you on four levels: remembering and understanding, application, analysis and evaluation. It assesses your higher-order thinking skills. This is to ensure that you use your judgement and problem-solving abilities to real-life situations.  

With the exam testing a great deal of information at various skill levels, passing the exam may be quite demanding. The purpose of the CPA exam is to assure that you are competent enough to handle any business situation as a CPA. And also uphold the public interest and ethics of the profession.

Though difficult, this rigorous training will help you expand your thinking and reasoning horizons. Also, it will condition your mind to come up with novel solutions to challenging problems. 

Scoring and testing process

You must score at least 75 points (0-99) in each of the four CPA exam sections within 18 months to qualify. The AICPA arrives at the final score by calculating the weighted sum of scaled scores of all testlets (MCQ, TBS, and WCT). Each question is scaled based on correctness, difficulty level, and statistical characteristics.

The AICPA also uses a multi-stage adaptive testing model for the MCQ testlets. Under this, the test proceeds depending on your performance. With better performance, you get difficult testlets which have questions worth more points. This unique testing and scoring process renders the exam more difficult to comprehend.

Timing of the exam

You must pass all four exam sections within the 18 months, starting from the time you pass the first exam. Or else, you will lose the credit of the passed sections. This adds to the perceived difficulty of the exam.

However, the introduction of the continuous testing model has come as a relief to the candidates. It permits them to take the exam throughout the year without waiting for testing windows.  

Furthermore, there is no definite order to sit for the exam sections. However, choosing a suitable order definitely helps in preparing and taking different exam sections with ease. But deciding on an appropriate sequence is another tough call.

Education background and work experience

How difficult you find the exams also depends a lot on your educational background, prior exposure to relevant subjects, and work experience in specific areas.

Candidates with prior experience in taxation may find the REG section easy, while others may find it difficult. However, FAR with its extensive coverage of accounting frameworks, may appear easy for those working in the relevant field.

AUD may seem difficult to students but easy to candidates with auditing experience. Moreover, students with business coursework may find BEC easy. Hence, prior knowledge about a subject or related work experience may contribute to your opinion on how hard you find the exam.

CPA Pass Rates

To comprehend the difficulty of the exam, let’s look at CPA exam pass rates. The pass rates reveal the performance of candidates in the exams over the years. Therefore, they vary from year to year. AICPA releases the pass rates for each exam section every quarter.

The average pass rate is 50% for each exam section. The low pass rates of an exam are usually an indicator of its difficulty. However, as per AICPA, the pass rates reflect the level of preparation of candidates in a particular year compared to previous years. It has nothing to do with the exam being more easy or difficult in a specific year.

A mid-way pass rate seems discouraging to most aspiring candidates. However, don’t let it define your chances of success. Remember that your perseverance and effort solely determine your success.

However, you can scan through the pass rates to understand the general trend. Here are the currently released pass rates for Q1 and Q2 2021.

CPA Exam SectionQ1Q2Cumulative
BEC62.16%63.31%62.84%
AUD48.56%50.49%49.70%
REG59.29%58.81%59.03%
FAR46.64%42.63%44.70%

Let’s analyze CPA Pass Rates for 2015-2020

CPA Pass rates as per sections

#1 – AUD Section

As displayed above, AUD pass rates have considerably enhanced over the five years (from 47% to 53%). By far, the highest pass rate in this section was recorded in Q2 2020 (65%). Thus, irrespective of the quarter, candidates’ performance in this section has changed for the better. 

#2 – BEC Section

BEC section is often regarded as the easiest section. It has recorded the highest ever pass rate among all the four sections (77%) in Q2 2020. Though 2016-2017 witnessed a setback in almost every quarter, 2018-2020 saw a significant boost.

Like AUD, BEC also has the most impressive performance in Q2, registering a growth of 17% (60% in 2019 to 77% in 2020).

#3 – FAR Section

FAR Section has a reputation for being the most challenging exam section with the latest cumulative pass rate of 50% (2020). Yet, it registered an impressive growth of 14% over the five years. After a setback in 2017, the rest of the period was growth-oriented.

#4 – REG Section

Despite being a tough section, REG section has registered a high growth rate of 13% during 2015-2021. Yes, there were a few bumps during 2015-2017. However, the pass rates changed for the better in 2018 and afterwards.

Furthermore, 2020 was especially spectacular for REG with a fantastic performance in Q2 and Q3 specifically. 

Which is the hardest CPA Exam section?

NASBA posted the same question on its social media handle in August 2020. Plenty of current CPA candidates answered the much-awaited question resulting in the below-mentioned statistics. 

  1. FAR – 43%
  2. REG – 27%
  3. BEC-17%
  4. AUD – 13%

Going by the specified information, FAR is reportedly the most difficult CPA section to pass. This is due to the extensive amount of information and challenging concepts it covers. 

