The CPA Exam Written Communications, commonly known as “the essays,” is one part of the exam that worries people. The grading is not as black-and-white as the multiple-choice questions, so they might seem a little daunting. However, if you go into the exam prepared with my tips, you’re more likely to conquer the Written Communications.
Check out my tips in this video:
Or, here is the text version for your reference.
Written Communications are only required in the BEC part of the exam. If you are done with BEC, you may stop reading this page. (Lucky you, and congrats on passing BEC!)
Simply put, Written Communications are…well…written communications. These essay-like questions ask you to reply to real-world situations. You will be required to write responses to given scenarios in the form of a memo or other business communication.
The questions usually aren’t designed to trick you with complicated problems. Instead, the Written Communications essays are intended to test your ability to write about and clearly communicate accounting concepts.
You’re probably already aware of the four sections on the CPA Exam. You will take them one at a time.
The CPA Exam includes three types of questions:
However, you might not know that the four parts of the CPA Exam have slightly different formats:
So, you won’t have to worry about tackling the Written Communications until you sit for the BEC section of the CPA Exam. But since the Written Communications section represents 15% of your overall score in BEC, it is important to know some BEC writing tips.
Since Written Communications only appear in the BEC section of the CPA Exam, let’s review what you can expect.
The Business Environment and Concepts section tests your knowledge about business concepts and transactions. Plus, most of the BEC MCQs and SIMs test your business knowledge. So, be prepared to address the following:
But don’t let this short list of topics fool you. Everything in this list has nuanced concepts that can trip you up on the exam if you don’t study hard enough for BEC.
A BEC Written Communication might cover a range of accounting concepts, not just those covered in the BEC section. To earn points for this section, candidates must read a description of a situation and write a document that responds to that scenario. The document type is specified in the question, which may include a memo or letter to a hypothetical client.
The Written Communications can address any of the accounting skills tested in all four sections of the CPA Exam. Therefore, candidates often take this section last after passing AUD, FAR, and REG.
The graders want to test candidates’ ability to construct professional business documents. First, they will make sure that you addressed the given scenario with a proper response based on sound accounting judgment, knowledge, and skills. So, your answer should reflect that you understand the issue presented and know how to respond in a clear and professional manner.
The graders want to see that you understand the accounting issue and can clearly and concisely reply. Therefore, they aren’t looking for a novel. And, they certainly don’t expect your narrative to be worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. So, just stick to my 7 tips that I share below.
Graders look for:
Communicate your points in complete sentences. So, avoid using bullet points, abbreviations, diagrams, charts, number lists, and graphs.
In fact, the reason is actually more technical than anything else. Your answers will likely be graded by machines (yes!) that are programmed to check the grammar and sentence structures.
Plus, bullet points are typically not presented as complete sentences. Furthermore, the grading program notes when sentences are not complete and will deduct points.
If you’ve ever answered an e-mail in a professional setting, drafting a standard business letter or memo should be fairly easy for you. And when it comes to business writing, don’t be fancy. So, keep it short, simple, and straight-to-the-point. We have some tips on writing good CMA exam essays that could be helpful for your Written Communications.
Your writing must demonstrate a command of standard professional English including correct use of grammar, spelling, and word usage.
The CPA Exam software includes a basic word processor that features a spell check function. Be sure to use this valuable tool.
Tip: check out my review of the classic guide The Elements of Style on standard English writing in Chapter 9 of my book, How to Pass the CPA Exam. If you don’t have a copy of The Elements of Style from your English 101 days in college (I actually have two copies), I recommend picking one up. Browse through it to remind yourself of the basic rules of good English, especially if English isn’t your first language.
Although some BEC Written Communications are randomly pulled and reviewed by human graders, most Written Communications questions are graded by machines. So, it’s important that you stay on topic. Use topic keywords in your essay. And, be careful not to copy the text of the question word-for-word or you may lose points.
By demonstrating your knowledge in the subject by providing details, examples, and definitions, you will have a higher chance of succeeding in this section of the CPA Exam.
Each paragraph in your response must establish support or summarize the answer to the question at hand. So clearly answer the question. Then, give additional support details in your paragraph to back up your response.
Avoid writing more than what is needed.
Write down your basic ideas on the whiteboard or the scratch paper that will be given to you when checking in at the testing center. Writing an outline might seem like a waste of time, but it’s not. The best BEC writing samples start with an outline to keep the response organized and on topic.
Use those essay-writing skills that I’m sure you picked up in school. You may be familiar with the term “3-part essay,” which is what you’re striving for. The first part is the introduction. Next, the second part is the body (the main argument). And finally, a good essay ends with a summary conclusion. So, make sure your communication has a clear beginning, middle, and finally a conclusion.
Start with an overview that describes the purpose or intent of your communication. To make it easy, you can simply rewrite the question so the beginning sentence of the introduction paragraph closely matches the topic. For example, just for fun, let’s assume that the question is “Why is the sky blue?” You can start your communication with an overview that restates the question, maybe something like: “This memo explains why the sky is blue.” (You can find more tips on how to do this in my book.)
