How Hard is the CPA Exam? CPA Exam Difficulty

How Hard is the CPA Exam

So you want to be a CPA? Then you must pass the CPA Exam.

Every state board requires CPA candidates to pass the exam, so it’s the one consistent part of the CPA certification process. Because you have to take it, you need to know: How hard is the CPA Exam?

How Hard is the CPA Exam?

The CPA Exam has been around for 100 years and has gone through many different versions. The exam’s purpose is to provide reasonable assurance to the state boards that those who pass it possess the knowledge and skills needed to fulfill the CPA position and protect the public interest. To accomplish this purpose, each exam version does the following:

  • Measures professional competence in
    • auditing
    • business concepts
    • business law
    • taxation
    • accounting
  • Tests related business skills to assess your knowledge and judgment
  • Verifies your understanding of professional responsibilities and ethics

In the process of achieving its goals, the CPA Exam poses quite a challenge to most people, as the pass rates reveal. In 2016, 102,323 people sat for the exam, and the 2016 CPA Exam pass rates reached an average pass rate of just over 48%. The 2017 CPA Exam pass rates followed suit. Pass rates that historically hover around 50% demonstrate that the CPA Exam is no walk in the park.

What Affects CPA Exam Difficulty?

When you understand the difficulty level of the CPA Exam, you can develop your plan to pass more effectively and adjust your approach accordingly. So, you should start your CPA Exam preparations by discovering the four characteristics that have contributed to the exam’s reputation as a real challenge.

Complex Structure

The structure of the CPA Exam is complex because of the number of sections, question types, and testlets included.

The exam consists of four sections:

These four sections present a selection of these question types:

  • Multiple-choice questions (MCQs)

    An MCQ contains a question stem and four answer choices. You must determine which three of the four answer choices are distractors and which answer choice is the best response to the question stem and therefore correct.

  • Task-based simulations (TBSs)

    TBSs are questions that require you to construct your own response using information provided either with the question or in exhibits provided with the simulation. The TBS type known as a Document Review Simulation (DRS) requires you to rely on various resources to review a document. Another type of TBS that you’ll only see in AUD, FAR, and REG is the Research task, which expects you to research relevant authoritative literature and cite the appropriate guidance as indicated.

  • Written communications (WCs)

    Completing a WC involves writing your response to a scenario in the form of a business memo that addresses the needs and concerns of the designated party in the manner that a CPA in the field would do.

The CPA Exam questions come to you in testlets specific to each question type. Each exam section has five testlets, but the number and kind of questions in these testlets are distinct to the section.

Testlets in Each CPA Exam Section






Total MCQs





Testlet 1





Testlet 2





Total TBSs





Testlet 3





Testlet 4





Testlet 5


3 WCs



Total WCs





With such a significant number and variety of questions, it’s easy to find the CPA Exam a bit daunting, but you don’t have to let all these questions get you down. You can prepare for any exam question by studying with plenty of CPA test questions. The largest CPA test bank on the market offers over 13,000 MCQs, TBSs, and WCs to practice with, so you don’t have to worry about being surprised by a question on exam day.

Topics Covered

Another quality strengthening CPA Exam difficulty is the breath of accounting content the exam covers. The CPA Exam blueprints break the content in each exam section down into areas, groups, and topics. Each section addresses different areas of accounting.


  • Area I – Ethics, Professional Responsibilities, and General Principles (15-25%)
  • Area II – Assessing Risk and Developing a Planned Response (20-30%)
  • Area III – Performing Further Procedures and Obtaining Evidence (30-40%)
  • Area IV – Forming Conclusions and Reporting (5-15%)


  • Area I – Corporate Governance (17-27%)
  • Area II – Economic Concepts and Analysis (17-27%)
  • Area III – Financial Management (11-21%)
  • Area IV – Information Technology (15-25%)
  • Area V – Operations Management (15-25%)


  • Area I – Conceptual Framework, Standard-Setting, and Financial Reporting (25-35%)
  • Area II – Select Financial Statement Accounts (30-40%)
  • Area III – Select Transactions (20-30%)
  • Area IV – State and Local Governments (5-15%)


  • Area I – Ethics, Professional Responsibilities, and Federal Tax Procedures (10-20%)
  • Area II – Business Law (10-20%)
  • Area III – Federal Taxation of Property Transactions (12-22%)
  • Area IV – Federal Taxation of Individuals (15-25%)
  • Area V – Federal Taxation of Entities (28-38%)

Each section also encompasses a great number of content groups and topics.

