CPA Exam Sections, Format and Content Areas

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CPA Exam Basics

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The CPA Exam is a time-intensive test composed of 4 parts. This guide will provide information about the CPA Exam format, structure and the 4 exam sections in detail. Each section is a separate exam with a four-hour time limit, and covers a wide variety of topics taught in most university accounting programs. The individual sections are furthermore broken down into 5 testlets that contain multiple-choice questions (MCQs), task-based simulations (TBSs), or written communication (WCs) exercises. The number of questions and tasks varies from section to section.

What are the 4 Sections of the CPA Exam?

The CPA Exam is written, managed, and scored by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) with assistance from the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) and individual state boards of accountancy. It is composed of 4 parts, which are:

  • Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
    The AUD section of the CPA Exam tests CPA candidate’s understanding of the auditing process, which includes: auditing procedures, generally accepted auditing standards, standards related to attest engagements and the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. 
  • Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
    The BEC section of the CPA Exam comprises the entire business concepts and the significance of a CPA’s professional duties and responsibilities within the larger context of the business environment.
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
    The FAR section of the CPA Exam is the longest and by far the most comprehensive section of the CPA exam. Because of its vastness, many candidates consider this section to be the most challenging. This part of the exam requires that CPA candidates have a strong knowledge of US GAAP.
  • Regulation (REG)
    The REG section of the CPA Exam tests CPA candidates’ knowledge and skill level primarily on federal taxation, then on business law, business ethics and professional and legal responsibilities.

CPA Exam Format and Structure

Pre-Exam

Once you sit down to take your exam at the Prometric Testing Center, you will be presented with 2 sets of welcome screens before you officially begin testing. The first of these screens will be to confirm your name, ID, exam-part that you are taking, and your launch code. The next screen-set includes confidentiality statements that you must accept before moving on. It’s important to note that if you do not complete these screens within 5 minutes each, your exam will be terminated, and you will not be able to proceed to the exam.

Exam

Testing within each examination section is managed in blocks called testlets. Testlets contain operational and pretest questions. Operational questions are scored, whereas pretest questions are not scored. The CPA Exam includes 3 main question types, each testlet is comprised of questions from only one of these question types:

  1. Multiple-Choice Questions – One question with four potential answers. MCQs make up the majority of each exam section.
  2. Task-Based Simulations – Questions that require you to apply practical knowledge. This could include filling out a document or finishing a research question.
  3. Written Communication – Questions that require properly composed written essay responses and are found only in the BEC exam.

AUD, FAR, REG Exam Format

The AUD, FAR, and REG Exams are similarly formatted. These three exams are composed of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and task-based simulations (TBSs). MCQs are tested in 2 of the individual testlets: 36 questions per testlet for AUD, 33 questions per testlet for FAR, and 38 questions per testlet for REG. The MCQ portion of each exam is followed by three testlets of 2, 3, and 3 TBSs for AUD, FAR, and REG, for a total of 8 TBSs per exam section. There are no Written Communication questions in the AUD, FAR, and REG exams.

BEC Exam Format

The BEC exam consists of multiple-choice questions, task-based simulations and written communication tasks. Just like the other 3 exams, the MCQs are broken into 2 individual testlets, with 31 questions in each. The MCQ portion of the exam is followed by two testlets of 2 TBSs, for a total of 4 TBSs. Finally, there are 3 Written Communication questions in the final testlet—one of which is pre-tested—that require a written response in a memo format.

Section Time MCQs TBSs WC
AUD 4 hours 72 8 -
BEC 4 hours 62 4 3
FAR 4 hours 66 8 -
REG 4 hours 76 8 -

Weightage of Question Types

For the AUD, FAR, and REG exam sections, weightage for MCQs and TBSs are 50% each. For the BEC exam, it’s slightly different. BEC weightage is divided in three parts: 50% for MCQs, 35% for TBSs, and 15% for written communication.

Section MCQs TBSs WC
AUD 50% 50% -
BEC 50% 35% 15%
FAR 50% 50% -
REG 50% 50% -

Post Exam

After you complete the exam there will be a quick 5-minute survey asking your opinion about the exam.

Allocated Time

Understanding how long you have to complete each CPA Exam section, and knowing when to expect designated breaks, is key to helping you develop a strategic game plan for exam day.

