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What is a CPA Task-Based Simulation?

CPA Task-Based Simulations are scenario-based questions on the CPA Exam. Each one will introduce a situation; provide data in the form of charts, memos, and emails; and require you to answer a series of questions. They make up 50% of your total CPA Exam score.

NOTE: In BEC, the 50% is made up of 35% Task-Based Simulation and 15% Written Communication. We treat Written Communications as a type of Simulation on this page. While the AICPA usually considers these separate from other Simulations, they share more similarities than differences.

How important are Task-Based Simulations on the CPA Exam?

Task-Based Simulations are a very important part of the CPA Exam.

Currently, three of the five testlets on the CPA Exam are made up of Simulations. Depending on which section you’re taking, you will have between 7-8 Simulations on each section of the CPA Exam. In total, you will have 31 Task-Based Simulations on the CPA Exam, and they will make up half of your overall grade.

In the past several years, the AICPA has continually improved the Simulation section of the CPA Exam, adding exhibits, redesigning the interface, and changing their sample exams to include harder Simulations. With all of the CPA Exam changes, it is clear that Simulations are not going away. Rather, they play an increasingly important role in assessing your abilities on the CPA Exam.

How can I study Task-Based Simulations for the CPA Exam?

The best way to prepare for Task-Based Simulations is to practice answering them. The best CPA review courses include many different Simulations and should not overly focus on any one type of Simulation. This means that having access to a robust bank of Simulations is key.

What kinds of Task-Based Simulations are on the CPA Exam?

The CPA Exam has six general types of Task-Based Simulations. In no particular order, they are research, free-response numeric entry, option list, journal entries, document review, and written communications.

Research Simulations do not appear on the BEC section of the CPA Exam.

Written Communications only appear on the BEC section of the CPA Exam and make up 15% of your total score for that section.

Research

Research Simulations require you to cite an authoritative source in response to a prompt. For instance, you may need to cite the Internal Revenue Code section that defines the tax rates imposed on qualified dividends. Thankfully, you won’t need to memorize all of this because you’ll have access to the authoritative literature tool.

We discuss the authoritative literature tool in detail a bit further down on this page.

This Simulation type does not appear on the BEC section of the CPA Exam.

Journal entry

Journal Entry Simulations require you to complete one or more journal entries. You’ll be given a scenario and be asked to determine whether a journal entry is required and, if one is, to complete it.

To complete Journal Entry Simulations, you’ll select an account from the account column and enter the corresponding amount in the appropriate column (Debit or Credit).

This Simulation type can appear on the AUD and FAR sections of the CPA Exam.

Free-response numeric entry

Numeric Entry Simulations require you to enter numeric amounts into predesignated cells. This type of Task-Based Simulation requires that you calculate and then respond with some kind of number, e.g., an amount of currency, a ratio, etc. Your response will automatically be formatted after you have entered it.

These are sometimes combined with Option List Simulations to create multi-part Simulations (such as journal entries).

This Simulation type can appear on all four sections of the CPA Exam.

Document review

Document Review Simulations (DRSs) will provide you with a realistic document and accompanying source materials. The document will contain underlined words, phrases, sentences, or even paragraphs that may or may not need to be corrected. When you click on an underlined portion, you’ll be provided with a list of options. You will be responsible for determining which edits are necessary, if any.

NOTE: If an underlined portion does not need to be corrected, that option must be selected from the list provided. If no answer is selected, your response will be graded as incorrect (even if that portion was correct as is).

This Simulation type can appear on all four sections of the CPA Exam.

Option list

Option List Simulations require you to select the best option to answer a question from a provided list. You’ll be given a scenario with instructions on specifically what the Simulation is asking. By clicking on the questions answer cells, you’ll receive a list of answer choices to choose from.

These are sometimes combined with Numeric Entry Simulations to create multi-part Simulations (such as journal entries).

This Simulation type can appear on all four sections of the CPA Exam.

Written communication

Written Communications will provide you with a scenario that requires you to respond with a memo or other business communication. These are essay-style questions that test your ability to write clearly and communicate accounting concepts.

The question can test any CPA topic, not just the material on BEC, but the topics tend to be fairly basic. Ultimately, these questions are testing your communication ability.

This Simulation type will only appear on the BEC section of the CPA Exam.

What tools will I have for Task-Based Simulations?

The Task-Based Simulations on the CPA Exam are not simple, so the AICPA includes several tools to assist in their completion. However, if you’re not familiar with these tools before you start your exam, you will waste valuable test time figuring out how and when to use them.

In addition to knowing how these tools work, it is important to learn how to use them optimally. Overly relying on these tools can waste a lot of time you should be spending answering the questions. The best way to find that balance is by practicing with the tools on many different Simulations, so make sure your review provider includes these tools with their sim bank.

Calculator

The exam includes a basic 8-function calculator. Use this tool for basic calculations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division), but for longer calculations, or calculations with multiple parts, you should use Excel.

