7 Mistakes CPA Exam Candidates Make on Simulations

By Elizabeth Kolar, MBA, CPA, CGMA


When it comes to CPA Exam scoring, the AICPA gives equal weight to Multiple Choice Questions and Task-Based Simulations/Written Communication Tasks. In fact, Sims account for a greater portion of a candidate’s exam section score than ever before. This change has caused simulations (or sims for short) to become a larger portion of an exam candidate’s score. Consequently, doing well on the sims has become even more crucial to passing.

We want you to crush your sim experience; below, we’ve listed 7 mistakes CPA exam candidates make on simulations, and strategies you can use to avoid them.

1. They Don’t Read the Directions

The individual simulation directions will clearly state what needs to be done in that specific sim and whether there are any stipulations around any answers. For example, if you’re doing journal entries and there is a blank where no entry is needed, the instructions will say whether to put a “0” or leave it the entry completely blank. Sounds silly, but by not following the instructions and putting a blank where a “0” should be, you won’t get points for that particular answer.

Come exam day, you’re going to be feeling the pressure when you get to the sims, but taking the time to read the directions of every sim will pay dividends towards your score.

2. They Don’t Actually Practice Simulations

It’s easy to think that reading the study materials and answering all of the multiple-choice questions will prepare you for the sims, but they really are a completely different animal. You’ll want to know how the exam software works, how questions and answers are formatted, and how to answer simulations. The only way you’ll be able to do that is if you practice.

CPA Exam simulations take much longer to solve than MCQs, which can be overwhelming while studying. However, if you want to be confident going into the sims on the real exam, you need to make sure to spend time actually trying to solve the sims when you’re practicing problems. The easy thing to do is open up practice sims and immediately look at the answer. This leads to confirmation bias; you convince yourself that what the answer says is what you would have put anyway. However, by not subjecting yourself to finding the answer on your own, you don’t learn how to actually solve the sims. If there’s one thing in your practice you need to be sure of, it’s to try to solve the sims before looking at the answers.

Practice will also prepare you for the types of questions sims ask. The variety of sim topics is endless, and while you can’t predict what you’ll get on the exam, practicing as many as you can will give you a better understanding of the questions and help you realistically manage your time. Luckily, Surgent offers plenty of practice simulations, with over 400 included in our study materials. We also host free live webinars, many of which are focused on tackling simulations.

Toward the end of your studying, you should set up an exam-like environment and take a practice exam (or several). This will give you an idea of how you’re feeling after the MCQs, whether your timing is correct, and any personal strategies to help you through the sims.

(Psst…all of Surgent’s 4-part CPA Review courses include over 400 simulations. Get started with our bestselling course here.)


3. They Don’t Know How Much Time to Allocate to Sims 

The score percentages for the exams are as follows: 

AUD 50% MC / 50% SIMS
BEC 50% MC / 35% SIMS / 15% Written Communication Tasks
FAR 50% MC / 50% SIMS
REG 50% MC / 50% SIMS

Although the percentages are generally a 50/50 split, the time you spend on each type of question is not as straightforward. Given the potential complexity of some of the simulation questions, it’s recommended you spend about 45 minutes to complete each of the two MCQ testlets (90 minutes total), leaving you 2 ½ hours to tackle the simulation questions.

For FAR, AUD and REG, the whole two hours will be spent on the three Task-Based Simulation testlets. Since BEC has both Task-Based Simulations and Written Communication Tasks, the two and half hours used for the simulations should be distributed as follows:  a) about an hour on the Written Communications questions and b) about an hour on the task-based simulations.

There are so many factors to focus on while taking the exam, but one of the biggest is time. If you go into the SIMS with 25% of your time left (1 hour), you’re going to be rushing to finish them, which means you’re rushing through 50% of your score. Allocate your time wisely and make sure you’re starting your simulations around 90 minutes into the exam to give yourself plenty of time to finish without rushing.

4. They Don’t Prepare for the Research Simulation

When you’re practicing simulations, make sure you spend a good amount of time nailing down your strategy on research questions; if you’re good at finding the answers in the literature, you can knock out this sim in less than five minutes.

When you start one of the three simulation testlets (testlets three, four and five), go through each sim and see if a research question is involved. If your research sim is in the third or fourth testlet, take ten minutes to try and knock it out. If it takes you longer than ten minutes, move on to the other sims and try to finish them first before coming back to the research question. If your research question is in testlet five, wait to do it last. It likely won’t take you as long as the other sims, so allocate the front end of your time toward non-research sims.

5. They Spend Too Much Time on One Question

Remember, you only have about two and a half hours to complete 8 sims (7 for BEC). Depending on the type of simulation, you could easily spend between 10 – 30 minutes on each one.  You need to watch the clock to ensure you’re not spending too much time on a specific sim.

As you enter testlets three, four and five, skim through the questions and find the ones with concepts you know really well. Then start doing them easiest to hardest. By using this strategy, you can quickly get through questions you know and have more time at the end for questions you aren’t sure about.

Moving through testlets can be daunting on sims; once you move into the next testlet, there’s no going back to the previous one. But don’t let the fear of moving on use up all of your time. Remember, you can get partial credit on sims; if you’re not sure of one or more answers and it’s time to move on to the next testlet, just take your best guess. You don’t lose points for wrong answers, but you do gain points if your guess is right. Never leave a response blank.

6. They Don’t Use the Authoritative Literature

If you come across a sim in one of your testlets that’s really difficult, finish the easier sims first and come back to it last. At this point, you can make use of the resources offered to you in the Authoritative Literature.

After, and only after, you’ve answered every question you know in a specific testlet, you can look up guidance in the Authoritative Literature for any answers you aren’t sure about. Maybe you forgot exactly how land improvements are accounted for; you can use the search and advanced search functions in the Authoritative Literature to look up guidance on land improvements. You might just figure it out and get a few more points.

Keep your time in mind though as you go about finding answers to difficult questions. If you’re in testlet three, make sure not to spend too much time looking through the Literature, because you still have to finish testlets four and five.

7. They Don’t Keep Their Cool

The sims are tough for everyone, and many would agree they’re more stressful than the multiple-choice questions. However, you can earn partial credit on them, so don’t panic if you don’t know every single answer in a specific sim. The goal is to get as many points as you can; answer the questions you know, use the Literature for ones you don’t, and guess on ones where you don’t have time to look up guidance. The bottom line is, you don’t have to get a perfect score, just a 75.

Also remember, you’ve studied for this. You’ve gone through Surgent’s adaptive learning technology, learned both exam content and study tips from the best instructors in the industry, practiced hundreds of simulations, and taken several of our unlimited practice exams. When you get to the sim portion of your exam, take a deep breath and remember these strategies. You know what to expect and you’re prepared to pass.

Happy testing!




Liz Kolar, CPA, CGMA, has been teaching CPA Review for more than 25 years in the United States, has personally taught more than 2,500 live sessions, and has helped thousands of candidates pass the CPA Exam. She founded Pinnacle CPA Review and co-founded Surgent Kolar CPA Review.