Then, ensure that your following paragraphs support this overview. That is, each paragraph should lead into the next. And finally, summarize the key points of the document in the last paragraph.
Be conscious of your time limit. Remember: It is important that your communication has a complete introduction, middle paragraphs, and a conclusion. So, allocate sufficient time to complete each section of the writing.
Since I like numbers and math, I like to precisely plan and divide my allotted time to conquer the Written Communications. Using the example of the “3-part essay” from above, here’s how I plan my time for each essay:
You can use the clock on the computer to keep an eye on the time. Remember, the grading program checks for complete sentences. So if you start to run low on time, don’t switch to bullet points.
The following chart shows the percentage of “comparable” or “stronger” in score reports, by country, according to NASBA.
Obviously, your performance may not be the same as your peers. But, this chart helps illustrate the overall success of Written Communications from CPA candidates in several countries.
Source: NASBA report
If you are from a country with a relatively low percentage, you should get better prepared.
So, what does this chart tell us? Well, you’ll probably notice that countries likely to have a higher percentage of English-speaking CPA candidates tend to do better on the Written Communications. If you’re an international candidate, you can find more tips to pass the CPA Exam in my free e-course.
I hope these CPA Exam Written Communication tips ease your concerns about this part of the exam.
If you want extra tips to ace this section, I have a “formula” in Chapter 10 of my book that you can implement when working on any Written Communication tasks. Here’s a summary, but read my book for even more comprehensive tips.
Step 1. Identify the format, objective, your role, and your audience
Step 2. Identify keywords related to the objective
Step 3. Write down the first sentence of each paragraph
Step 4. Begin the first sentence of the first paragraph by rewriting the question
Step 5. State the core concept or position and develop ideas your in separate paragraphs
Step 6. Keep the conclusion simple and professional
Step 7. Proofread from beginning to end
In terms of how you can actually follow these steps, you’ll need to get my book to find out!
Here is a more detailed discussion of my book and how you can get your own copy.
Your CPA Exam review course should include acceptable answers to Written Communications. I have reviewed the best CPA Exam review courses of 2020 to help you find the right study materials.
Your Written Communication response doesn’t have to follow a certain template. You might find other websites that sell “templates” for these problems. However, I really don’t think you need them. So, my recommendation is to stick to the standard academic three-part essay format with an introduction, supporting paragraphs, and conclusion. For the responses that require you to construct a business letter, review that format before your exam.
The grading program uses an algorithm to find phrases and keywords that are likely to be used in response to the prompt question. Here’s a tip: after you read the question, write down a list of these buzzwords before you start on the outline of your response. First, think about the keywords that your college professors, co-workers, or your CPA Exam review course used when addressing this topic. By using those keywords in your response, you’ll have a better chance at a good score.
During the BEC writing portion of the CPA Exam, you’ll have access to a word processing program that will allow you to type out your response. And don’t forget to spellcheck before you are finished!
The BEC section is 4 hours long. However, the Written Communications portion is only 75 minutes. So, you will have 75 minutes to answer all 3 communications, or about 25 minutes each. Be sure to budget your time accordingly.
Most of the Written Communications are graded by a computer. However, the concept isn’t as crazy as it sounds. The grading program analyses your response for certain key elements, like complete sentences (sentences with a subject and verb) and proper grammar and punctuation. The program can even identify good syntax and word flow by comparing your writing against the common order of words in “good writing.”
The program will also search for the usage of words and phrases related to the question’s topic, so keep that in mind when phrasing your response.
Yes—you can receive partial credit on the Written Communications and task-based simulations. (Not on the multiple-choice questions, though.) So even if you don’t have the perfect response to a Written Communication, write down something, as long as it is related to the question’s topic and is written in complete sentences.
Even the best writers get stuck with writer’s block. If you’re not sure what to write about, consider addressing the background of the problem, give examples, or simply explain how to complete a series of steps. Just remember to use your keywords in complete sentences.
The BEC section includes three Written Communications. Two of them are the “real” questions, and one is a “pre-test” question that won’t be counted in your final score. However, don’t try to guess which one is the pre-test questions; there is no way of knowing. Instead, respond to each prompt to the best of your ability.
The best way to study for the BEC Written Communications is to practice. Especially if you struggle with writing or if English is not your first language, the only way to feel more comfortable with essays is to practice, practice, practice.
So how do you practice? First, I would check out the AICPA’s CPA Exam study materials and blueprints. The blueprints outline what might be covered in the exam from year to year.
Second, I strongly recommend that you purchase a CPA Exam review course. A course with a good curriculum can help you study faster and with a higher level of efficiency. Plus, you’ll get access to CPA Exam BEC Written Communications examples. I have lots of unbiased reviews to make your choice a little easier.
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!