CIA Exam Strategy – Which Part to Take First?

The CIA exam is split into three parts, each of which you must sit for and pass separately. The IIA doesn’t require that you complete them in numerical order, so changing things up could give you the edge you need to pass. Here’s what you need to know to formulate your CIA exam strategy.

CIA Exam Part Overview

Part 1 of the exam is on Internal Audit Basics. This test focuses on guidance from the IPPF, the concepts of internal control and risk, and various techniques for conducting internal audits. Other key knowledge areas include auditing regulations and general requirements based on the IIA’s Standards and Code of Ethics.

Part 2 of the exam covers Internal Audit Practice. This section tests candidates on their knowledge of the strategic and operational role of internal auditors, the operational steps for various types of engagements, the internal audit function and its relationship to risk, and coverage of fraud risks and controls.

Part 3 of the exam focuses on Internal Audit Knowledge Elements. This part of the exam covers aspects of the internal audit job that practitioners need to be familiar with. Some of the topics were previously tested in parts 1 and 2, but they are given a different context here. Additionally, the range of topics in Part 3 is comprehensive and includes ethics, risk management, communication, IT, the global business environment, and more. The breadth of knowledge required is daunting to many candidates; however, if you’re already practicing in the field, you may have learned many of these concepts on the job. Many accounting courses can also prepare candidates to test on these topics.

The IIA’s Exam Tests Proficiency vs. Awareness

The IIA does not test all concepts at the same level. It distinguishes between “awareness” and “proficiency.”

  • Awareness – the candidate knows relevant terminology and possesses a grasp of the fundamentals of a given concept.
  • Proficiency – the candidate has a thorough understanding of a given concept and the ability to apply it to different scenarios.

Let’s look at how each cognitive level looks with regard to items on the The IIA’s exam syllabi.

In Part 3, a candidate is expected to “be familiar with the basic concepts associated with Electronic Funds Transfer, its effects on business payments and paper checks collection, and its role in payroll functions.” To be “aware,” a candidate should have a sense of the advantages and disadvantages of such a system and its impact. You should have an idea of how this system would affect a “paper trail,” but you aren’t expected to design a program that processes EFTS. You only need an understanding of the basics.

In contrast, in Part 1, a candidate should “be able to define and recognize independence with regard to internal auditing staff, and also determine whether a specific practitioner is independent in a given scenario.” It’s not enough to know the abstract concept of independence or to be able to define the relevant terms. To be “proficient,” you must be able to determine independence as though you were in the field. Questions testing proficiency will provide enough information for you to make a judgment, and it’s expected you respond as a Certified Internal Auditor.

Proficiency is a deeper level of knowledge than Awareness, and you have to have Awareness of a concept before you can work on building Proficiency. Per the IIA, all items in Parts 1 and 2 are tested at the proficiency level. Items in Part 3, except for Governance/Business Ethics and Risk Management, are tested at the awareness level.

Our free CIA Exam Guide includes the complete IIA CIA Exam’s syllabus for each part. You can see the topics, subtopics, and even the test weight of each area. This useful guide also provides tips on how to plan your study time and develop study strategies that will help you succeed on test day.


Forming Your CIA Exam Strategy

You will want to decide which part to take first based on your strengths and weaknesses, whether you’re currently utilizing the concepts relevant to a CIA exam part in the field, and how recently and comprehensive your last accounting courses were.

For a candidate who is a senior student or new graduate with recent business and accounting coursework on business ethics, IT, business continuity, and global business concepts, taking Part 3 first might be the best strategy.

Based on candidate feedback, Part 3 is the most challenging part of the CIA Exam. This is primarily due to breadth of knowledge required. The sheer volume of topics covered is greater than in Parts 1 and 2, even though most are tested at an Awareness level rather than a Proficiency level. Part 3 is 100 MCQs and has a two-hour time limit, so the time pressure combined with the range of topics can feel daunting.

There is a lot to cover in this part, but current and recent students have had a lot of time to hone test-taking skills in their exams. Additionally, there is some psychological advantage in overcoming the highest hurdle first. Once you know you’re capable of passing the part that candidates struggle with most, you can move on to the rest of the exam with confidence.

In the absence of a compelling reason to begin with Part 3, we recommend taking the exam in order. The basic concepts tested in Part 1 aren’t re-tested in Parts 2 or 3, but that foundational knowledge is assumed for later tests. Each CIA exam part’s topics builds on the previous. Sometimes, the simplest CIA exam strategy is best.

CIA Exam Strategy if You Don’t Pass

No matter which exam part you decide to start with, it’s important to remember that if you don’t pass an exam part on the first attempt, you can still study for and take other parts. Candidates have to wait three months before they are able to retake an exam part, so we recommend moving on according to plan. Don’t give up your momentum.

If you don’t pass Part 1 on the first try, you can still plan for and schedule your Part 2 test. You can keep moving forward toward your goal of attaining your CIA certification. Even if you don’t pass a CIA exam part, the work you have done studying for that part will assist you in studying for the topics tested on the next part.

Free CIA Exam Questions to Assist with Your CIA Exam Strategy

Our free diagnostic tests of CIA exam questions can help you assess where your strongest areas are. These provide a feel for the level and depth of questions you may encounter on the actual exam, and like all of the questions in our course, each includes thorough answer explanations for correct and incorrect answer choices. When you’re finished, you’ll receive a score that is broken down by topic, which will focus your studies and help determine your CIA exam strategy and which part to take first. Try our free questions today!