Excel

The CPA Exam includes access to Microsoft Excel. You’ll be able to use the full formula, sort, and filter features. However, some features have been disabled for security purposes.

Any time you close Excel or move to another question, it will automatically save your work. However, when you leave a testlet, it will clear the data.

Authoritative literature

The authoritative literature tool is a useful tool that is only available during the Simulations. In fact, it is required for the Research Simulations. The tool is actually a search utility that contains all of the authoritative literature for the CPA Exam topics. It is very important that you thoroughly understand how to use this search before you sit for the exam.

The following sources are found within the authoritative literature:

  • Internal Revenue Code

  • AICPA Professional Standards

  • FASB Codification

  • PCAOB Auditing Standards

Spell check

When it comes to the BEC written communications, spell check will be a valuable tool. The exam features a basic spell checking software that will automatically underline any words it considers misspelled. You will then be able to right click on the underlined text to see a list of spelling suggestions.

NOTE: It will only detect misspelled words, not incorrectly used words (their, they’re, there), and it may flag proper nouns or technical terms as misspelled. Ultimately, it is a useful tool, but you shouldn’t overly rely on it.

Exhibits

Many Task-Based Simulations also include exhibits. These are additional sources of data that will contain information needed to answer questions on the Simulation.

Exhibits come in a wide variety of forms: memos, income statements, press releases, etc. So, it is valuable to practice extracting information from different types of presentations. The best way to accomplish this is to practice many different Simulations.

NOTE: You’ll be able to have multiple exhibits open simultaneously on the exam. And you can cut and paste from most exhibits, which can prevent typos and brief lapses in memory.

Highlight

One of the best ways to keep track of information in multiple exhibits is the highlight tool. If you use your cursor to highlight text within an exhibit on the CPA Exam, you’ll receive the option to mark it. This will cause the text to receive a bright yellow highlight. You can have multiple highlights simultaneously, and it will even remain after you close the exhibit or navigate to another tab.

Simulation answering techniques

Task-Based Simulations come in many different forms on all four sections of the CPA Exam. Each one has its own quirks and answering techniques. The best thing you can do is practice many different Simulations to learn exactly how each works. If you’re looking for good tips, our helpful guide on each of the Simulation types is a great place to get started.

How to answer Research Simulations

Research Simulations can appear on the AUD, FAR, and REG sections of the CPA Exam. They will offer you a scenario and ask for you to identify the authoritative literature that addresses the topic presented.

You do not need to memorize the authoritative literature because you will have access to a database/search tool that includes the testable authoritative literature. Proper use of this search tool is essential to scoring high on these Simulations and saving valuable time.

Follow our tips to maximize your score on the CPA Exam’s Research Simulations:

Carefully read the instructions to confirm what you’re being asked to do.

Identify which standard-setting body you will need to use.

Pick out keywords that will help your search.

Open the Authoritative Literature tool and select the source(s) you identified as appropriate.

Scan the list of subfolders to see if you can narrow your search.

Do a basic search of your keywords.

  • If there are only a few results, you can quickly skim through them to narrow your search down.
  • If you have too many results, use an advanced search to narrow it further.
    • The exact phrase tool is useful if a certain phrase, such as “qualified dividend,” must be present. Be careful with how you word the phrase, for example “qualified dividends” would pull different results than “qualified dividend” because of the exact phrase setting.

After you’ve selected the section, quickly skim the contents to find the appropriate subsection. This is going to require a combination of finding keywords in headers and accounting knowledge.

  • For instance, if you were looking for qualified dividends and you came across a subsection on capital gains, you would know that since those topics are closely related, you may need to look closer at that subsection for your answer.

Once you have found your answer, enter it into the fields provided.

  • Be sure you follow the instructions provided. If you have put in a correctly formatted answer, a green checkmark will appear in that answer cell.
    • This does not mean your answer is correct. Just that it is properly formatted.

Before you move on to the next Simulation, make sure you have completely answered the question.

How to answer Numeric Entry Simulations

Numeric Entry Simulations can appear on all four sections of the CPA Exam. In these Simulations, you will be provided a scenario and asked to enter amounts into provided answer cells. Unlike most other Simulations, you will not be provided with options. Commonly, these Simulations require some calculations.

Keep the following steps in mind for Numeric Entry Simulations:

Carefully read the instructions to confirm what you’re being asked to do.

  • Pay close attention to instructions concerning rounding, negative numbers, or other answer treatments.

When you select a cell, you will be presented with an entry box. This will automatically format your response.

  • Always confirm that the amount you entered is correctly displayed after you have entered your answer. Because the box automatically formats your response, it is possible for you to overlook a typo or other error.

Before you move on to the next Simulation, make sure you have selected an answer for all of the questions.

  • The small blue box with “123” will have faded if you have selected an answer.

