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What Is the CPA Exam? A Complete Guide to the Test

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Dec 11, 2019 3:00:00 PM

General Education

 

feature-accounting-calculator

Are you interested in becoming a certified public accountant? If so, you probably already know that there are several qualifications you need to have met before you can become licensed. Some of those—such as work experience—come with time and patience, but the biggest step towards licensure is to pass the CPA Exam. 

But what is the CPA Exam, exactly? And how do you pass it? Well, no worries because this is your complete guide to everything you need to know about taking (and passing) the CPA Exam. In this article, we’ll cover: 

  • What the CPA Exam is
  • Who should take the CPA Exam
  • The CPA Exam score release dates 
  • How to register for the CPA exam
  • Data on the CPA exam pass rate
  • An overview of the exam itself, including its format and question types

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started!

 

What Is the CPA Exam?

First, let’s discuss what the CPA Exam is. The test’s actual title is the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination, and it’s developed and scored by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). 

But more importantly: the CPA test is necessary to achieve licensure in all 50 states and other U.S. jurisdictions. In other words, you can’t become an accountant if you don’t pass the CPA exam! 

 

What’s the Format of the CPA Exam? 

The CPA test is a computer-based exam that consists of four separate sections, each of which takes four hours. The four exam sections are separated by topic: 

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

Unlike many standardized tests where you have to take the complete test in one sitting, you take the CPA Exam over multiple sessions. You can take as many as two sections in a single session, and you must pass all four within an 18-month timeframe

Each of the four test sections is further broken down into five sections (called testlets), and they consist of multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations. On some exams, you’ll also have written communication tasks, which are longer form writing responses. 

Here’s a quick breakdown of the three major question types that appear on the CPA exam: 

  • Multiple Choice Questions: You choose the correct answer among four or more options
  • Task-Based Simulations: These fall into the “short answer” or “open answer” category. You’ll have to work problems and record your own answers. 
  • Written Communication Tasks: This is a fancy way to say “essay response questions.” For these questions, you’ll have to write up and submit an answer. 

We know you want to know more about the content covered by the CPA exam. We’ll talk about it in a lot more depth a little later in this article! 

 

How Is the CPA Exam Scored?

Each section is scored on a scale of 0-99 points, and you’ll need to score 75 points to pass. This does not mean that 75% is a passing score, though! Each of the testlets is weighted differently, depending upon the section, and points are awarded depending upon the weight. 

Here’s how those weights break down for each exam portion: 

Question Type
AUD
BEC
FAR
REG
Multiple Choice Questions 
50%
50%
50%
50%
Task-Based Simulations 
50%
35%
50%
50%
Written Communication Tasks
N/A
15%
N/A
N/A

 

Also keep in mind that the CPA Exam doesn’t penalize you for wrong answers, so it makes more sense to guess than to leave a question blank. 

For a more in-depth explanation of the scoring process, read the AICPA’s site

 

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How Much Does the CPA Exam Cost? 

Like with everything related to the CPA Exam, the costs and fees vary from state to state. In general, you can expect to pay a $150 application fee, then somewhere between $180-$250 per exam section. 

That means the CPA Exam itself will cost you about $1200 to take (fees excluded). 

And guess what? There are quite a few fees involved! Some states require you to pay an additional registration fee per test section, which can range between $45 to $65 per section. Additionally, some states require you to take and pass an ethics exam before you can get your licensure, which can run you another $150-$200. And finally, once you pass the exam, you’ll have to pay a licensing fee to your state board. These fees can be as low as $100 or as high as $500! 

So let’s see what becoming a CPA could cost you depending on your state: 

Fee

Cost

CPA Exam Application Fee
$150
CPA Exam ($210/section) 
$840
Test Site Registration Fee ($45/test) 
$180
Ethics Exam 
$150
State Board Licensing Fee
$100
Total
$1420

 

That’s a pretty decent chunk of change! Remember that the costs can go higher if you have to retake sections you fail, miss testing dates, or don’t sign up within certain testing windows. 