Please note that it is a general survey which is not statistically valid. However, as long as you are well-prepared, you can take up any section with ease and pass with flying colors. 

Suggestions to prepare for the CPA Exam

Schedule the exam sections in the right order

Prepping up for the exam demands you to schedule the test smartly. Therefore, you must design a timeline that suits both your professional and personal life. This way, you can avoid undue stress and gear up for better performance. 

  • Though you must start as soon as possible, move at your own pace. 
  • As soon as you submit the application form, start planning out your exam schedule. 
  • Once you receive the NTS, book your first exam right away. 
  • Go through CPA Blueprints before scheduling. 
  • Take up the most challenging section first to let the burden off your shoulders, or the easiest one to start with a light mindset. 
  • Don’t leave too much time between the sections (take 1-2 weeks breather). 

Since there is no definite order to sit for the exam sections, you can choose a sequence suiting your schedule and lifestyle. Moreover, it is suggested not to take two difficult sections in a row. Instead, allow yourself some breather and keep going with a fresh outlook. 

Here are two recommended sequences to take the sections:

  • FAR-AUD-REG-BEC
  • BEC-REG-AUD-FAR

Please note that AUD and FAR have overlapping content, so it is advisable to schedule them close to each other. Also, you must retake a failed section as soon as possible. This will ensure you do not forget the subject.  

However, there is no perfect schedule. So, choose the one that suits your circumstances.

Preparation time

The time taken by candidates to clear the exam successfully depends on their individual strengths and weaknesses. Also, it may vary as per a candidate’s educational background, work experience, exposure to the subjects, and the relevant skills possessed. 

As per AICPA, the study schedule of candidates can range from a few hours to 25 hours a week. On average, it takes 10-14 months for a candidate to pass the licensure test successfully.  The following table presents an approximate timeline for preparation.

CPA Exam SectionRequired Preparation Time (approx.)
AUD2-3 months
BEC2-3 months
FAR4-5 months
REG2-3 months

Tips to pass in the first attempt

You can easily pass the exam on your first attempt, provided you follow the right tips. Here are a few to help you out. 

Start ASAP! 

We can’t stress this one enough! Begin planning to schedule your exam as soon as you apply. Talk to current and aspiring CPAs, do your research, and go through the content tested. 

It will help you decide the proper order of sections, prep up fast, and pass on your first attempt. Besides, starting as soon as you graduate will guarantee a better memory and stronghold on accounting subjects. 

Try to finish within a year

Yes, you have 18 months to pass all four exam sections. However, dragging out the time unnecessarily may de-track you from your ultimate goal. 

Hence, finish taking all the sections within 12 months. This way, you can ensure being focused and avoid all distractions. 

Book your first exam on-time

Ensure to have both the required college credits and the right timing. Then, book and pay for your first section without waiting for long. Keep your priorities in mind, as this step will decide your entire exam schedule. 

Starting with the right section will motivate you to study further. Weigh all the pros and cons before making a final decision. Also, determine whether, to begin with, the toughest or the easiest section. 

Set an efficient study schedule

Please note that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. So, develop a customized study schedule with frequent breaks and mock tests. Give it your absolute attention but remember, you have a personal life too. 

Reserve weekends for revision and seeking outside help. Make easy-to-read mnemonics and go through them daily. Follow your schedule religiously and maintain a healthy lifestyle as well. 

Take up a suitable CPA review course

There are various CPA review courses available out there. Hence, determine your learning style to choose the best one. Moreover, you can also go through AICPA’s user-generated CPA Exam Prep Course Reviews. 

Visual learners will benefit the most from review courses equipped with video lectures and audio material. On the other hand, people preferring the hands-on method must pick the one with several test question banks. 

Utilize authentic preparation tools

Refer to AICPA and NASBA for free and paid credible preparatory material. Go through the sample tests, podcasts, practice quizzes, tutorial videos, candidate bulletin, and blueprints for ensuring the best performance. 

It will help you know what and how to study to ace the exam. You will learn to study efficiently and complete the course on time.

Even if you don’t pass the exam on your first attempt, there is still a lot of time to catch up. So, breathe, let it go, and start all over again with a gritty mindset! 

In a nutshell, CPA Exam is indeed a tough nut to crack. However, you can still tame the beast with an intelligent plan and even better execution. Start with being well-informed about everything. Then, climb up the ladder of success with one step at a time. 

This has been a guide to How Hard is the CPA exam? Here we discuss the various aspects of the CPA Exam and its influence on its perceived difficulty. Also, we discuss the tips to pass the exam on your very first attempt. You may also have a look at the below articles to compare CPA with other examinations –