AUD BEC FAR REG
Welcome / Launch 5 mins 5 mins 5 mins 5 mins
Confidentiality 5 mins 5 mins 5 mins 5 mins
Testlet 1 50 mins
36 MCQs
50 mins
31 MCQs
50 mins
33 MCQs
50 mins
38 MCQs
Optional Break
(Timer runs)
5 mins 5 mins 5 mins 5 mins
Testlet 2 50 mins
36 MCQs
50 mins
31 MCQs
50 mins
33 MCQs
50 mins
38 MCQs
Optional Break
(Timer runs)
5 mins 5 mins 5 mins 5 mins
Testlet 3 50 mins
2 TBSs
50 mins
2 TBSs
50 mins
2 TBSs
50 mins
2 TBSs
Standard Break
(Timer paused)
15 mins 15 mins 15 mins 15 mins
Testlet 3 50 mins
2 TBSs
50 mins
2 TBSs
50 mins
2 TBSs
50 mins
2 TBSs
Optional Break (Timer runs) 5 mins 5 mins 5 mins 5 mins
Testlet 5 50 mins
3 TBSs
50 mins
3 WCTs
50 mins
3 TBSs
50 mins
3 TBSs
Survey 5 mins 5 mins 5 mins 5 mins
  • Each of the four CPA Exam sections have a 4-hour time limit. In other words, the entire CPA Exam is 16-hours in total.
  • Before you begin the exam, you will be presented with a welcome screen, in which you must enter your launch code and confirm information within a 5-minute period.
  • The next set of welcome screens includes confidentiality statements that you must accept within 5 minutes as well.
  • There are optional breaks between each testlet. However, during these optional breaks, the timer continues to run and count towards your total exam time.
  • There is a 15-minute optional standard break that occurs after you complete the third testlet. At this time, you can pause the timer on your exam. It is highly recommended that you take advantage of this break.
  • Finally, post-exam there will be a 5-minute survey.

CPA Exam Content Areas

The AICPA CPA Exam Blueprint covers the knowledge, skills and content topics that will be tested on the CPA Exam. It also includes information about the changes coming each year. The CPA Exam Blueprints include a breakdown of each exam section, and provide candidates a detailed understanding of what they need to prepare in order to be successful on the exam.

The Auditing and Attestation (AUD) section checks various skills including: audit engagements, attestation engagements or accounting and review service engagements. Here are the topics that make up the structure of the AUD exam:

  • 15-25% Ethics, Professional Responsibilities, and General Principles
  • 20-30% Assessing Risk and Developing a Planned Responses
  • 30-40% Performing Further Procedures and Obtaining Evidence
  • 15-25% Forming Conclusions and Reporting

The Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) section of the CPA Exam comprises corporate governance, economic concepts and analysis, financial management, information systems and communications, strategic planning and operations management. One unique aspect of the BEC exam is that it is the only section that requires candidates to prepare and submit three Written Communication responses.

  • 17-27% Corporate Governance
  • 17-27% Economic Concepts and Analysis
  • 11-21% Financial Management
  • 15-25% Information Technology
  • 15-25% Operations Management

The Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) section of the CPA Exam is all about concepts and standards for financial statements, typical items in financial statements, specific types of transactions and events, accounting and reporting for governmental entities, and accounting and reporting for nongovernmental and not-for-profit organizations. It requires CPA candidates to have a strong knowledge of US GAAP.

  • 25-35% Conceptual Framework, Standard-Setting and Financial Reporting
  • 30-40% Select Financial Statement Accounts
  • 20-30% Select Transactions
  • 5-15% State and Local Governments

The Regulation (REG) section of the CPA Exam primarily focuses on federal taxation. According to the AICPA Blueprints, this overarching topic area makes up more than 60% of the REG exam. The remaining topics include: business law, business ethics, and professional and legal responsibilities.

  • 55%-85% Federal Taxation
  • 10-20% Business Law
  • 10-20% Ethics, Professional Responsibilities, and Federal Tax Procedures

To know more detailed information on expanded topics and task coverage, please refer to the CPA Exam Blueprints.

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Which order to take the CPA Exam sections?

The four sections of the CPA Exam can be taken in any order you like. However, it is our general recommendation to take the exam in the following order:

  • FAR – Comple the most intensive and time-consuming exam first.
  • AUD or REG – Choose AUD or REG, depending on your concentration in school or work.
  • AUD or REG – Take AUD or REG (whichever of these you still need to take).
  • BEC – Apply what you’ve learned to the business world.

You should ideally start with FAR, because it requires the most hours of study. This allows for unlimited study time on this large section, and then 18 months to pass the three remaining smaller sections. Next, prepare for AUD or REG, depending on your concentration in school or work. Completing an exam section based around an area that you’re already strong in is a great way to boost your confidence for the next sections. Then, again take AUD or REG (whichever one you haven’t already taken). We suggest you end with BEC. Why? BEC pulls from many of the concepts you’ve already learned in the other sections, but now applies these skills and knowledge to a business setting. It is also generally considered the least time intensive, so it’s a great way to end on a high note.

Contrary to the above, some candidates choose to start with the exam section that they find to be the easiest first because it helps them to build exam momentum and confidence. Many candidates struggle in the beginning with managing their time, figuring out what their best study strategies are, and getting in the habit of studying daily. Familiarizing yourself with the test-taking experience at a Prometric Testing Center. Finally, if you allow an exam section to expire, having to retake the easiest one will be less of a setback.

Overall, scheduling your exams to fit your life takes precedence above any of the above suggestions. For example, if you are a student you may want to take FAR during your summer off from school, or if you’re working in tax you may want to save BEC for tax season. Remember to do what makes the most sense for you and what you’re most comfortable with. The end goal is to make a plan, and play by your strengths.

CPA Exam Sections Quick Facts and Key Takeaways

The CPA Exam was developed to evaluate the knowledge and skills needed for entry-level CPAs to practice public accountancy. Thus, passing the exam is one of the requirements needed to obtain a CPA license.

