How Hard Is the CPA Exam?


Are you considering working towards the CPA credential and wondering how hard the CPA Exam is? The CPA Exam is considered one of the most challenging professional exams.  It is an exam of discipline with a lot of topics to cover and many study hours involved. But as long as you put in the effort, you will pass. So, what does the CPA Exam cover and why is it so difficult?

CPA Exam Content and Structure Breakdown

The CPA Exam is broken down into four sections and each section covers a myriad of topics categorized into sections and subsections. The four sections are Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). Each of these sections includes three Multiple-Choice Question (MCQ) testlets and two written portion testlets known as either Task-Based Simulations (TBS) or Written Communication (WC) questions. 

Interestingly, each testlet (even if it’s for the same section) can be drastically different from one another in terms of topics and questions. Additionally, each MCQ testlet changes in difficulty based on your performance on the previous testlet. For the written portion of the exam, there is only one correct answer. This might be frustrating to some CPA Candidates because there is much less leniency, so you either know the information or you don’t. 

It is important to note that there is a great deal of material to cover during the exam, so you have to know a little bit of information about a lot of topics to cover everything successfully.  

Timing and CPA Exam Administration

The CPA Exam is flexible because you can study for one section at a time and then schedule your exam based on the best day or time that works for you. Also, each section of the CPA Exam is allotted a total of 4 hours to complete.  Exams are scheduled throughout the year, so you can study at your own pace. 

However, it is important to know that you only have an 18-month rolling window to pass all four sections. The window begins from the time you pass the first section. You begin to lose credit for sections passed once the 18-month time frame is over. 

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Challenges of the CPA Exam

There are some challenges associated with studying for and passing the CPA Exam. For instance, there might be topics on the exam that you either like or dislike, and studying the areas you do not like might be challenging. Also, some topics might be more familiar than others because of work experience, education, or other types of exposure. If you have worked as an auditor at a Big 4, auditing might not be difficult for you since you are familiar with it. 

Diving into new information you haven’t been exposed to prior to the CPA Exam or learning something completely from scratch might also be challenging. This is especially true when trying to decide how much study time to spend on newer sections. 

Ways to Conquer the CPA Exam

  1. Make a plan. The best way to approach any CPA Exam challenge is to give yourself an ample amount of time to learn new concepts and to plan your test dates and study schedule accordingly. Figure out the best way you learn new material, and use those study techniques and strategies for each section of the CPA Exam. Try not to get overwhelmed if it takes you longer to understand a new topic. Instead, look to your CPA Exam resources for extra help on questions you have or to help you with concepts you don’t understand.
  2. Commit to the journey. Another way to conquer the challenges you’ll face when preparing for the CPA Exam is to ensure you’re able to commit enough time to properly study for the exam. Life is ever-evolving and things happen, so be sure to balance CPA Exam studies with school, work, family, and relationships. 

    So how do you find the time to study? The answer is simple. If you can’t find the time, you need to make time. While work, family, and relationships are all important, you need to make studying for the CPA Exam part of your daily priority. Talk to family and friends about your goals and what passing the CPA Exam will ultimately mean for your career to help them better understand why you need their support during this time. Days will be long and it is not always easy, but if you study, you will pass.

  3. Be flexible and realistic. There is some uncertainty about how long the CPA process will take which might cause anxiety for some candidates. How long it takes to pass all the sections of the CPA Exam largely depends on your knowledge, work experience, and comprehension. Keep in mind that your study plan will need to be revised as you start to grasp both your strengths and weaknesses. Realistically, life will sometimes get in the way, so you have to persevere through adversity and continue to push forward. Do not give up hurdling over obstacles. Where there’s a will, there is a way!

  4. Stay positive. If you find yourself needing motivation, start thinking about what your life and career will look like after you pass the CPA Exam and obtain licensure. Connect with other CPA Candidates to talk about your journey and the challenges you are facing. Sometimes it is easier to work through issues when you realize you are not alone. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, remember that the CPA Exam is a journey and that if it were easy, everyone would do it. 
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