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How Hard Is the CPA Exam? And Why Is the Pass Rate Only 50%?

The rite of passage for becoming a public accountant includes acing only one test with four sections (by ‘ace’ here we mean securing 50% or more in each section). As such, you might think that the exam is easy, requiring only a few months of studying. But if it was so, why does CPA exam the passing rate hover below 50%? 

The Certified Public Accountants (CPA) exam conducted by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) is one tough nut to crack. While there is no limit to how many times you can take the test, the rigor it requires puts it at par with other international exams like the GMAT and LSAT. 

So what is it that makes CPA so hard to pass? There’s no simple – or single – answer. The difficulty of the exam depends on several factors, primary among them being the candidate’s abilities – which are totally subjective.

In this article, we’re going to analyze the CPA exam and see why it’s so difficult to give you a glimpse of what can be expected.  

The CPA Exam: Material, Structure, and Evaluation

A common complaint from CPA candidates concerns the enormity of the exam material. Since accounting concerns itself with frequently changing statutes and laws, there are many details one has to commit to memory. 

As mentioned before, the CPA exam is divided into 4 sections –

  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
  • Regulation (REG)
  • Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
  • Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)

Another way to put it is that there are more than 600 key points packaged into representative tasks. These representative tasks are segregated into four sections. The pattern of the exam changes and is given under the AICPA Blueprint so that candidates can prepare accordingly. 

The CPA exam demands a lot of time. Each section of the test has a duration of 4 hours, taking the total number of examination hours to a mind-boggling 16 hours total.

So what types of questions can candidates expect to encounter on the exam? These types are discussed below:

Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs)

Two MCQ testlets are provided for every section, usually containing general, straight-from-the-book multiple-choice questions. Collectively, they make approximately half the proportion of all questions in the whole exam. The FAR testlets have 33 questions each, the BEC has 31 each, REG contains 38 questions each, and there are 36 questions in AUD.

Seemingly simple, this specificity of information in the course material (dates, sections, statutes, etc.) offers ways to confuse and challenge the candidate with similar options. 

Task-Based Simulations

Commonly known as case studies, task-based simulations are long-form questions providing the candidate with context and situations based on which they have to provide responses. These are inspired by real-life scenarios that public accountants face and designed to test the application of relevant concepts in the field. There are eight task-based simulations in FAR, AUD, and REG, and four in BEC. 

Written Communications

In addition to MCQs and Task-Based Simulations, BEC tests general skills like presentation and professional email compositions. These assess the candidate’s ability to communicate challenges, issues, and solutions effectively and in a business-like manner. 

The questions in the CPA exam are set to test you on four progressive parameters. They begin with the Remembering and Understanding section to evaluate how well you’ve memorized and learned the study material. Next comes the assessment of your ability to apply the knowledge in real-life scenarios.

The last two skills, Analysis and Evaluation, test your ability to draw the right conclusions and inferences using some given information and multiple accounting concepts. 

The hardest part of the exam is definitely the FAR section. There are over 200 representative tasks under the FAR banner, all of which are highly specialized and minutely detailed. 

Time Management

With a plethora of different questions, the grueling 4-hour duration for a section seems a little too less. Task-based simulations and written commitments require a lot of time to read and formulate answers. MCQs require critical thinking, too – especially when all the answers are closely related.  Efficient time management before and during the day of examination is just as imperative as signing up for a good CPA review course.

On average, you require 80 to 100 hours to completely familiarize yourself with the study material. Being able to apply this knowledge to real-life scenarios and case studies is a completely different ballgame. 

But you don’t beat time just by passing one section. As a rule, a CPA candidate must pass all four sections of the exam within 18 months of clearing one to receive full credit(s). 

The CPA Exam is Difficult, But Not Impossible

While the CPA exam is difficult, you can pass with correct preparation. Yes, the syllabus is neverending, and the time limit is constricting, but 50% of aspiring accountants do make it to the other side of the tunnel. 

The key is to plan ahead and plan smartly. The scope of the CPA exam goes much wider than just the study material. Be smart and take more than just a glance at the CPA Blueprint taken out by AICPA every year before the exam. 

If you’ve attempted the CPA exam before and failed to clear it, take a step back and rethink your approach. Introspect and identify your weaknesses and strengths. Pay more attention to areas where you lack.

Planning for the long run is necessary. Instead of taking it section-by-section, make a plan for each section 18 months in advance. But be patient, and don’t wear yourself out. One way you can do this is by signing up with a structured CPA exam course and mentor. 

Guest Author Bio:
Bryan Kesler

Bryan Kesler is a renowned CPA exam mentor and also the founder of CPA Tutor Boost. He aims to provide affordable tutoring solutions to smart accountants struggling to pass the CPA exam. Find his resources and connect with him at

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