CIA Exam Pass Rate: How Difficult Is the CIA Exam?

To earn the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) certification, you must complete several CIA requirements. And, one of the most significant requirements you must meet is passing the CIA exam.

Consequently, you may be wondering just how difficult passing the exam is. How many people actually earn a passing score on the CIA exam every year?

Thankfully, to provide this information, the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA), the organization that grants the CIA certification, shares the CIA exam pass rate on a regular basis. So, you can use this information about the CIA pass rates to better understand the complexity of the exam and how to prepare for it.

What Is the Annual CIA Exam Pass Rate?

Once a year, the IIA releases the global CIA exam pass rate. However, they only share the overall pass rate for the CIA exam, not the pass rate for each part. Consequently, we have no way of knowing the individual CIA exam part pass rates.

Since 2014, the IIA has reported the CIA exam pass rate as:

Annual CIA Pass Rate

Year 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Pass Rate 42% 39% 40% 42% 43%

Using this information, we can see that the average CIA exam pass rate of the last few years is about 41%. So, about 4 out of every 10 CIA candidates successfully pass the exam.

Before the IIA made CIA exam pass rate data publicly available, the most quoted pass percentage was 45%. However, this percentage may have come from an unverified source. According to Hock International’s previous estimate, the pass rate was around 50%. So, as you can see, the actual CIA passing rate is a bit lower.

Why Has the CIA Exam Pass Rate Increased?

As you can see, the CIA exam pass rate was fairly healthy in 2014. Then, in 2015, the rate experienced a bit of a dip. Fortunately, the rate rebounded in 2016 and has been consistently climbing since that time.

Growth in IIA Membership

I believe we can potentially credit these increases to a few different conditions.

First, global IIA membership has spiked. In 2008, IIA membership stood at 164,896. Then, in early 2019, membership surpassed 200,000. Now, earning the CIA is not contingent upon becoming an IIA member. But we can safely assume that the increase in membership corresponds to an increase in the number of CIA candidates. As a reminder, IIA members pay less for CIA exam fees, which is a powerful incentive for joining!

Similarly, as there have been more IIA members and CIA candidates, there have been more CIA awardees. In 2011, the IIA celebrated the 100,000th CIA certification. Then, in 2018, they awarded the 150,000th certification. These numbers reflect a 50% increase in just 7 years.

To sum it up, more people are taking the CIA exam. And as evidenced by the pass rates, more people are passing the exam and receiving their certification.

Better Review Courses

The second explanation for the higher pass rate has to do with how people are passing the exam. Specifically, I’m referring to the CIA exam prep industry. In recent years, review providers have updated and refined their study materials. They’ve also increased the number of online courses available and created video lectures to accompany their courses. Consequently, CIA candidates have had better tools at their disposal and a better chance at exam success.

How Do CIA Exam Pass Rates Compare to Those of Other IIA Exams?

The IIA offers several accounting certifications. They also post the pass rates for these programs. Below, you can see how the pass rates for other IIA certification exams stack up against the CIA exam pass rates.

IIA Program Exams 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Certified Internal Auditor  (CIA) 42% 39% 40% 42% 43%
Certification Control Self-Assessment (CCSA) 47% 48% 49% 53% 52%
Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA) <66% 64% 6% 57% 58%
Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP) 70% 71% 69% 64% 66%
Certification of Risk Management Assurance (CRMA) 63% 59% 56% 58% 58%

Note: These are global pass rates. Therefore, these scores are reflective of all exams taken in all countries in all languages for exams delivered via computer-based testing (CBT). Source: IIA website

How Does the CIA Pass Rate Compare to Those of Other Accounting Certifications?

Of course, the IIA is not the only organization to offer accounting certifications. We should also consider the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license, the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification, and the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation.

So, many people believe the CIA exam is easier than these other exams. In reality, the average CIA exam pass rate is actually lower than the average CPA Exam pass rate (50%). Comparatively, the CIA exam pass rate is the same as the average CMA exam pass rate (43%) and the average CFA exam pass rate (43% for Level 1).

Why the CPA Exam Pass Rate Is Higher than the CIA Exam Pass Rate

As the CPA requirements demonstrate, the CPA program has a more difficult barrier of entry. And I believe this barrier is one reason for the higher CPA Exam pass rates.

