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How Hard is the CMA Exam?

cma exam difficulty

To enjoy the benefits of becoming a Certified Management Accountant (CMA), you must pass the CMA exam. How hard is the CMA exam? It’s not easy. The right review course will help you pass, but successful preparation requires dedication and discipline. Understanding the CMA exam difficulty helps you budget and prioritize your study time, motivates you to stay focused, and gives you an appreciation for the value of the CMA certification. Therefore, we’ve revealed the main factors that make the CMA exam difficult.

How Hard Is the CMA Exam?

The CMA exam has been around for almost 50 years, and in that time, the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) has used it to determine whether CMA candidates have the requisite knowledge and skills to reflect positively on the profession. Specifically, the CMA exam ensures candidates have a firm grasp on the following management accounting and financial management concepts:

  • Preparation of financial statements
  • Business economics
  • Time-value of money concepts
  • Statistics and probability

The CMA exam sets the bar for mastery of these concepts high. As a result, the worldwide average pass rates for each part are fairly low, averaging only 43%.

CMA Exam Pass Rates
Part 135%36%35%40%35%
Part 249%55%50%50%50%

*The ICMA has adjusted when it releases data. These rates span January through October of their respective years.

With pass rates rarely rising above 50%, the CMA exam has a reputation for being pretty tricky, and several specific factors contribute to its difficulty.

What Affects CMA Exam Difficulty?

Understanding how hard the exam is will help you create an effective study strategy, so start your preparations by learning about the three qualities that affect CMA exam difficulty.

Exam Structure

The CMA exam isn’t some little quiz. It’s an expansive exam that includes 200 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and 4 essay scenarios with 2-7 questions per essay. The exam is divided into two parts.

  • Part 1: Financial Reporting, Planning, Performance, and Control
  • Part 2: Financial Decision Making

Each part contains 100 MCQs and 2 essays.

  • Multiple-choice questions: MCQs consist of a stem (the question) and four answer choices. One answer choice is correct (the best response), and three answer choices are incorrect.
  • Essays: Essays feature a scenario with multiple questions that must be answered.

Total testing time for each part is four hours: three hours for the multiple-choice questions and one hour for the essays.

Answering 100 MCQs and 2 essays in 4 hours may sound daunting, but it’s not impossible. You can learn to maximize your time and minimize surprises by studying with an exam-emulating review course. An exam-emulating review course accurately reflects the look and feel of the CMA exam, so you feel right at home when you sit for it.

Navigating the exam and managing your pace will be second-nature if you prepare with a review system that mimics the exam environment.

Content Covered

The fact that the CMA exam only has two parts further contributes to its difficulty. Because the exam addresses a wide range of accounting topics each part must cover an immense amount of content. Consequently, you must learn a lot of different material for one exam session. Fortunately, the ICMA lays out the topics of each part in detail in the Content Specification Outlines (CSOs).

CMA Exam Content Topics by Part
Part 1: Financial Reporting, Planning, Performance, and ControlPart 2: Financial Decision Making
A. External Financial Reporting DecisionsA. Financial Statement Analysis
B. Planning, Budgeting, and ForecastingB. Corporate Finance
C. Performance ManagementC. Decision Analysis
D. Cost ManagementD. Risk Management
E. Internal ControlsE. Investment Decisions
 F. Professional Ethics

The items in the table are the major topics for each exam part. These are broken down further in the CSOs. Along with the 5 topics in Part 1 and the 6 topics in Part 2, there are 19 total subject areas in Part 1 and 20 total subject areas in Part 2. Because of the complex nature of management accounting, there is some overlap of subject areas under each topic.

Along with the CSOs, the ICMA also publishes Learning Outcome Statements (LOSs), which specify the tasks you must be able to perform as a CMA. The LOSs dig deep into the topics and subject areas of the CSOs and describe in greater detail what candidates need to know about each exam part. The LOSs for Part 1 contain 287 separate tasks, and the LOSs for Part 2 contain 256 tasks.

