The CPA exam is regarded as one of the most difficult accounting examinations, with pass rates lurking just below 50%. It’s no wonder that the CPA is such a highly respected credential. 

What can you expect from the CPA exam?

The CPA examination consists of 4 sections, with each one written over a four hour exam session. The 4 sections of the exam are:

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

Each of the four sections contains 18 content areas. Within each content area are about 600 representative tasks designed to test a key knowledge or skill. This may sound like a lot (and yes, there is a great deal of content tested), but candidates do not write all 4 sections at once. In fact, educators recommend that you do not register for more than two sections at a time. There is a good reason for this.

The CPA examination runs over four testing windows throughout the year. Depending on your state’s specific rules, you will have roughly 6-9 months to complete the exam from your time of registration. If you schedule all 4 sections at once, you will be left with very little time to study. Poor planning can mean failing the first section. If your exams are scheduled soon after one another this can also have a domino effect, stripping you of your confidence as you go into the next section. 

Read more: CPA Exam Parts in Order of Difficulty

But what makes the CPA exam so difficult? 

There are a number of reasons why the CPA is such a hard test. Firstly, candidates must score at least 75% for each section of the exam in order to pass. 

This is a tall order, so it makes sense that pass rates are so low. If you’re interested, take a look at the AICPA exam pass rates for 2021. But remember, don’t compare yourself to anybody else! Your journey to get your CPA license is not going to look the same as other candidates. 

Secondly, some candidates find the CPA exam challenging because it covers a variety of topics at different skill levels. For this reason, the CPA exam is actually said to have become harder in recent years. The newer versions of the exam require more than just memorization of the content. Instead, questions are designed to test higher level skills like comprehension, analysis, evaluation, and practical application of the knowledge. 

Thirdly, some candidates find the CPA examination especially difficult because it comprises multiple question types, including multiple choice, task based simulations (simulating real-world CPA related tasks), and written communications. 

Finally, some candidates find the CPA exam so difficult because of the time limit. Each section of the exam has a time limit of 4 hours (with a 15 minute break). There are a lot of test questions to get through and it is not uncommon for candidates to run out of time. 

What is the most difficult part of the CPA exam? 

One of the most common questions asked by CPA candidates is: What is the most difficult part of the CPA exam? In reality, there is no one section that makes the exam difficult. Instead, it is the vast scope of the exam as a whole. The part of the exam that you find most challenging will depend on your experience, interests, and time dedicated to studying. But for more information on the challenges of the exam sections read our guide on the CPA exam parts and their difficulties.

Plenty of CPA candidates ask about the best order in which to take the CPA exam. Should you do the easiest part of the exam first? Or get the hardest section out of the way? Once again, it all depends on you. We have given you some ideas and tips for passing the CPA exam in this article

If you fail a section, that is OK. You are actually among the majority of candidates. You are able to take each section of the exam once per testing window. Simply reschedule the part of the exam that you had trouble with for the next window. You will have to pay another examination fee, but it will be worth it. 

Remember that once you have passed the first part of the exam, you have 18 months to complete the remaining three. If you don’t pass all four sections within an 18 month window, your first examination will have expired and you will be required to retake it.