To earn the CPA license, CPA candidates must have 4-5 years of post-secondary education (150 credit hours), which is equivalent to an accounting major. And just to sit for the CPA Exam, candidates must have a bachelor’s degree (120 credit hours) with a certain number of accounting and business classes.

On the other hand, CIA candidates can meet the CIA education requirement with less formal education. In fact, they can earn the certification with an associate’s degree, depending on their years of professional internal auditing experience.

Why the CMA Exam Pass Rate Is Similar to the CIA Exam Pass Rate

As you can see, the CMA exam pass rate is similar to that of the CIA exam. And regional differences among candidates can help explain this outcome.

International CMA Pass Rates

A substantial number of non-U.S. candidates sit for both the CMA and CIA exams. And in the past, the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) has reported the CMA exam pass rates by region.

For example, the last time the IMA released regional CMA exam pass rates was in 2015. At this time, we learned the overall pass rate was 61% in the Asia/Pacific region, 62% in the Americas region, 68% in Europe, and 33% in the Middle East/Africa.

So, we know that the annual CMA exam pass rates from around the world have differed and the non-English speaking regions have had the lowest CMA exam performances. Consequently, the higher CMA exam pass rates of English-speaking countries makes sense because the IMA is located in the U.S.

Also, the CMA exam includes essay questions that require candidates to be proficient in English to perform well in this section.

International CIA Exam Pass Rates

The IIA does not release CIA pass rates for the different regions or countries in which candidates take the exam.

However, the IIA does offer the CIA exam in over 900 testing centers around the world. Consequently, the IIA has granted the CIA certification to thousands of candidates in the major regions around the world. According to the 2018 IIA Annual Report, the total numbers of CIA certified individuals in these regions are:

  • Africa: 3,854
  • Asia Pacific: 72,055
  • Caribbean: 84
  • Central/South America: 1,585
  • Europe: 17,161
  • Middle East: 3,838
  • North America: 53,475
  • Other: 5,049

Therefore, the majority of candidates who take the CIA exam come from countries where English is not the primary language. And, while the IIA does offer the CIA exam in 13 languages, I have heard from past candidates that the translations are not very good.

Of course, the lower language quality of the CIA exam translations is understandable. The IIA is based in the U.S. and uses a highly American format and writing style on the exam. Furthermore, the CIA exam contains only multiple-choice questions and not essay questions like the CMA exam. This structure offers another benefit to non-English speaking CIA candidates.

Why Are CIA Exam Pass Rates Low?

Though the CIA exam pass rate has been rising, you can see that it is still lower than or as low as several other significant accounting certification exams. I believe this rate is due to a few possible factors.

Low Barrier of Entry

As mentioned, the barrier of entry into the CIA program is not very high. Other than passing the CIA exam, the 2 most challenging CIA requirements are the education and experience requirements. However, these requirements are not as strict as they are for other accounting certifications.

Education Requirements

For example, the CIA education requirement is an associate’s degree or equivalent. These equivalents include a Foundation Degree, Diploma of Higher Education, Higher National Diploma, or 3 A-level certificates with a grade of C or higher.

Additionally, the IIA allows college seniors to take the CIA exam when they provide proof of their education level. Finally, your education can be in any field, and you don’t need a specific number of accounting credits.

Experience Requirements

Moreover, the CIA experience requirement varies according to your level of education. If you have an associate’s degree or equivalent, you need 60 months of internal auditing experience or its equivalent. With a bachelor’s degree, you need 24 months of experience. And if you’ve earned a master’s degree, you must acquire 12 months of experience.

But, if you don’t have a formal degree, you can fulfill the education requirement with a little more experience. To be exact, the IIA will accept 7 years total of internal auditing experience as a substitute for the education requirement.

The IIA keeps the CIA certification entry barriers low to welcome diversity within the field of internal auditing. But candidates who lack specialization in their education and experience often find the CIA exam quite challenging. As such, the CIA pass rates get pulled down.

The Specificity of the IIA Internal Auditing Approach

Candidates may also struggle to pass the CIA exam because of the niche nature of internal auditing. The approach to internal auditing differs from that of external auditing. So, unless you have specific internal auditing experience, you aren’t likely to know anything about the concepts on the CIA exam.

Internal auditing has shifted away from financial auditing and toward risk-based audit. As a result, some experienced internal auditors may lack confidence with the exam content. The IIA evaluates the current condition of the industry as often as possible and updates the exam accordingly. So, if your company or role hasn’t made the transition, you might not be as up on the CIA exam trends.