How to answer Option List Simulations

Option List Simulations can appear on all four sections of the CPA Exam. They provide a list of possible answers for each cell. As a result, these Simulations can cover a wide variety of question types. For example, some Simulations will ask you to select an account type, an amount, or a statement—some may even ask you all three.

To avoid making any preventable mistakes, use the following tips:

Carefully read the instructions to confirm what you’re being asked to do.

  • This is very important for option lists. Instructions will usually include a restriction on how many times an answer choice can be used, for instance. Some questions might allow answers to be used as many times as you’d like, while others may only allow an answer to be used once.

When you select a cell, you will be given a list of possible answers. Do not assume that each cell within the Simulation will have the same option list.

Always read all of your answer options. You need to select the best answer. Some options might be almost right, but missing some detail included in another answer option.

Before you move on to the next Simulation, make sure you have selected an answer for all of the questions.

  • The small blue box with three lines will have faded if you have selected an answer.

How to answer Journal Entry Simulations

Journal Entry Simulations can appear on the AUD and FAR sections of the CPA Exam. They are a special kind of Simulation that combine option lists with numeric entries. In these Simulations, you will be provided a scenario and asked to complete one or more journal entries. Mechanically, you’ll select the account type in the option list column and enter the amount in the amount columns.

A few important considerations for these Simulation types:

For a given journal entry, it doesn’t matter what order you do the account/amounts in. You’ll be graded on the amounts matching to the correct account and on whether all the accounts/amounts are present, not the order the accounts are in.

Be sure to enter your numeric entries in the appropriate column (Debit or Credit).

Before you move on to the next Simulation, make sure you have selected an answer for all of the questions.

  • This will clear any response you currently have in the answer grid. So, make sure you do not need that information before you click the box.

Before you move on to the next Simulation, confirm that you have completed the Simulation.

  • Remember, not all cells need to be filled in for these Simulations.

How to answer Document Review Simulations

Document Review Simulations can appear on all four sections of the CPA Exam. In these Simulations, you will be presented a scenario and a document with some underlined text. These underlined portions are the questions. You will need to determine if the underlined sections need any edits to them based on the information provided by the Simulation and supporting exhibits. Clicking on one of the underlined portions of text will open up a list of options to choose from.

Whether you are working on practice Document Review Simulations or the real thing, follow these steps to give yourself the best chance at CPA Exam success:

Carefully read the instructions to confirm what you’re being asked to do.

Read the document and the title of each exhibit to determine what is being asked and what information is available.

Carefully read each underlined section and each answer choice completely.

  • Summarize the answer options to limit your search to relevant information, making brief notes as needed.

Get to know the available information.

  • Your ability to determine which parts are relevant to the question being asked is critical to your success. Practice quickly surveying the various items presented and hone-in on the most relevant information.
  • Remember that some information may be provided on the document you are editing.

Select the most correct option for each underlined portion.

Note that you’ll need to select an answer even if the original text is correct.

Before you move on to the next Simulation, make sure you have selected an answer for all of the questions.

  • The small box next to the underlined text will have changed from three lines to a checkmark.

How to answer written communications

Written communications only appear on the BEC section of the CPA Exam. These are basically essay questions, and while they can be a little intimidating, they can be easily conquered with a good plan.

Most of the scenarios will require you to explain something, not argue for a certain course of action.

BEC written communications are initially computer graded. This means software looks for sentence structure, essay format, and keywords.

However, if your initial score is near 75, your written communications may be reviewed by a human scorer. The AICPA is always improving their computer scoring system and your essay may be reviewed by a human scorer, so it is important that your written communications accurately answer the question posed by the Simulation.

With that out of the way, lets discuss how to maximize your score on the written communications.

Carefully read the instructions to confirm what you’re being asked to do.

Create an outline of the points you’ll want to discuss in your written communication.

Combine your key points into like topics and create topic sentences from them. Be sure to organize the sentences so they present the topics in a logical order.

Flesh out each topic into a paragraph.

  • The first paragraph will provide an overview and state the purpose of the document. In a sense, you’re restating the question and providing the main point of your document.
  • The following 2-3 paragraphs provide details. This should begin with a topic sentence and followed by supporting sentences.
  • The final paragraph is a conclusion. Use these paragraphs to close out your document with your final thoughts.

Check for misspelled words or incomplete thoughts.

The important thing to remember is that you’re being graded on the expression, development, and organization of the document. You do not need to be a full-blown expert on the topic to earn a top score on the written communication task.

How many Task-Based Simulations should I practice with?

The cliché is “as many as you can.” With that in mind, we’ve created the largest bank of Simulations on the market. Memorizing 1,300 Simulations would be quite the feat, so we’re confident you’ll have plenty of study materials to master this difficult component of the CPA Exam.

The best advice we can offer is this: if your review provider offers an adaptive learning system, it will guide you to your weak areas, and this includes Simulations. The CPA Exam is always getting harder, so make sure you’re working with a review provider that prioritizes your studies.