Real Talk: How Hard is the CPA Exam?

how hard is the cpa exam

To become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), you need to pass the 4-part CPA exam. Always in-demand, becoming a CPA is a future-proof endeavor that can set you up for life. But this little test may pose a problem. Because it isn’t little.

The CPA is among the topmost challenging professional entry exams in the world. It’s often compared to the GMAT, LSAT, and CMA exam in terms of difficulty. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s insurmountable. However, it is going to require some serious study and dedication.

Of course, you really should know what they’re getting into. If you’re going to study for the CPA exam, knowing what you’re up against will help you measure your own timeline and the effort required to pass. 

The CPA exam is made up of four sections, each covering a wide body of knowledge that relates to public accounting. You take each of these four-hour tests separately and have 18 months to complete them all. 

Scored from 0-99, you need a score of 75 to pass each test. It’s ambitious but doable. 

If you do pass the CPA exam the first time, you’ll be among only about 30% of fellow test-takers. The reality is, only about 50% of the people who take the CPA exam each quarter go on to pass it. But don’t fear — just find out what you can about CPA difficulty so you can properly gauge your study efforts.

 We’ll outline all of the ins and outs now of what makes the CPA exam notoriously difficult so that you can get your mindset together and master it.

What Makes the CPA Exam Difficult?

what makes the cpa exam difficult

The CPA exam is a knowledge-based exam but it doesn’t just require rote memorization. The CPA is a challenging test. Each year, it’s changed slightly by the publishing body, the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA). There are a few facets that contribute to it being so difficult: 

CPA Exam Topics

It’s no secret that the CPA exam covers a broad range of topics. After all, you’ll be taking 12 hours of tests in all. Each of the four sections dives deep into a different area of public accounting. 

  1. AUD: Auditing and Attestation
  2. BEC: Business Environment and Concepts
  3. FAR: Financial Accounting and Reporting
  4. REG: Regulation

Mastering the sheer volume of knowledge is a huge hurdle. A quality CPA review will break these concepts down into micro-learning opportunities and do a lot of review so you can enhance retention.

CPA Exam Knowledge Application

Yes, you have to memorize a lot. But the unique challenge of the CPA exam is that you aren’t just regurgitating facts. You need to truly understand foundational concepts and principles well enough to apply them. 

Task-based scenarios will pose real situations in which you need to apply the right statutes, laws, and principles to apply accounting knowledge in a meaningful way. This is part of the reason you can’t just cram for the CPA exam. It’s better to spend the right amount of time and gain real understanding before you try to tackle the test.

CPA Exam Timing

Each section of the CPA exam is a four-hour test. Within these four hours, you will encounter multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations. For the BEC section, you will also have to do a written task. 

Within the test, you will likely have about a minute and a half per multiple-choice question and less than a minute per task-based simulation. You can already see how challenging that is. Part of any good CPA study program will include practice tests that help you refine your test-taking and time-management skills.

Getting Your CPA Exam Scores

You receive your CPA exam scores from the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). It’s likely you’ll get your CPA exam scores within a few weeks of taking the test. If you’ve done your due diligence and put in the study time, you could get good news. But not everyone is so lucky, as global CPA exam pass rates indicate.

What’s the Global CPA Exam Pass Rate?

global cpa pass rate

Like most high-level, professional entry exams, the CPA exam doesn’t have a super high pass rate. AICPA has released 2020 CPA exam pass rates, which are:

  1. AUD 47.97%
  2. BEC 61.76%
  3. FAR 46.37%
  4. REG 55.42%

In 2019, the cumulative CPA pass rates were:

  1. AUD 51.01%
  2. BEC 59.98%
  3. FAR 46.31%
  4. REG 56.34%

Since the CPA exam is known to be so difficult, you may ask yourself, “Is it hard to be a CPA?” The difficulty of the test and overall pass rates should clue you in. Once you pass the test and get your certification, you’ll have proven a solid understanding and ability to apply your knowledge. Additionally, these numbers shed some light on which sections are more difficult than others.

What’s the CPA Exam Difficulty by Section?

cpa exam difficulty by section

Not all sections of the CPA exam are created equal. While there is a huge personal factor in which parts you may find more challenging, pass rates indicate some global trends. And one section of the CPA stands out for difficulty.

Hardest Part of the CPA Exam

The hardest part of the CPA exam is universally accepted to be FAR. There are a few reasons for this. First, you may be coming into the CPA exam fresh off an accounting degree. However, there are a lot of different kinds of accounting degrees, and yours may not have covered FAR topics in depth.

