CPA Exam Schedule: Which Part to Take First?

cma exam scheduleA proper planning of your CPA exam schedule and testing dates will make your life much easier and considerably increase your chance to pass the CPA exam within a year.

I am going to walk you through my recommended CPA exam schedule and explain the reasoning behind it.

Did You Know…

The passing rate of the CPA exam has been increasing. In 2003, the average passing rate of CPA exam was 43%. By 2013, it jumped to 49%.

One of the reasons is that the computerized exam has allowed CPA candidates the flexibility to take the exam almost anytime during the year.

Then and Now

Prior to 2004, when the CPA exam was still in the pen-and-paper format, the exam was held in specific dates twice a year. Candidates had no choice but to take multiple sections if they wanted to complete the exam within a year.

With the computerized format, CPA candidates can work around their own schedules and take the CPA exam one at a time within the 18-month window.

My Recommendation In Designing Your CPA Exam Schedule

It depends largely on your work and family commitments. In general, I would recommend taking the CPA exam one at a time, because:

  • You can focus 100% on one part of the exam.
  • You tend to do better after getting some exam-taking experience.
  • The CPA exam fee incurred is the same in anyway you take it (so why together and torture yourself?)

The Strategy

Follow these 3 simple rules and plan your CPA success!

1. Plan Ahead And Pick the Dates

Even out your CPA exam schedule. Avoid any possible crashes with important events in your (and your family’s) life, such as wedding, having a baby, and anticipated career change.

2. Plan To Complete The Exam Within 12 Months

For most candidates, this is doable as long as you put in sufficient time and effort. Once you complete one part, you will only have 18 months to pass the rest of the exam or risk retaking the sections you have completed.

As soon as you pass the first part of the exam, the 18-month clock begins to tick.

I recommend spreading the 4 CPA exams somewhat evenly within 12 months instead of the full 18 months. You can shorten the ordeal, and you can build in some buffer in case you have to postpone due to unexpected circumstances in life.

3. Take The Toughest CPA Sections First

Some people may not agree with this CPA exam schedule strategy, but I think it’s a good idea to get rid of the toughest beast, because:

  • Your energy level and ability to focus is the highest at the beginning of the year-long study.
  • It feels so much better to have tackled the beast — the best motivation you can ever get to complete the rest of the exam.

Along this line, I would recommend taking FAR first because:

  • FAR is the longest, but not necessarily the most difficult if you know accounting.
  • The exam questions are similar to the accounting coursework you have in school so you should take it when memory is still fresh.

Take AUD after FAR

AUD is closely related to FAR. It makes sense to take the two parts closely together.

Having said that, if you just started your work at an audit firm, you may consider taking AUD last. There will be so much you can pick up on the job that you can expect yourself to do much better if you take AUD a few months later.

REG vs BEC? Depends on Your Expertise

I find REG the most difficult myself (maybe I’m really not interested in the topic) so I also wanted to get it out of the way early.

BEC is the shortest and easiest CPA exam in my opinion, and as far as I know most CPA candidates agree with me (BEC tricky though, but it’s another topic). Since you must be sick of all the studying by then, you will appreciate the decision of saving the easiest one at the end of your CPA exam journey.

One Last Note

Don’t blindly stick with my suggested CPA exam schedule. If you are a tax accountant you might find REG the easiest, the FAR the most difficult. It really depends on your background, and you should adjust your own CPA exam schedule accordingly.

As long as you have put in your thoughts and plan ahead, you will be able to optimize your time and energy to tackle this efficiently and effectively.

Have You Signed Up For A CPA Exam Review Course Yet?

Check out our CPA exam review courses comparison for the pros and cons of each program.

If you are not ready to pick a course, you might want to check out my free mini-course with tips on the application process, together with other useful information concerning the CPA exam:

(If you live outside the US, or you are a non-US citizen/resident or that you obtain a degree from a university outside the US, check out this mini-course for international candidates)


  1. Vladimir says

    Dear Stephanie,
    thank you for your great web site! It’s very helpful. I come from Germany and plan to take the CPA exam this year. I thought of splitting it into 2 parts. I would then have to fly twice in the US. Would you recommend to take FAR and BEC first and AUD and REG later on? Is this a good combination? To my background: I do not know much about the US GAAP but I have a pretty good knowledge of IFRS as I work for a public accounting firm. I would be very greatful for your advice!
    Many thanks!
    Best regards,

  2. durga says

    my question is similar to the above question but i am from India but from accounting background. however, i am very new to US GAAP and IFRS. In view of the 2011 changes, would it be right to start CPA with FAR and BEC as the first parts to appear for the first time in 2012?