CPA Exam Groups and Topics

Groups 27 18 35 28
Topics 58 20 44 50

This expansive scope of content leaves you with a lot to study, and there are no shortcuts to learning it. Instead, the best way to ensure that you see all of the testable material before you sit for the exam is to prepare with an extremely thorough review course. Only the most comprehensive CPA exam prep will explain each concept and provide everything you need to master the topics.

Tested Skill Levels

While memorization may have been useful for passing CPA Exam versions of the past, the CPA Exam of today expects more from candidates. The current exam version compels candidates to reach a greater comprehension of accounting topics by featuring questions that assess you for higher levels of knowledge and skill. The CPA Exam blueprints include 600 representative tasks that the AICPA has identified as critical to the role of a newly licensed CPA. The CPA Exam incorporates these tasks into its questions, and the AICPA has assigned one of these four skill levels to each of the tasks:

Higher Order Skill Levels

Evaluation This tests the ability to evaluate information using multiple concepts to reach a conclusion.
Analysis This tests the ability to use multiple concepts together and apply them to a factual situation.
Application This tests the application of memorized principles to a factual situation.
Remembering and Understanding Remembering tests pure memorization. Understanding tests the ability to understand memorized principles.

The Remembering and Understanding level requires the lowest amount of skill, while Evaluation requires the highest amount. To reach the Analysis and Evaluation levels, you must answer the “so what” questions: explain why something is important or not important. CPA Exam questions that ask you to reconcile, conclude, or evaluate scenarios address the higher skill levels. As you can see from the chart below, only AUD will test you at the Evaluation level, but all of the exam sections will test you at the Analysis level.

CPA Exam Skill Levels

Section Remembering and Understanding Application Analysis Evaluation
AUD 30-40% 30-40% 15-25% 5-15%
BEC 15-25% 50-60%* 20-30%
FAR 10-20% 50-60% 25-35%
REG 25-35% 35-45% 25-35%

*Includes written communication

To meet the CPA Exam’s expectations for your knowledge and skills, you should rely on adaptive CPA review. A truly adaptive CPA course will help you level up by targeting your weak areas and maintaining constant cumulative review. Gleim CPA Review quizzes you on both recent topics and troublesome topics from previous study units so you can achieve mastery. Our SmartAdaptTM technology leads you to focus on your weaknesses until exam day comes so you can learn from your mistakes and deepen your understanding of the exam content.

Time Required

The final factor influencing CPA Exam difficulty is the amount of time it takes to pass. Two aspects of the exam dictate the time commitment you’ll need to make: how long you are sitting for the exam and how long you are studying for it.

The CPA Exam is a long test to take. Testing time for each exam section is 4 hours, so once you’ve passed all four sections, your grand total will be 16 hours. However, meeting your testing appointments takes more than 4 hours when you account for traveling and showing up at least half an hour early as Prometric requests.

Studying for the CPA Exam is also a lengthy process. You can only sit for the CPA Exam during its four testing windows per calendar year. Each testing window includes the first two months of the quarter (i.e., January/February, April/May, July/August, October/November). Furthermore, you must pass all of the exam sections within an 18-month time frame. Your 18 months begin as soon as you pass your first exam section. If you do not pass the remaining 3 sections within 18 months, you will lose credit for the first section. For example, you took BEC on November 2, 2017, and passed. Subsequently, you took FAR on February 23, 2018, and REG on April 4, 2018, and passed those two sections. You then have until May 1, 2019, to pass the remaining section (AUD); otherwise, you will lose credit for BEC. On August 1, 2019, if you have not yet passed AUD and re-passed your first section (BEC), you will lose credit for FAR.

Passing all 4 sections within 18 months is doable. Even passing all 4 sections within 6 months is doable. Essentially, the amount of time it takes you to pass depends on factors such as how familiar you are with the material, how much time has elapsed since you earned your degree, and how much time you have to study. To ensure that you know all of the material in time for each testing appointments, you should utilize an interactive study planner. The study planner included with Gleim CPA Review works with the schedule you set to highlight your accomplishments and simplify your study agenda. With such a helpful tool keeping you on track, you’ll be motivated to keep moving forward.

Which Review Helps You Manage CPA Exam Difficulty?

While all of these elements affect how hard the CPA Exam is, they don’t make it impossible to pass. If you put in the time and strengthen your weaknesses, you can not only pass each section, but you can pass them all on your first try. To study effectively and pass efficiently, you should use Gleim CPA Review. With our powerful, proprietary SmartAdaptTM technology, Gleim CPA Review prepares you to pass better than any other course. See how our course creates a customized learning path just for you by accessing our free CPA course demo today.