Second, you may not have an accounting degree at all. There are varying requirements to become a CPA and you may be on an alternate route.

Either way, FAR is hard because the concepts aren’t as common. Financial Accounting and Reporting is a comprehensive portion of the CPA exam. There are a ton of subsections that require heavily applied knowledge. 

Generally, you’re going to have to know about state and local governments, financial statement accounts, select transactions, and the conceptual framework. All of this adds up to a hugely challenging test. 

In 2019, only 46% of candidates passed the FAR section.

Easiest Part of the CPA Exam

On the other hand, not all sections of the CPA exam are going to be quite as rigorous. Most people report that the easiest part of the CPA exam is BEC. Business Environment and Concepts covers topics that are a lot more accessible than the minutiae of reporting and government operations.

BEC is also the only section of the CPA that has a written task. This provides some relief from the demanding multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations. For some types of learners, it could play to their strengths and improve their chances of passing.

BEC’s relative ease is evidenced by its far higher passing rate. In 2019, nearly 60% of test-takers passed this section of the CPA exam.

How Many Times Can You Take the CPA Exam?

how many times can you take the cpa exam

When you register for the CPA exam, your clock starts ticking. From that point, you have 18 months to take all four sections. But with pass rates being what they are, there obviously has to be a way for people to retake failed sections of the exam. 

As many as half of test-takers have to do this, so there are some options you can pursue. Keep in mind that it will add to your CPA exam costs each time you have to rewrite an exam section. You’ll also want to make sure you schedule your CPA exam dates with the 18-month time limit in mind, in case you need rewrites.

Here are the basics:

  • You can take more than one section of the CPA exam in a testing window
  • You cannot take the same section of the CPA exam within the same testing window
  • Within 24 hours of getting less than a 75, you can reapply to take that section of the CPA exam again
  • You can retake the CPA exam as many times as you want to, within the parameters of testing windows and the 18-month restriction

It’s most important to immediately start to create a plan. Because you are on that 18-month timeline, you don’t want to waste any time. It may be worthwhile to speak to an exam coach or consider switching your CPA review course. 

Many online CPA courses will provide a score improvement guarantee if you switch to them. If you failed with one course, it may be time to find a new one that better meets your needs. Either way, knowing how hard the CPA exam is should help you move on from a failing score, regroup and move ahead to pass the next time.

If you’re ready to get studying, check out our comparison of the best CPA review courses and choose a program that will help you pass the first time!

FAQs

faqs

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about how hard the CPA exam is.

Is the CPA exam really that hard?

The CPA exam is frequently compared to the MCAT or CMA exam. This is a test that requires high-level knowledge. What’s more, you have to apply that knowledge. 

The CPA exam has about a 50% pass rate. This means that of all of the qualified test-takers who have the ambition to become CPAs, only half of them pass the CPA the first time. Passing the CPA exam requires some serious study time and the development of skills to master task-based simulations.

Is the new CPA exam harder?

Many people are reporting that the new CPA exam is harder than the old one. In 2017, some major changes were brought to the CPA exam. The goal was to focus on skills and logic. Once these changes rolled out to the AICPA blueprints, test-takers got hit pretty hard.

Before 2017, the CPA primarily tested these two skills: remembering/understanding and application. After 2017, the CPA tested for analysis and evaluation. These require some higher-level thought and much more sophisticated application of ideas.

Is it normal to not go through every question when studying for the CPA?

Most CPA review courses will come with multiple-choice question test banks and task-based simulation test banks. Some of these number in the tens of thousands. Because of this, it’s probably impossible to practice with all of that content. 

What a good CPA program will do to prepare you is provide intuitive, AI-based software or some kind of customization. That way, based on initial and regular practice tests, you can get served content that best improves your areas of weakness. This is probably the only effective way to get through the quantity of content required to pass the test.

Is Series 7 harder than CPA?

Series 7—or the General Securities Representative Qualification Examination—qualifies people to work as registered representatives. This is a desirable position in the finance sector and one that may be considered by the same kinds of people who want to become CPAs. 

When it comes to the tests, Series 7 covers municipal fund securities, corporate securities, solicitation, and more. It has about a 65% pass rate. Comparatively, the CPA exam covers business concepts, financial accounting and reporting, regulation and auditing/attestation. Both are broad, difficult tests. The CPA exam has about a 50% cumulative pass rate, which indicates that it’s the harder of the two tests.

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