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Proper planning of your CPA exam schedule and testing dates will make your life much easier, and greatly increase your chance to pass the CPA exam. The CPA exam schedule is a bit confusing for many candidates because there are many different testing windows, exam days, blackout months and more. It can feel like a lot to keep track of. First-time candidates may also find the scheduling process to be really confusing.
This is why it’s recommended you do some research first, in order to prepare I am going to walk you through my recommended CPA exam schedule and explain the reasoning behind it.
You will first need to know how to schedule the CPA exam. As I said above, it can be confusing to first-time candidates who are trying to get on the schedule. Allow me to walk you through the process.
First, you need to submit a CPA application to state your intention of wanting to join the CPA program and take the exam. This application needs to be approved by your state’s board of accountancy, and then you will be told that you are eligible to sit for the exam with an Authorization to Test (ATT).
The ATT means you have 90 days to pick which section of the exam you want to sit for. Once you have decided which section(s) you want to sit for, you register for them and pay the fees on the NASBA website.
In about 3 to 6 weeks after you’ve paid your registration fees for the section(s) you are going to sit for, you will get a Notice to Schedule (NTS) for these events. The NTS is a document that legally allows you to sit for the exam. It’s very important so be sure not to lose it. You will not be able to schedule your testing date and time at a Prometric testing center without it.
You also need to know that you have only 6 months to schedule your test from the time you are issued the NTS. After 6 months from the issue date, the NTS will be invalidated and you will have to apply for it again to get a new one. This also means paying the exam fees again.
So, that’s the basic process for scheduling your CPA exam. Next, you need to know about the testing windows.
The CPA Exam is available during 4 annual testing windows:
As you can see from this schedule, there are roughly two months of testing, with about a 20-day break of no testing. You cannot schedule your exams during the break periods. You can, however, schedule your test dates at any time within the testing window. An easy way to look at it is 2 months on, then 1 month off. The break months are March, June, September, and December.
Another important thing to know is that you cannot test the same part more than once in a testing window. For example, you cannot take one part in Q1, fail it, and take it again in Q1. If you do not pass, you have to wait for the next quarter to retest. This is yet another reason to properly study so you can pass on the first try.
During these testing windows, there are some blackout dates you need to be aware of. Again, these are dates that Prometric does not allow testing for the CPA exam. This is the 3rd month of each quarter. The testing schedule does allow for some rollover, so that is why you will see the first 10 days of each month of 2020 in the testing window. However, the rest of the month is considered blackout.
It’s important to plan ahead and allow for these blackout dates in your schedule. This requires thinking out at least 12-18 months in advance. That’s because once you complete the first part of the exam, your rolling window begins. What’s the rolling window?
You also need to know about the 18-month rolling window for the CPA. This doesn’t actually have anything to do with when you schedule your exam dates. The rolling window refers to the time frame that you have to complete all four sections of the exam. This rolling window starts from the time you complete the first section of the exam. This means when you finish the first part, you’ll have 18 months to complete the other three parts of the CPA exam.
This is important because if you take the first part and pass, but then you cannot take and pass the other three parts within the window, the first one will drop off or be invalidated. This means scheduling, paying the fees, and taking it all over again. This rolling window highlights the importance of planning out your CPA testing schedule from the very beginning. You definitely want to take and pass all four sections as soon as you can.
Therefore, as soon as you sign up for the first testing part, you want to have room in your schedule for doing the other three within 18 months. You don’t want to end up having to retest a part you already passed because you didn’t get it done within the window.
The passing rate of the CPA exam has been increasing. In 2018, we’ve seen some of the highest section pass rates ever, and the average is now 53%. In the past, people have seen low test passing rates, so this is actually promising news. Pass rates under 50% can be really intimidating as you’re going into a big exam like this.
One of the reasons is that the computerized exam has allowed CPA candidates the flexibility to take the exam almost anytime during the year. The testing windows used to be a lot smaller, making it even more important to pass on the first try.
