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The Structure and Format of the Uniform CPA Exam

CPA Exam

So, youre thinking about pursuing your childhood dream of becoming a Certified Public Accountant?! (Slight sarcasm) … 

On a serious note, getting your CPA license is one of the most prestigious and rewarding licenses that will change the trajectory of your career. Yes, taking the CPA exam will cost you money, but its absolutely worth it.

However, its not something that you just do.  This article breaks down everything you need to know so that you have a better idea as to how long to study for the CPA exam.

How is the CPA Exam Scored?

The passing score for the Uniform CPA Examination is a score of a 75%

On the surface, this might seem like a relatively easy score to achieve as scoring a 75% in your undergraduate or master’s in accounting courses will merely result in a C, which is a relatively average grade for most university standards. However, scoring a 75% on the CPA exam is a much different conversation. While the CPA exam is not curved, there is plenty about the exam grading structure that is far from usual.

How Long is the CPA Exam?

You will have 4 hours to complete each of the four CPA exam sections which will be scheduled separately through the Prometric testing site.  Each of the four exams will allow candidates to have two 15-minute breaks, which are always highly recommended to take advantage of as it is a long exam that can result in fatigue. You dont want to lose points due to a tired brain and making reckless errors. make sure to go to the bathroom before your exam starts and pack food and water that you can have during your 15-minute break. keeping your energy high while sitting for this 4-hour exam is necessary, so make sure not to neglect these little details.

CPA Exam Structure:

The CPA exam structure is very similar across each of the four CPA exam sections (Financial Accounting and Reporting, Business Environment Concepts, Auditing and Attestation, and Regulation), in that, all four exams equally weight each sections score as 50% allocated to the multiple-choice portion and another 50% allocated to the task-based simulation portion. NASBA CPA exam scores are released on the same date each month, so make sure to check the CPA release schedule to know when your exam score is expected to be released by your state board of accountancy.

However, something that many candidates are not aware of when considering how the CPA exam is graded, is the fact that there are different scores apportioned to each question. for example, in the multiple-choice testlets, the CPA candidate will receive their first testlet which is considered an easier set of questions. The difficulty level for the second set of multiple-choice questions will depend on the candidate’s performance on the first testlet. If the CPA candidate performs well on the 1st testlet, they will receive a more challenging multiple-choice testlet in their second set which will allocate more weight to the correct answer choices achieved. Below is a breakout of the total amount of questions and task-based simulations for each of the four CPA Exam sections:

Auditing and Attestation (AUD):

                72 multiple-choice questions

                8 task-based simulations

                Testlet, one has 36 multiple-choice questions

                Testlet two has 36 multiple-choice questions

                Testlet three has 2 task-based simulations

                Testlet four has 3 task-based simulations

                Testlet three has 3 task-based simulations

Business Environment Concepts (BEC):

                62 multiple-choice questions

                4 task-based simulations

                3 Written communication topics

                Testlet, one has 31 multiple-choice questions

                Testlet two has 31 multiple-choice questions

                Testlet three has 2 task-based simulations

                Testlet four has 2 task-based simulations

                Testlet three has 3 written communications

Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR):

                66 multiple-choice questions

                8 task-based simulations

                Testlet, one has 33 multiple-choice questions

                Testlet two has 33 multiple-choice questions

                Testlet three has 2 task-based simulations

                Testlet four has 3 task-based simulations

                Testlet three has 3 task-based simulations

Regulation (REG)

                76 multiple-choice questions

                8 task-based simulations

                Testlet, one has 38 multiple-choice questions

                Testlet two has 38 multiple-choice questions

                Testlet three has 2 task-based simulations

                Testlet four has 3 task-based simulations

                Testlet three has 3 task-based simulations

It is widely considered impossible to pass the exams without receiving a difficult level testlet on the second set. So, it’s important to ensure that you thoroughly understand the intuition behind each of the topics, rather than memorizing your way through. Before sitting for your exam, it is crucial that you purchase a CPA review course that aligns with how you learn.

For visual learners, Universal CPA Review is a great option as it simplifies some of the more challenging topics tested and offers a video explanation for every single practice question, which is certainly something novel as far as CPA review course material goes.

How Hard is the CPA Exam Itself?  

Beyond the challenging nature of the CPA exam format, what makes the CPA exams very challenging mostly revolves around task-based simulations. Simulations on the CPA exam or essentially a case study that breaks down the topics any real-life simulated situation. 

This is the AICPA testing the CPA candidate’s ability to think critically about the topic and apply it as if they were doing so as a real-life professional. So, if you are taking the audit exam, for example, you might receive a series of exhibits and challenging descriptions that require you to source through and conclude the correct answer choice. 

Another challenging element of the task-based sims is the research potion. For each of the four CPA exam sections you are required to navigate through the authoritative literature search feature that is provided in the exam’s computer technology. This is one of the ways that the AICPA test the candidate’s ability to act as a professional. The reason is because in the real-world CPAs should be able to source through the literature outlined by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), and the literature provided by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

So What CPA Exam Section is the Hardest?

The reality is each of the four CPA exam sections is hard in its very own way, but the Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) exam is universally known as the most challenging exam. If you take one look at the historical CPA exam pass rates, you will see that the FAR section generally has the lowest pass rates. The reason that the FAR exam is difficult to pass is not because of its complicated questions, but because there is so much information to absorb and remember come exam day. At the end of the day, studying for each CPA exam section requires around 120-150 study hours to pass. Keep in mind though, it’s not about total study hours, but rather consistent and quality study time that makes the difference in passing and failing these exams. So put together a CPA study schedule and stick to it.

Bottom Line:

There’s a lot that you need to be prepared for when it comes to sitting for the CPA exam, and if pursuing the ultimate accounting licensure is something that you wish to pursue, be prepared for what it is you’re walking into. The grading of the CPA exam is not something that it’s always black and white. It can be a little bit hard to understand what is that the AICPA examiners prioritize, but one thing is clear, you cannot pass these exams without studying rigorously.

Bio: Joey Reeve, CPA is cofounder and lead instructor of Universal CPA Review. This post is designed for those interested in learning more about the CPA exams or currently studying for them. As a disclosure, Universal CPA Review is a CPA exam study resource that is particularly designed for visual learners.