How Hard is the CPA Exam?

How hard is the CPA Exam, really? This is a frequently asked question by current and future CPA Exam candidates. So, let’s face it. Becoming a CPA is hard! CPA candidates’ realization of the exam difficulty is primarily based on the historically low CPA Exam pass rates. Other reasons why the CPA Exam is hard include:

  • insufficient preparation
  • the unique structure
  • format of the CPA Exam
  • the diverse content
  • multiple skill levels tested

Preparing for the CPA Exam

It is often said that success occurs when preparation meets opportunity. The same holds with the CPA Exam. The more prepared you are for the CPA Exam, the higher the likelihood that you will find the CPA exam less difficult. In fact, preparation is the key to success on the CPA Exam.

The AICPA makes this point when explaining why the CPA Exam pass rates change from quarter to quarter. For example, when the CPA Exam pass rates increase, the AICPA claims it is because examinees were better prepared. However, when the CPA Exam pass rates decrease, the AICPA claims it is because examinees were less prepared. Therefore, preparation is the key to making the CPA Exam less hard. 

Using a CPA Exam Review Course

As part of your efforts to make the CPA Exam less hard, you must select the best CPA Exam review course based on your learning style. I have personally reviewed (and used) every reliable CPA Exam review course available. Furthermore, I regularly update my reviews as changes are made to each CPA Exam review course. I am confident you will find a CPA Exam review course among my reviews that matches your learning style. So, please take a moment to familiarize yourself with the options.


Structure and Format of the CPA Exam

4 CPA Exam Sections

The structure and format of the CPA Exam may be unlike any exam you have ever taken. Consequently, the unique structure and format of the CPA Exam contribute to why the CPA Exam is hard. The AICPA has split the CPA Exam into “Core” sections and “Discipline” sections. Furthermore, you must pass all of the Core sections, but you only need to pass one Discipline section.

  • Core sections: AUD (Auditing and Attestation), FAR (Financial Accounting and Reporting), and REG (Taxation and Regulation)
  • CPA Discipline sections: BAR (Business Analysis and Reporting), ISC (Information Systems and Control), and TCP (Tax Compliance and Planning)

Exam Length

Second, each CPA Exam section is 4 hours long. Let me repeat that: 4 hours long! So not only does the CPA Exam test the knowledge and skills required of newly licensed CPAs, but it also tests your mental endurance. Consequently, it is equally important to develop your mental endurance as you prepare to make the CPA Exam less difficult. 

Question Types

Third, there are multiple question types on the CPA Exam:

The AICPA presents questions across several testlets per CPA Exam section. The first two testlets only include multiple-choice questions. The last three testlets only include task-based simulation questions.

Adaptive Testing

Fourth, the CPA Exam applies multistage adaptive testing, which only involves the multiple-choice questions testlets. This means that depending on how well you perform on the first multiple-choice questions testlet, the second multiple-choice questions testlet will either be of similar or higher difficulty. 

 Test Administration

Lastly, the AICPA made the exam computer-based, and you’ll take your test at a Prometric Testing Center. Before taking the CPA Exam, most candidates do not have significant experience taking a computer-based exam. It can be a challenge transitioning from a traditional paper-based exam to a computer-based exam.

Content Tested on the CPA Exam

The content tested on the CPA Exam covers a diverse range of disciplines and topics. The breadth of content is evident when comparing each CPA Exam section with each other. However, even within each CPA Exam section, the material tested is diverse and broad. Having to master a single topic is already challenging. So, having to learn numerous topics per section, across 4 sections in total, contribute to why the CPA Exam is difficult. 

CPA Exam Sections

For example, the:

  • AUD CPA section tests on topics such as ethics, audit procedures, and audit reports.
  • FAR CPA section tests on complex content like financial accounting for for-profit and governmental entities. 
  • REG CPA section tests various topics such as business law, individual taxation, and entity taxation.
  • The CPA Discipline sections test on a variety of content that supplement the skills listed above.