What’s more, the IIA internal audit standards are very in-depth and reflected in the CIA exam. The standards can add to the complexity of the exam for some candidates.

For example, Part 1 of the CIA exam focuses on the basics of internal auditing. It works off the foundation laid by the IIA’s International Professional Practices Framework (IPPF) and the International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing. Then, Part 1 expects candidates to be proficient in more than half of the topics it covers.

And your current internal auditing job may not encompass every part of the audit process. Or, if you’ve developed your own methodologies over the years, you can’t simply trust in your experience to pass.

You’ve got to compare what you know with what the IIA wants you to know and adjust accordingly. So, when candidates don’t consider the big picture, the CIA pass rates fall.

Lack of Sufficient and Effective Studying

One of the biggest reasons why candidates fail the CIA exam or any accounting certification exam is insufficient preparation.

Candidates are underprepared when they don’t study long or well enough. The pass rates, as well as several other factors, indicate that the CIA exam difficulty level is high enough that you can’t rely on experience alone to achieve exam success. In fact, you leave yourself little to no chance of passing the CIA exam when you underestimate the necessary amount of study time and effort.

The Need for Enough Study Time

Consequently, the IIA recommends candidates spend a total of at least 130 hours studying (40 hours for Part 1, 40 hours for Part 2, and 50 hours for Part 3). For candidates who need more exposure to the basics, I believe you may need to study as much as 55-95 hours per exam part.

Furthermore, you must fully concentrate during your study sessions and maximize every minute of your review. Both quantity and quality study hours are essential, so eliminate all distractions every time you study. You can use these CIA tips to learn how to study efficiently and effectively.

The Need for Good Study Materials

Candidates also struggle to pass the CIA exam without the right study materials. Unfortunately, the CIA review industry is not overly saturated with course options. Compared to the CPA Exam prep market, for example, the CIA exam prep market still doesn’t offer a wide variety of self-study resources.

What’s more, some of the courses are not as complete as others; they lack materials like video lectures, adaptive technology, professor assistance, etc. So, candidates may sometimes struggle to select a course that perfectly fits their learning style and CIA budget.

However, the CIA review market has improved in recent years. For this reason, I believe candidates can find every tool they need to pass the CIA exam in the high-quality courses I recommend, such as Gleim CIA Review and Surgent CIA Review. While these courses require a monetary investment, they provide the content coverage, skill development, and support system you need to pass each exam part the first time.

Should You Pursue Other IIA Certifications Due to Lower CIA Pass Rates?

As you can see from the tables, the other IIA certification exams have higher pass rates than the CIA exam. So, should you pursue one of those certifications?

Well, the answer to that question depends on your job aspirations. But we can’t forget that the CIA is the most recognized IIA certification. The CIA is also the most versatile and the most suitable for internal audit generalists.

Therefore, if you don’t currently plan to have an internal audit specialty, or if you aspire to become a senior internal audit professional in a strategic or management role, the CIA certification is the one you want.

For this reason, I don’t recommend using the historical pass rates to select a certification. Instead, you should make a decision based on your long-term career goals.

Additionally, the eligibility requirements for these programs can also affect the pass rate discrepancies. For example, the CRMA exam requires candidates to pass Part 1 of the CIA exam. Therefore, this rule limits CRMA exam candidates to committed individuals who have a good foundation in internal audit. As a result, the CRMA exam pass rate is naturally higher than that of the CIA exam.

What Can We Learn from the CIA Exam Pass Rates?

The CIA exam pass rate is a bit low, and the reasons for the low CIA exam pass rate are complicated. But despite this truth, every CIA candidate has an equal opportunity to succeed. And, by planning effectively and utilizing the best study strategies, you can improve your chances of success.

To start, you can get the answers to the most common questions asked by CIA candidates. Then, you can learn more about CIA exam Part 1. But most importantly, you should find the right CIA review course for you. To do so, consider my comparison of the most popular CIA review courses. Once you find the perfect course, study with it until you’re scoring at least 85% on the practice questions.

If you’re still quite new to the CIA process, you should also sign up for my free CIA exam study materials. This free CIA course tells you how hard the CIA exam can be, how to study properly, and more. So, sign up today!

About the Author Amy A

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