That’s why it’s important to learn as much as you can about the CPA Exam now—it can save you money in the long run! 

 

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Who Can Take the CPA Exam? 

There are certain requirements regarding who is eligible to take the exam, and those can vary from state to state. We’ve compiled the general requirements below, but be sure to check with your state’s Board of Education to see if there are any additional requirements for CPA Exam test takers. 

 

Citizenship 

In all but four states (Alabama, Hawaii, Louisiana, and North Carolina), you must be a U.S. citizen before you are eligible to take the CPA exam. The CPA license itself is only recognized within the U.S. and its territories, so it is largely assumed that you plan to reside and work within the United States. As a result, most candidates seeking licensure are already citizens. If you are not yet a U.S. citizen and are looking into licensure, you’ll need to take the exam in one of the four states listed above. 

However, keep in mind that you'll also need a Social Security Number in order to take the test. If you are a citizen but do not have a Social Security Number, there are five states that do not require SSNs in order to be eligible (Illinois, Montana, New York, South Dakota, and Wisconsin). Note that these are not the states that let non-citizens take the CPA exam.

If you don’t meet the requirements outlined above, there is a related exam, the U.S. CPA International Qualification Examination (IQEX), that allows for non-citizen accounting professionals to do business with U.S. organizations that have entered into reciprocity agreements with their governing bodies. In other words, it’s a way for U.S. companies to make sure that their international partners are able to work within and alongside American tax and accounting codes. 

The IQEX however, is for non-citizens who intend to live outside the U.S., whereas the CPA exam is for U.S. citizens living within the U.S. and its jurisdictions. If you’re looking to become a certified accountant in the U.S., you must take the CPA Exam. 

 

Age

In all 50 states and all 5 jurisdictions, you need to be over 18 years of age in order to take the CPA exam. If you are not yet 18 years old and want to take the exam, go ahead and start studying—there is no age limit on studying for the CPA exam, and it will give you a head start toward getting started with your career!

 

Education

The minimum educational experience required to take the CPA exam varies by state. However, most states require at least 120 credit hours or a bachelor's degree in accounting from an accredited university before you can sit for the exam. Some states will allow you to take the exam with fewer than 120 credit hours if you are a college senior and close to graduating. 

Most states require you to have a bachelor’s degree in accounting before you can take the test. The only states that don’t are Maine, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Georgia, and Alaska. But even though you don’t have to have an accounting degree to take the CPA exam in these states, you still have to have a certain number of accounting courses under your belt. For instance, in Georgia, you have to have 20 hours of accounting courses (18 of which are upper-level) before you can qualify for the exam. In Alaska, however, you can have less than 15 hours of coursework if you have at least one year of work experience in the field. 

Having said that, the easiest way to qualify for the CPA Exam is to make sure you’re earning your bachelor’s degree in accounting.

 

Still Not Sure You Qualify for the CPA Exam? 

If you’re not sure whether or not you meet all the CPA exam requirements, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) has developed a quiz you can take to learn whether or not you’re qualified. 

Not only will this quiz tell you whether you’ve met the general minimum requirements to take the CPA Exam, it gives you a list of the next steps to take on your journey to becoming a  certified public accountant. 

 

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Prometric is the company that administers the CPA Exam.
(VUTHAOINC / Wikimedia)

 

How Do I Register for the CPA Exam?

Now that you know whether or not you’re qualified to take the CPA exam, let’s talk about how you go about taking it. Just like the ACT or SAT, you have to register to take the CPA Exam. But the process can be a little intimidating! 

That’s why we’re here to break it down for you. Here’s everything you need to know about registering for the CPA exam:

 

Test Dates and Locations

The company that administers the CPA exam, Prometric, has an online page that will help you find a testing location and time. There is also a seat availability tool to make sure there is space available in the time you choose.