Clearly, there is a lot of content covered on the CMA exam. The best way to learn all of it is to study with a CMA review course that specializes in thorough content coverage. Only the most comprehensive CMA course can ensure that you see everything you need to before you sit for the exam, so you should invest in one that covers every inch of the CSOs and LOSs. At Gleim CMA Review, our professional educators carefully map the CSOs and LOSs to our study materials so that you don’t have to get overwhelmed by the complexity of these resources. We help you know what to expect on exam day by distilling and repackaging everything in the CSOs and LOSs.

Skill Levels Tested

The CMA exam tests candidates to different degrees based on the content covered. The ICMA has assigned each major topic a coverage level that indicates the depth and breadth of learning required, ranging from introductory knowledge of a subject to the ability to apply specific skills to resolve scenarios like a professional in the field. To illustrate the scope of each coverage level, the CSOs define the cognitive skills on which the CMA exam tests.

Skill Levels Tested on the CMA Exam
KnowledgeAbility to remember previously learned material such as specific facts, criteria, techniques, principles, and procedures (i.e., identify, define, list).
ComprehensionAbility to grasp and interpret the meaning of material (i.e., classify, explain, distinguish between).
ApplicationAbility to use learned material in new and concrete situations (i.e., demonstrate, predict, solve, modify, relate).
AnalysisAbility to break down material into its component parts so that its organizational structure can be understood; ability to recognize causal relationships, discriminate between behaviors, and identify elements that are relevant to the validation of a judgment (i.e., differentiate, formulate, revise).
SynthesisAbility to put parts together to form a new whole or proposed set of operations; ability to relate ideas and formulate hypotheses (i.e., combine, formulate, revise).
EvaluationAbility to judge the value of material for a given purpose on the basis of consistency, logical accuracy, and comparison to standards; ability to appraise judgments involved in the selection of a course of action (i.e., criticize, justify, conclude).

The levels of coverage assigned to each exam topic refer to these skill levels.

Coverage Levels on the CMA Exam
Level ARequires knowledge and comprehension
Level BRequires knowledge, comprehension, application, and analysis
Level CRequires knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation

The content coverage level for each major exam topic is Level C, which includes Level A and Level B coverage of specific subjects. The IMA does this to stress the importance of the mastery of high-level concepts.

Part 1 – Financial Reporting, Planning, Performance, and Control
CSO TopicCoverage PercentageCoverage Level
A. External Financial Reporting Decisions15%Level C
B. Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting30%Level C
C. Performance Management20%Level C
D. Cost Management20%Level C
E. Internal Controls15%Level C

Part 2 – Financial Decision Making
CSO TopicCoverage PercentageCoverage Level
A. Financial Statement Analysis25%Level C
B. Corporate Finance20%Level C
C. Decision Analysis20%Level C
D. Risk Management10%Level C
E. Investment Decisions15%Level C
F. Professional Ethics10%Level C

This is clear evidence that the CMA exam is exacting and that you can’t really get by with minimal skill or understanding. You must master all exam topics to pass. To do so, you have to commit to taking a lot of practice quizzes and learning from your mistakes. When you review with the largest test bank on the market, you’ll answer thousands of questions pulled from each exam topic, and you can hone your skills further by reading the detailed answer explanations.

What Eases CMA Exam Difficulty?

Thankfully, even though the exam structure, the content scope, and the required skill make the CMA exam fairly tough, two factors help to alleviate CMA exam struggles.

First, the IMA gives you a comfortable amount of time to finish the CMA exam. You have three years to sit for and pass both parts. The CMA exam is offered in three testing windows every year: January/February, May/June, and September/October. You may only sit for the exam in those windows, and if you fail an exam section, you have to wait until the next testing window to sit for that section again.

A CMA review course is the second factor that simplifies the exam process. When you choose to study with the Gleim CMA Review course, you can get all the exam emulation, content coverage, and practice questions you need to be completely ready by exam day. You can also get an interactive study planner and the guidance of exam mentors to help you make the most efficient study plan. As the leader in CMA exam prep, Gleim CMA is always here to support you. We’ve created a free CMA Exam Guide to help you start your exam journey with confidence. Access it today!