  • The four parts of the CPA Exam must be passed within an 18-month window, with a score of 75 or higher for each section.
  • If you don’t pass all four parts within the 18-month window, you lose credit for the first part you passed, and the 18-month window rolls up to the next part you passed; this cycle continues until all four parts are passed within an 18-month time frame.
  • If you do not pass all 4 parts within this window, you will have to retake parts that have elapsed the 18-month mark.
  • The FAR section of the exam is considered to be the hardest and thereby has the lowest pass rate.
  • On the contrary, BEC is considered to be the least difficult. As a result, this section has the highest pass rate.
  • AUD and REG come somewhere in the middle of these two.
  • Overall pass rates of the CPA Exam are around 50%.
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FAQs

According to our CPA Industry Survey, 46% of people surveyed believe FAR is the hardest section of the CPA Exam. The FAR section of the exam tests candidates’ knowledge of general accounting principles, and the skills needed to apply the financial reporting knowledge required of CPAs. Most importantly, FAR requires that CPA candidates have a strong knowledge of US GAAP.

However, this is a very subjective matter. The most difficult section of the CPA Exam can vary by individual, as some may find certain topics harder to understand than others. 

The BEC section of the CPA Exam is considered to be the least difficult by candidates, and thereby has the highest pass rate. BEC covers Enterprise Risk Management, Internal Controls and Business Processes, Economics, Financial Management, Information Technology, and Operations Management.

If you don’t pass all four parts within the 18-month window, you will lose credit for the first part you passed, and the 18-month window rolls up to the next part you passed. This cycle continues until all four parts are passed within the 18-month time frame. If you do not pass all 4 parts within this window, you will have to retake parts that have passed the 18-month mark.

If you fail a section of the CPA Exam, then follow these steps:

  • Submit a reapplication to your state board/jurisdiction or CPAES.
  • Get a new Notice to Schedule (NTS) for that exam section.
  • Schedule your retake of the exam as soon as possible.
  • While studying to retake your exam, focus on your weak areas using your score report.
  • Remember that the only true failure is giving up!
To take the CPA Exam, you will need a government issued identification and your Notice to Schedule (NTS). You will be provided a small locker to store your personal belongings as they are not allowed in the exam room. Light clothing such as scarves, sweaters, or light jackets may be worn in the test room, but if removed must be placed on your chair and not on the workstation. Things that are prohibited in the test room:
  • Written notes
  • Electronic devices
  • Food and beverages
  • Hats
  • Outerwear
  • Watches
  • Notebooks
  • Weapons are strictly prohibited for all Prometric Testing Centers.
The CPA Exam must be passed within an 18-month deadline and with a score of 75 or higher for each section. This means, you have 18 more months from the time you pass your first exam to pass the remaining three parts. Once you pass an exam, your notification document will include the date that your passed section expires.

Candidates are allowed to take all four sections of the exam one at a time, two at a time, or even four parts at the same time. However, a candidate has to complete all four sections within eighteen months of taking the first part.

The AICPA does not release past exam questions. However, they do provide sample tests for candidates to get familiarized with exam-like questions and the testing software interface.
Studying for the CPA Exam is a time-intensive process. A typical candidate spends a total of 300 – 400 hours preparing to pass all four parts of the CPA Exam. We recommend candidates spend approximately 1.5 to 2 hours per day studying, but depending on how often you study is entirely up to you. It is for this reason we provide our students the option of 3, 6, 9 or 12-month study planners to help them stay on track to reach their goals.
Our general recommendation is to take FAR first, because it requires the most hours of study. Since the 18-month window to complete all four sections begins after the first exam part is passed, this in turn will prevent students from having to give any of their crunch time towards the massive FAR section. To learn more detailed information, please read our blog on which section of the CPA Exam you should take first.
There is no limit to the number of times that you can take each CPA Exam section. The computer-based CPA Exam, which is offered at Prometric Testing Centers, is offered on a continuous basis. The continuous testing model allows CPA candidates to take the CPA Exam throughout the entire year. The only barrier to taking another section of the CPA Exam would be waiting to receive scores from previous attempts of the same CPA Exam section. 

Read more about the CPA Exam

The AICPA releases the average CPA Exam Pass Rates on a Quarterly basis. The average pass rate percentage varies between 45-55% per section and per quarter. See previous years’ pass rates for each section of the CPA Exam.

The four parts of the CPA Exam must be passed within an 18-month window, and with a score of 75 or higher for each section. We’ve broken down a variety of the factors that go into compiling your score.

NASBA releases scores in accordance with the Uniform CPA Exam score release timetables. The CPA Exam Score Release Dates are updated twice in a year by the AICPA.

CPA Exam Blueprints help candidates understand what skills and content topics will be tested on the CPA Exam. It also provides information on upcoming changes.

The UWorld Roger CPA Review study guides incorporate the full course syllabus and can be customized to account for your study habits. This study guide is a great way to prioritize your studying to pass the CPA Exam faster.

UWorld Roger CPA Review provides helpful tools and resources to support candidates on their journey to passing the CPA Exam. This guide helps you with everything you need to know about the CPA Exam.

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