The CPA exam schedule is given in four quarterly testing windows:

Quarter 
Testing Dates
Q1 
January 1 - March 10
Q2
April 1 - June 10
Q3
July 1 - September 10
Q4
October 1 - December 10

 

Be sure to check with your individual schools to see when they require you to submit your CPA exam scores. You want to schedule a date that gives you plenty of time to do well on the test! 

 

Where and How to Register 

Before you register for the CPA exam, you’ll need to apply to the NASBA directly. Like we mentioned earlier, each state has different requirements for sitting for the CPA exam, so you’ll have to check with your state’s Board of Accountancy to see what you need to submit. 

One thing you’ll definitely have to do is send your college transcripts to your state’s Board of Accountancy. These can take a while to get there, so it’s best that you do this well before you submit your application packet. Remember that your school may charge a fee to send your transcripts. 

And speaking of fees...most states have application fees. While most states charge around $150 for you to apply for the CPA Exam, that number could be a little higher or lower depending on where you live. Be sure you check to see what the fee is—and if there are fee waiver programs available—for your state.

One thing to note is that you can apply for the exam at any time throughout the year as long as you meet eligibility requirements. There’s not a specific application window, which makes things a little easier! 

 

Authorization to Test (ATT) and Notice to Schedule (NTS) 

Once your state board has approved your application, you’ll receive your Authorization to Test (ATT). The ATT allows you to sign up to take one part of the CPA test while the Board finalizes your application. Keep in mind that your ATT is usually good for 90 days, which means you’ll have to schedule your first exam within three months of receiving your ATT. If you don’t, you’ll have to resubmit your application—and pay your application fee—again.

Within three to six weeks of receiving your ATT and registering for your first exam, you will receive your official Notice to Schedule (NTS). That will allow you to go to Prometric’s page to schedule a seat to take the exam. You won’t be taking all the exam sections on the same day (that would be a long 16 hours)! Your NTS is good for six months (in most states), so you’ll have a six month window to schedule your tests. If your NTS expires before you are able to schedule and pass every section of your exam, you’ll have to apply for another one...which means you’ll have to pay your fees again. 

One quick note about test dates: not all exam sections are administered on the same date or at the same location! You definitely don’t want to take a portion of the CPA Exam twice if you don’t have to. 

 

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(Alberto G. / Flickr

 

The Day of the Exam

Once you show up to the testing center, you’ll need to bring a government-issued identification card (such as your driver’s license) in order to be admitted to the testing site. What notes you can use (if any) and what materials (such as calculators and notepads) you can bring into the site vary by location, so once you’re scheduled, verify with your specific location what you can or cannot use during the test. Likewise if you need disability accommodations, reach out to your testing location to secure them.

Keep in mind that sitting for the CPA Exam can be pretty strenuous. While the exam itself is four hours, it’s split into two chunks (of two hours each) with one 15-minute break in the middle. We highly recommend taking timed practice exams so you’ll be prepared for the exam length and structure come test day! 

 

When Will My Scores Be Reported?

The AICPA’s website has in-depth tables that show you exactly when you can expect your exam scores to be reported. Typically, there is about a one- to three-week gap between sitting the exam and your CPA exam score release.

Use the tables linked above to determine CPA exam score release dates and when you wish to take the exam. Then you can plan to have your scores in time to begin your work experience and work towards licensure!

 

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Which Subjects Are Covered on the CPA Exam?

Like we mentioned earlier, the CPA Exam is split into four sections which cover different topics. Let’s take a little closer look at each topic. 

 

Auditing and Attestation (AUD)

 This section has 72 multiple choice questions and eight task-based simulations. The AUD section tests your ability to perform audits on issuer and non-issuer entities, including benefit plans and federal grants, preparation, compilation, and review procedures. You are expected to “demonstrate knowledge and skills related to professional responsibilities, including ethics, independence and professional skepticism.”

