What is the Format of the CPA Exam?

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Are you looking into the CPA exam? Good for you! There are a lot of horror stories out there about the exam and while there is no denying that it is difficult, there is also no denying that there are many professionals who have taken it successfully. While it can certainly be an extremely intimidating exam, it is also true that understanding the exam structure and some of its nuances may instill more confidence in you as you prepare.

DegreeQuery.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Uniform CPA Exam

General Exam Details

Like most of today’s licensing exams, the CPA exam is a computerized test. The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) administers it. The exam is comprised of four different sections, which are taken separately. Each section must be successfully passed within 18 months.

Exam Timing: Test takers will have a total of four and a half hours to complete an exam section. The breakdown of those four and a half hours will look like this:

  • 5 minutes: exam welcome/test take will enter launch code
  • 5 minutes: confidentiality information
  • 4 hours of testing time
  • 15 minutes: break after third testlet – with option to pause exam
  • 5 minutes: post exam survey

Test takers may take other breaks, however, they will not be free to pause the test timer. The only break in which the exam can be paused is the standardized break offered after the third testlet.

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 Types of Questions

There are three different types of questions one will encounter when taking the CPA examination. These include multiple-choice questions (MCQs), task-based simulations (TBSs), and written communication tasks.

  • MCQs: Each exam section includes MCQ questions. These questions will vary in difficulty and change depending on whether the test taker is answering correctly or incorrectly
  • TBSs: TBS questions are meant to test an exam taker’s ability to apply their knowledge and demonstrate that they conceptually understand the topics on the exam. While the formats can be different, the most common include fill-in-the-blanks and matching.
  • Written communication: This portion is meant to test a candidate’s technical writing and communication skills. Candidates will be required to write a memo or draft a client letter. There is only one exam section which includes written communication task questions; that will be in the final testlet of the BEC exam section.

Exam Sections

The four different exam sections are Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). These exam sections can be taken in any order; that order is chosen by the candidate.

Testlets: Each section of the CPA exam is administered in a block called testlets. These testlets contain two different types of questions, operational questions and pretest questions. Operational questions are scored, while pretest questions are not. Eventually, some pretest questions will become operational questions on future exams. The exam-taker will not know which type of question is which.

  • AUD: The AUD test section, which covers all auditing and assurance services in public accounting, consists of five testlets. The first two testlets are comprised of 36 MCQs. The last three testlets have 2, 3, and 4 TBSs, respectively.
  • BEC: The BEC test section, which tests about the environment that a business operates inside of, is the only section that includes a written response testlet. The first two testlets will include 36 MCQs apiece, the next two testlets have 2 and 3 TBSs, respectively, and the final testlet is for written communication responses.
  • FAR: The FAR test section covers the most material – all aspects of financial accounting and reporting. This section has two testlets with 33 MCQs apiece. The final 3 testlets have 2, 4, and 3 TBSs, respectively.
  • REG: The REG section tests on business and individual taxation, business law, and ethics. The first two testlets of the REG test section have 38 MCQs. The final three testlets have 2, 4, and 3 TBSs.

Computer Adaptive Testing

Computer adaptive testing (CAT) is a common test form for many computerized licensing tests today. CAT is designed to adjust the level of difficulty, based on the responses provided by a candidate, to match the knowledge and ability of a test taker. If a candidate answers something correctly, the next question is harder. Alternatively, if the candidate is answering incorrectly, the subsequent question(s) is easier. This type of test format is meant to push back against standardized testing, doing a better job of determining the true skill level of individual students.

The MCQ testlets of the CPA exam sections follow a CAT model. The other questions (TBSs and written communication) are not scored this way. While performing poorly may lead to some confidence building easier questions, candidates should hope to see more difficult questions, as those are weighted more.

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Test Scoring

Each exam section is graded on a scale of 0-99. A passing score of at least 75 must be achieved in each section. There are a few things to remember about the way the exam is scored. The CPA exam is a weighted score. Each testlet has a different weight and a final section score is a weighted combination of scaled scores from each portion of the exam.

  • Scaled scores: Scaled scores take two factors into account – whether or not a question was answered correctly and the relative difficulty of the question.

The CPA exam grade is not a percentage score, a raw score, or graded on a curve. The scaled and weighted model of scoring, which has many checks and balances, is meant to ensure that the proficiency of each individual is tested as best as it can be, regardless of what other candidates are doing. There are three organizations involved in the evaluation process (though nearly all scoring is done by a computer). They are the AICPA, the National Association of State Boards of accountancy, and Prometric (this is the company that delivers the exam).

You Can Pass the CPA Exam

It’d be a lie to say that understanding the exam ensures that you will pass the exam. However, it is true that candidates who understand the exam structure are more confident exam takers and are less likely to be surprised (or scared) by something unexpected. You will have to decide the order in which you take your exam sections, but you can be sure that regardless of the section you are sitting for, there is a format and structure that you can confidently count on each time.

DQ Staff

February 2020

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