What’s the best strategy for passing all four CPA Exam parts in an amount of time that fits both your lifestyle and the AICPA’s timing restrictions? Should you spread the sections out over a few months, or is it better to take multiple CPA exams at once? Well, it depends on how much time you have and how committed you are to pass fast. I’ll provide some background on the CPA Exam sections and my own personal experience to determine the best approach for you.
How many parts is the CPA Exam? The Uniform CPA Exam has 4 sections, each covering many topics in accounting, business, law, audit, tax, and regulations.
The testing time for each section is 4 hours, so the total number of exam hours is 16. You can take the 4 CPA Exam sections in any sequence, and you can now schedule them at any time during the year. Previously, you had to work within the AICPA’s scheduling window, but that is no longer the case.
Also, you must pass all four sections within a rolling 30-month window, which starts as soon as you pass your first section. (In the past, that rule was 18 months.) You will lose credit for the section you passed first if you don’t pass the remaining three sections within 30 months.
* Note: The CPA Exam sections are changing in 2024. So if you plan to pass the CPA Exam in 2024, I have outlined the CPA Exam changes that you need to know about.
I took all 4 parts of the CPA exam in one single trip — two sections per day for two days. Here are my story and the reasoning behind it.
My wedding was coming up, so I gave myself just nine months to pass the exam. I also lived in Hong Kong and needed to travel to Guam to take the test. Taking all four CPA parts together saved me a lot of time and travel expenses.
First, I had a solid plan. I went for the best review course (Becker CPA was this course for me, but you should still choose your best option based on your own learning style; I’ve created a guide for how to choose your CPA review course, too) and divided my study time out among the four CPA Exam parts.
Then I spent every Saturday and Sunday studying and working on practice questions after each chapter. When I got bored with FAR, I switched to AUD, then to REG, and so on. During the shuffling, I made sure not to get significantly behind on any one part.
We are talking about quality studying hours here. Back then, there was neither Facebook nor smartphones. I was able to utilize the 15 studying hours I had each weekend fully. Additionally, I took live classes with a group of students who were all planning to take all four CPA Exam parts at the same time. This meant we could dedicate ourselves to longer study sessions.
Time management was critical because if I didn’t study enough in time, I would fail to meet my goal. I never really ran out of time, but if I did, I would have skimmed through the review book and spent more time on the practice questions. I found it is more important to have a broad knowledge of all topics than to become an expert in specific topics.
I passed all four parts of the CPA Exam on my first try with scores from 87 to 92. It was a lot of work, but I was glad to have done it all in one go.
After nine months of craziness, I concluded that this action course is doable but certainly not for everyone. If you are considering taking all four sections together, ask yourself:
You’ll need a great deal of motivation to maintain this pace. So if you aren’t in a hurry, you may want to take each section one by one. For most candidates, I would recommend taking and passing the CPA Exam one section at a time and within one year, which means one section per quarter.
If you decide to take one or two parts at a time, here are my suggestions for the order of the CPA Exam parts:
I would start with FAR because FAR covers the widest range of topics but in less depth than other parts, relatively speaking. Objectively speaking, however, FAR is challenging and can require the most studying because of its broad scope. Starting with FAR lets you finish all of that study time before your 18-month window begins. Thus, it doesn’t jeopardize your credit for any other sections if you fail.
Second, AUD’s content is closely related to that of FAR, so I recommend taking AUD at the same time as or right after FAR.
I personally think REG is the most difficult. Therefore, the order will depend on whether you want to finish the harder one sooner (then REG would be third) or finish the easier one quickly by putting BEC first and leaving REG last.
BEC is fairly easy, so you could schedule it for the busiest time of your year. On the other hand, you could take it after you’ve passed all the other sections, so you don’t need to be too scared of not passing and going beyond the 18-month window.
Now that you know more about how close together you should schedule each CPA Exam section, take the next step toward passing the CPA Exam by learning how to create an effective CPA Exam schedule.
There are four sections to the CPA Exam, each of which takes four hours for 16 hours of testing.
The four sections are Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). You may take them in any order you wish.
No, you most certainly don’t! Although that’s the strategy I’m discussing in this article, you can schedule your CPA Exams as you feel necessary.
They do, and I’m one of them! In fact, I took two sections per day over the course of two days, which is the minimum amount of time needed to take the whole exam. If you want to pair the test sections up like this, I recommend taking FAR and AUD at the same time, as the content is similar. Then, you can take BEC and REG at the same time later on.
That depends on what you mean by “better.” If your objective is to finish all CPA Exams parts in as short a time as possible, then yes, taking them all at once will accomplish this. Taking them all at once will also mean only one trip to the testing center over two days. However, this strategy requires a great deal of discipline and good time management when it comes to CPA studying. Only undertake it if you can put in the quality prep time you need.
Some thrifty people might wonder if the CPA Exam is cheaper if you pay all at once. Unfortunately, unless you have substantial travel expenses, this isn’t the case. Each section’s fee remains the same no matter how far apart or close together you schedule them. The fees vary by state but are all around $200 for each part.
So is it cheaper to take all sections of the CPA Exam at once? No, it always costs at least $1,000 (not counting fees to retake any sections) to take the whole exam. I saved money because I lived outside the US and needed to travel internationally to take the exam. The only way you’ll save money by taking all CPA Exam parts at once is if you’re in a similar situation.
About 20%, or one in five, CPA candidates pass all four parts of the exam on the first try. However, the 2022 CPA pass rates on the individual parts of the exam are higher:
Once you’ve passed a part of the CPA Exam, your rolling 18-month window begins. For example, if you pass one part in January 2022, you have until July 2023 to pass the other three parts. If you don’t, the passing score you received in January will no longer count toward completion.
Although you must pass all four parts within a 30-month window, some candidates find that it takes them several years to study and retake the exam sections to meet this goal.
That’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself, but my general response is no unless you have a strong motivation for doing so. If you’re still wondering how many CPA Exams to schedule at once, you can take a look at my breakdown of the 4 parts’ difficulty on the CPA Exam.
I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley), and I also passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam on my first try. Additionally, I have led webinars, such as for the Institute of Management Accountants, authored featured articles on websites like Going Concern and AccountingWeb, and I'm also the CFO for the charity New Sight. Finally, I have created other accounting certification websites to help mentor non-CPA candidates. I have already mentored thousands of CPA, CMA, CIA, EA, and CFA candidates, and I can help you too!