 

Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)

This section consists of 62 multiple choice questions, four task-based simulations and three written communication tasks (i.e. essays). In the BEC, you’ll be tested on your ability to audit, attest, perform accounting and review services, complete financial reporting, prepare taxes, and other professional responsibilities. 

 

Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)

This section has 66 multiple choice questions and eight task-based simulations. The FAR section “assesses the knowledge and skills that a newly licensed CPA must demonstrate in the financial accounting and reporting frameworks used by business entities (public and nonpublic), not-for-profit entities and state and local government entities.”

 

Regulation (REG)

This section consists of 76 questions and eight task-based simulations. It “tests the knowledge and skills that a newly licensed CPA must demonstrate with respect to U.S. federal taxation, U.S. ethics and professional responsibilities related to tax practice, and U.S. business law.”

For an in-depth overview of the CPA exam format and what you’re expected to know, here are the official 2019 test blueprints.

 

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What Types of Questions Are on the CPA Exam? 

Like we mentioned earlier, there are three major question types on the CPA Exam: multiple-choice questions (MCQs), task-based simulations (TBSs), and written communication tasks (WCTs). Let’s take a look at each of these in a little more detail. 

 

Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQs) 

Multiple-choice questions on your CPA test work just like those you’ve been dealing with for four years of school. The exam will posit a question, then you’ll have to choose from four or more answers. 

No matter which section you’re taking, the MCQs are worth 50% of your overall score. That means it’s worth making sure you’re answering as many of them correctly as possible. 

In general, most experts recommend trying to answer each MCQ in 90 seconds or less. That ensures you’ll have enough time to tackle the other types of questions before you run out of time. 

Finally, the CPA Exam is a scaled exam. That means that the more questions you get right, the harder the next testlet becomes. But you’re also rewarded for doing well: harder questions are weighted more, so getting those right will earn you more points. 

 

Task-Based Simulations (TBSs) 

Task-based simulations account for the other 50% of your exam score on all but the Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) test. You’ll see these questions in the last (or 5th) testlet on each of the subsections. In other words, you’ll end every test answering a selection of TBSs! 

These questions are story-based problems. To answer them, you’ll have to make journal entries, match definitions and terms, and/or research topics to deliver credible answers. These questions are designed to mimic real-world problems and test your ability to tackle them! 

There are four main types of TBS questions you’ll see: 


Research 

Research TBSs will require you to research and report answers. To answer these, you’ll just have to use the search function to look up the correct code that provides the correct information. The trick to these is knowing how to use the search function on the exam. 


Matching 

Matching TBSs will give you five to 10 terms that you’ll have to match correctly with the corresponding definitions, numbers, or information. In these instances, you’ll have all the answers present—you just have to match them correctly. 


Fill-In-the-Blank

The fill-in-the-blank TBSs are one of the hardest types since there aren’t any provided answers to choose from. You’ll be given a story-based question, then you’ll have to write your answer into the blank box provided. Generally, these answers are based on calculations you’ll have to do using your knowledge and data points provided in the question. 


Journal Entries

These TBSs come in two varieties: matching and fill-in-the-blank. Generally speaking, you’ll be given a scenario, then you’ll have to calculate and record the answer. This will require you being able to understand the question, since you’ll have to figure out which accounts to use, the amounts to tabulate, and enter them correctly (when the question is fill-in-the-blank). 

 

Written Communication Tasks (WCTs) 

These types of questions only appear on the BEC exam. These questions are designed to test your knowledge of business concepts. Additionally, they’re testing whether you have the skills to carry out the professional correspondences and duties you’ll have to perform in the real world. 

You’ll be given three WCTs to answer, which will comprise 15% of your overall test grade. It will take you about 15 minutes to answer each WCT, but only two of the three will be graded. There’s no way to know which WCTs will count toward your score and which won’t, so it’s important that you do well on all three. 

