CPA Simulation Tips: How is Grading Done and How to Master Them?

cpa simulationIs the CPA Simulation looking like Rocket Science to you? What exactly are they? Let’s take a look at what they are and their importance in the CPA exam.

CPA Simulation: What’s That?

Simulations are essentially “condensed case studies” for examiners to evaluate your knowledge in a specific area. This is how the AICPA describes task-based simulations:

Simulations typically include greater background information and context to create a more robust, authentic experience for candidates to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

Candidates receive a set of questions related to a scenario they would encounter as a newly licensed CPA.They may be required to solve problems using spreadsheets, research authoritative literature,and write memos.

Simulations provide a flexible format for presenting a realistic setting, thus making the examination better suited for assessing higher-level skills by requiring individuals to apply what they knowin a real-world context.” — Invitation to Comment for CBT3

I often tell people that CPA Exam is a “Lake Superior with one inch deep”, which means that it covers huge amount of material but it never drills into the details. In a way, simulations are the examiners’ solution to address that “not so deep” problem.

Does Each Section Have Simulations?

FAR, AUD and REG parts of the exam contain simulation questions. BEC doesn’t, but have a section for written communication tasks instead.

Some CPA Simulation Tips Please?

There is a testlet with 6-7 questions, notably a “research” tab and “core” simulation questions.

1. Research Tab

This is a test on your research prowess. In my opinion, if you know how to search in Google, you can handle this.

Learn How to Search by Exact Words

Similar to perform more precise searches in Google, you can put quotation marks between a phrase so the search engine knows that you want exact matches. For example, if you type in “CPA simulation”, it will search for articles with only this string of text, instead of those with the words “CPA” or “simulation” anywhere in the articles.

Practice Using the Free Database

Please also take the time to practice on the Authoritative Research access that you get for free (for 6 month) once you are approved of taking the exam.

This is not a major tab because it represents only a few points for your exam, but they can be easy points to score if you know the way.

More info on CPA Exam Authoritative Literature here.

2. Miscellaneous Sim Question

This is a wild card. You can be asked to do anything in any topic. Just treat this as a more elaborate form of multiple choice questions. This also means that you cannot blindly memorize the concepts because simulations are all about testing you how to apply the concepts to real business situations.

Note on Written Communications Tab

The written communication task was once included in the simulations. I will therefore briefly discuss this here but you can get a lot more information on this task in this post.

The written communications task is important because it constitutes 15% of your entire exam in BEC. You are normally asked to write something in the range of business memo, a letter, or an inquiry from a client, and you are expected to write in a professional (organized, coherent and typo-free) manner.

Some candidates struggle in this tab but in my opinion it is probably one of the easiest ways to score points in the CPA exam, because the examiners are looking more in your writing ability than the content itself. In other words, you don’t need to exactly know the answer but you can still score points if you manage to type up a piece of professional writing.

How Is CPA Simulation Grading Done?

The simulation questions make up ~40% of your CPA exam. (Yes, a lot!) Simulations are graded positively, i.e. you don’t get penalty if you pick the wrong answer. In other words, the strategy is to make sure you never leave anything blank — if you pick the right answer by pure chance you get the points; if not, what the hell.

The simulations are graded by computer except for the written communications part (actually, don’t ask me how, but the written communication task is also partly graded by computer according to the official CPA exam website).

So, IS There a Way to Practice Sims?

Readers’ opinions differ widely on this. Some believe spending no more than 10 minutes, because the chance of encountering the same exact question is virtually zero. So why bother?

Others insist that the simulations are essentially “giant” multiple choice questions. The sims exercise train us to work on a problem in different perspective, and by practicing more the benefits spill over to the multiple choice section.

Conclusion: it depends on your learning style. Everyone agrees that candidates should at least know how a typical sim question looks like, and how to use the research tab.

I Heard There is a Book on Mastering CPA Simulations…

There is a book on How to master CPA simulations (published by Wiley) and I have written a 1,174-word long book review.

The book is generally good but out-dated now — it covers the old exam format. In a way it’s still useful but I would recommend instead to get more exercise on sims using the Wiley Test Bank instead.

More Tips

For Sims

This article (part of our Brain Power Series on exam study) talks about a specific studying method that help you master the sims.

For Other Parts of the Exam

Need More Simulation Tips and Exam Taking Strategies?

cpa simulation tipsChapter 8 of my latest publication, “How to Pass the CPA Exam” (Wiley, 2013), is dedicated to simulations.

Click here for a snapshot of the content of the book. It is available in all major online books store including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, BAM and Wiley Online.



  1. Ivy says

    Will the book “how to master CPA simulations“ still be good for the 2011 exam?


    • Stephanie says

      Hi Ivy,
      There will be a slight change in the simulations format in a way that instead of a few long questions within a sim, there will be 6-7 shorter questions. But then the strategy to work through the simulation questions should remain the same. If you need help in this area, then the book is still fine. Stephanie