Prior to 2004, when the CPA Exam was still in the pen-and-paper format, the exam was held on specific dates twice a year. Candidates had no choice but to take multiple sections if they wanted to complete the exam within a year. Since it is a very complex test, this was a lot to take on at one test time. As a result, candidates did not always do well the first time.
With the computerized format, CPA candidates can work around their own schedules and take the CPA Exam sections one at a time within the 18-month window. This added flexibility makes it much easier on candidates. Now, with this in mind, how can you plan your CPA exam schedule to best suit your needs?
Part of planning your CPA exam schedule is understanding the fees and other costs involved. Because the fees can add up, you want to keep costs down where you can and also do your best to pass on the first try and within the rolling window so you don’t have to pay any fees more than once. It’s essential that candidates know all the costs and fees before they begin the process of applying for and testing for the CPA exam.
The examination fee covers the cost of sitting for each CPA Exam section. The NASBA examination fee schedule that guides the majority of state boards is:
The NASBA totals include these individual CPA test costs:
AICPA (development and scoring)
Security Fee/Digital Photograph
NASBA (database and reporting)
There are also additional fees like application fees, review courses, licensing and more. You can learn even more about CPA exam fees here. This chart below will give you an overview.
CPA Fee Structure
CPA Price Without a Section Retake
Price With a Section Retake
Registration Fee + Examination Fee
$75 + $208.40
How should you design your CPA exam schedule? Well, it depends on your work and family commitment. The most important part is that you do, in fact, plan out the schedule. Because this is a very important, complex exam and the fees are costly, you want to have a strategy going in.
In general, I recommend taking the 4 parts one at a time, because:
An exception is for those who incur a lot of traveling and accommodation costs to get to the exam centers, e.g. international candidates who need to travel by air to the US. Now, let’s look at the strategy for putting this exam schedule together.
Even out your CPA exam schedule. Avoid possible crashes with important events in your (and your family’s) life, such as getting married, having a baby, or changing careers. During big events, you are far more likely to get distracted and the CPA exam won’t be your priority. It’s important you research how to know when you’re ready to sit for the CPA exam. This gives you the best chance of passing on your first try.
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. If you aim to do it in 12 months, that gives you a 6-month buffer time, just in case you run into any trouble with any of the parts.
In other words, as soon as you pass the first part of the exam, the 18-month clock begins to tick. It may sound like plenty of time, but time can easily get away from you, especially if you have a busy life outside of your studies.
To recap: I recommend spreading the 4 CPA exams somewhat evenly within 12 months instead of the full 18 months.
The next question that gets asked a lot is which section of the CPA exam should you take first? Some people may disagree with this CPA Exam schedule strategy, but I prefer getting rid of the toughest beast first, because:
Along these lines, I recommend taking FAR first because:
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.
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 can be 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.
Now, if that strategy doesn’t work for you, another option is to take your most confident subject first. If you do the section you feel will be the easiest and do it fast, you can give yourself more time to focus on the harder sections and still remain in your 18-month window. This will be different for everyone, so only you can determine which will be the easiest for you and which you feel most confident in.
This is a good strategy for candidates who are fresh out of school. If you’re really good at memorizing info, for example, then this might be the best strategy for you as well. If you’re not fresh out of school but you currently work in an accounting or related field, you can use this work experience to help you determine which part to test in first. The most important thing to remember is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do it.
The right way for you is the way that helps you pass most easily. So, look over the advice in this post and see what resonates best with you.
Don’t blindly stick with my suggested CPA Exam schedule. If you are a tax accountant you might find REG the easiest, and FAR the most difficult. It depends on your background, and you should adjust your own CPA Exam schedule accordingly.
As long as you put in your thoughts and plan ahead, you will be able to optimize your time and energy to tackle this efficiently and effectively.
To give you an example, Travis and Sumit have different views on how they plan the exam sections:
|Travis Status: passed all parts AUD -> REG -> FAR -> BEC (In retrospect he would have taken FAR first)||Sumit Status: just started AUD -> BEC -> REG -> FAR (See why he takes FAR last)|
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!