As you can see, the breadth of knowledge required to become a CPA is why many candidates struggle to pass the 4 sections on their first attempt. What’s more, the exam’s difficulty level is also a reason why being a CPA commands respect and trust from the public, other professionals, and the business community. 

How Hard Is the CPA Exam? Skill Levels Tested 

An additional factor that explains why the exam is challenging is that it tests multiple skill levels. Testing multiple skill levels is that relying on memorization alone to pass the CPA Exam will not work.

I must repeat: do not prepare for the CPA Exam by memorizing the concepts and principles tested. Instead, you must conceptually understand and know how to apply the ideas and principles tested.

To assist you with this, I suggest you put yourself in the shoes of a newly licensed CPA as you answer every question in your CPA review course. In other words, imagine yourself working as a CPA while you answer practice questions. Additionally, I recommend that you always seek to understand why the correct answer is the best answer. 

Skill Levels

The AICPA prepares questions using 4 different skill levels:

  1. Remembering and understanding (all sections) – The perception and comprehension of the significance of an area utilizing knowledge gained.*
  2. Application (all sections) – The use or demonstration of knowledge, concepts, or techniques.*
  3. Analysis (all sections) – The examination and study of the interrelationships of separate areas in order to identify causes and find evidence to support inferences.*
  4. Evaluation (AUD only) – The examination or assessment of problems, and the use of judgment to draw conclusions.*

*The definitions are as stated in the AICPA CPA Exam Blueprint. 

CPA Exam vs. Bar Exam

Candidates often wonder about the difficulty of the CPA Exam versus the Bar exam. Although they are both professional exams that test your deep knowledge, they are very different.

For example, CPA candidates in each of the 55 CPA jurisdictions take the exact same test. However, future lawyers take different Bar exams because not all states use the Uniform Bar Examination, which is the most common one used. And some Bar exams (like the one used in California) have a reputation for being harder than others. Therefore, it’s tricky to compare candidates’ performance on these exams.

But still, we can compare some general aspects of the CPA and Bar exams. To start, they both include multiple-choice questions and essay sections. However, the CPA Exam also tests your abilities through task-based simulations that require you to really prove your skills instead of recalling information.

Timing of CPA vs. Bar Exams

With the right preparation, Bar candidates can take and pass the entire exam over 2 days. But in contrast, CPA candidates must juggle scheduling 4 different exam parts and pass them within the 30-month rolling window. Plus, there is a waiting period to reschedule a failed section, and that just complicates the entire test-taking experience. Even if everything goes smoothly, candidates usually need at least 2 months to pass the entire CPA Exam.

Pass Rates of CPA and Bar Exams

The pass rates, however, are roughly similar, although fewer people ace the CPA Exam. Specifically, the CPA Exam pass rate hovers around 50%. In comparison, the Bar exam also has a pass rate of about 50-60%. But again, since different states use different Bar exams, the pass rates can vary depending on the difficulty of individual exams.

So in the end, which is harder? Although they are both difficult, the CPA Exam is generally considered more difficult because of the length of the exam, the lower pass rate, and the complications presented by the 30-month rolling window.

If you want to learn more about the Bar vs. CPA Exam, check out this article.

Conclusion & Action Items to Make Sure You Pass

So, how hard is the CPA Exam? Well, this is what we know: the CPA Exam is hard and will continue to be hard. However, the CPA Exam does not have to be as hard as the pass rates suggest.

Remember, preparation is the key to making the CPA Exam less hard. And the best way to prepare for the CPA Exam is to select the CPA Review course that best aligns with your learning style. Lastly, as you prepare to pass the CPA Exam, focus on understanding and not memorizing.

Furthermore, you’ll want to study for the recommended CPA study hours. Or, at least study until you have such a strong foundation for every topic that you can apply your knowledge at any difficulty level.

And when you do pass, please let me know so I can celebrate with you!

About the Author Stephanie Ng

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!

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