According to the AICPA, these questions are evaluated on both technical content and writing skills. That means you’ll have to answer the questions correctly, but you’ll also have to communicate your response clearly. Some general tips are to use technical language when appropriate, write in complete sentences, and make sure your answer is grammatically correct. 

 

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(Marco Verch Professional Photographer / Flickr) 

 

How Do I Pass the CPA Exam? What Is the CPA Exam Pass Rate?

The CPA exam pass rates are quite low. Only about half of takers pass the exam! You can dive into the specifics of the 2019 pass rates here, but here’s a general breakdown: 

Section
Q1
Q2
Q3
Q4
Cumulative
AUD
48.56%
55.11%
51.94%
TBD
52.06%
BEC
58.00%
59.74%
63.04%
TBD
60.45%
FAR
44.43%
49.37%
50.29%
TBD
48.30%
REG
50.23%
58.66%
58.41%
TBD
56.51%

 

You’ll definitely want to study for this test early and often! The material the test covers can be pretty complex, so you’ll want to have a good handle on the test material before you walk in to take your exam. 

If you have or are pursuing a bachelor's degree in finance or business, you will have the option of taking a number of classes that will prepare you for the CPA exam, but it’s still a good idea to review all the material you may have picked up in those courses. Even if you’re getting As in your classes, you’ll want to set aside plenty of time to review the CPA exam material. 

So how can you get some quality studying done for this type of test? There are any number of study guides available online, and the quality and cost of them vary considerably. If you do decide to spend money on any of the services you might find on the Internet, look at them very critically. The CPA exam is quite difficult, and there will not be any easy way to learn the vast amount of information necessary to pass the exam.

It is a very good idea for you to read the AICPA’s blueprints and to use them as a guide to all the information you’ll need to pass. Think of these blueprints as a map to acing the exam. This document breaks down scoring, test topics, and even what skills you’ll need to brush up on to be successful. And the best part? It’s a free resource! 

The AICPA also provides sample tests and tutorials that will help you study for the CPA test. The sample tests themselves, while not the complete four-hour test, are very rigorous. They take around two hours each to complete, which will also give you a good sense for how it will feel to take the exam on test day. (Side note: we believe that practice tests are one of the best ways to prepare for any exam, so be sure to take advantage of them.)  

If you do fail the CPA Exam, don’t feel too bad! About half of all takers fail at least one section every session! Yikes, right? The important thing is to try to figure out what caused you to fail and to try to rebound from it. Remember: you only have to retake the sections that you fail, and you can retake the test as many times as you need (but only once per testing window). Now, the CPA exam is not cheap, so you won’t want to retake it very frequently—but if you’ve come far enough to even qualify to take it in the first place, you’ve come far enough to pass it! 

We know becoming certified seems like an impossible task, but we promise: it’s worth it. Being CPA-certified means you will earn about 10% more than your non-certified peers. What’s more, the careers of accountant and auditor are expected to be the fastest growing career fields in the U.S. in the years 2020-2024! Becoming a certified CPA is a great way to make sure you have a fulfilling, stable, and well-paying career for decades to come. 

So good luck! 

 

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What’s Next? 

Going to a top accounting program can help you ace your CPA Exam the first time through. Here’s a list of the 12 best accounting schools in the United States. (And this article can help make sure you get into the school of your dreams!) 

It can be tough to study for the CPA Exam, especially if you’re still in school, have familial responsibilities, or are working. To succeed, you’ll have to develop some amazing time management skills. The good news is that anyone can learn how to maximize their time! Check out this article about the 12 best time management strategies that can help you succeed on the CPA Exam and beyond. 

Of course, the best time management in the world won’t help you if you’re not sure how to study for a test. It’s important that you’re not just maximizing your time—you need to make sure you’re studying smart, too. This article covers how to study for the GRE, but many of the tips and tricks can apply to studying for the CPA Exam, too. 



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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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