How Hard is the CPA Exam?

With national CPA Exam pass rates hovering around 50%, the Uniform CPA Examination is one of the most difficult professional credentialing exams. That’s why it’s important to study efficiently and effectively to ensure that you pass each of the four exam sections and continue on your path to the CPA license as painlessly as possible.

The right CPA Exam review course can be the difference between passing and failing. View our CPA review course comparisons to figure out which CPA Exam review course’s study materials will work best for you.

At Surgent CPA Review, we recently dug into our data and found out that our students are getting exam-ready after just 46 hours of studying. Download our white paper on How to Pass a CPA Exam Section in Less Than Three Weeks. You’ll also get tips and strategies for passing all four parts of the CPA Exam as quickly as possible.

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Why is the CPA Exam Hard?

To know what makes the CPA Exam so hard, let’s take an overview of the exam. The CPA Exam is made up of four different parts: Financial Auditing and Reporting (FAR), Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Regulation (REG), and Business Environment and Concepts (BEC). Each exam section focuses on diverse accounting knowledge and uses question types like simulations and multiple-choice questions to assess your knowledge. Every section has a time limit of four hours, or a total of 16 hours to complete the entire CPA Exam.

To sum up, the CPA Exam is hard, because there is an extensive amount of information covered on the exam and, with most review courses, quite a lot of study time required.


What is the Hardest Section of the CPA Exam?

Students often report that Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) is the most difficult part of the CPA Exam to pass, because it is the most comprehensive section. However, how difficult you find any given exam section will depend on your accountancy background. The CPA Exam is considered one of the hardest accounting credentialing exams due to the sheer scope of the four exam sections. Going over a CPA Exam sections guide can help you determine which section you will feel most ready to tackle based on your own background.


How Long Does It Take to Pass the CPA Exam?

While CPA candidates have up to four hours on each individual exam section, all four sections of the CPA Exam must be passed within an 18-month testing window, starting after you pass the first exam section. Fortunately, the exam sections do not have to be taken in order. We suggest that you start your study plan with FAR, then move on to AUD and REG, and finish with BEC. Taking the CPA Exam sections in this order will allow you to build upon the knowledge you have in to apply that cumulative knowledge to each exam section. Learn more about why we suggest taking the exam sections in this order – and how you can pass a CPA Exam section in three weeks.


How Long Does It Take to Become Exam Ready?

The amount of time it takes students to become exam ready depends on many variables. Many review courses recommend reading through every page of every book, listening to every lecture, and answering every question in the course – and then take multiple sample tests to boot! Surgent CPA Review allows candidates to study more effectively by directing them to the content and questions they need to know to be able to pass. Plus, Surgent is the only course with an exam-readiness metric, ReadySCORE, that shows candidates an estimate of what they would score if they were to sit for the CPA Exam at that moment – to within 4 points of actual CPA Exam scores. While some review courses recommend spending hundreds of hours studying for just one exam section, Surgent has reduced our students’ average study time until exam ready to 46 hours per exam section, on average.


What are the Pass Rates for Each CPA Exam Section?

The CPA Exam average national pass rate is around 50%. That means that most candidates do not pass the CPA Exam the first time and must retake at least one section of the exam. The pass rate can be broken down by exam section, showing that FAR receives the lowest scores and BEC receives the highest. The following chart represents cumulative pass rates reported by the AICPA for the first three quarters of 2019.


CPA Exam Section Pass Rate
AUD 52.06%
BEC 60.45%
FAR 48.30%
REG 56.51%


Find out how difficult each CPA Exam section will be for you by looking over exam guides for FAR, AUD, REG, and BEC.

What Types of Questions are on the CPA Exam?

The CPA Exam has three types of questions: multiple-choice questions (MCQs), task-based simulations, and written communication simulations. The FAR, AUD, and REG CPA Exam sections feature only multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations. The BEC section has three written communication simulations. For a more explicit breakdown of question types per exam section and critical changes to know for each exam section, check out the CPA Exam blueprints.


Do Questions on the CPA Exam Get Harder?

The CPA Exam has a testing model called multi-stage testing. All candidates start with a medium difficulty testlet. If you perform well on the first testlet, the second testlet you receive will contain more difficult questions. If you do not perform as well on the first testlet, you will receive a second medium difficulty testlet.

That’s why increasing your proficiency across all CPA Exam topics is important. To match the increasing difficulty of the actual CPA Exam, Surgent introduced MyMCQ, a difficulty progression feature. As candidates move through their review course, multiple-choice questions will increase in difficulty to suit the candidates’ increased knowledge level, just like in the multi-stage testing model used by the AICPA.


Is the CPA Exam Curved?

There’s a lot of confusion out there about whether the CPA Exam is graded on a curve – meaning that the overall grade would be based on a comparison of all test takers, as opposed to how the individual actually scored.

The AICPA has confirmed that CPA Exam is not graded on a curve – but that’s not to say that it operates in the same way as a standard exam. As you likely know, each section of the exam is reported on a scale that ranges from 0 to 99 and to pass a section, the candidate must score a minimum of 75.

Within each exam, there are three testlets that vary in difficulty. Each candidate will start out with a testlet of medium difficulty, and their performance will dictate whether the next testlet they receive is more difficult – essentially curving the exam based on the individual’s performance, while still grading the exam independently from other test takers.


What’s the Best Way to Prepare for the CPA Exam?

The best way to prepare for the CPA Exam is to choose a review course that will not just help you pass, but will help you pass each section on the first try, so you aren’t stuck re-taking any section of the CPA Exam. Even when studying with most review courses, nearly half of all CPA candidates have to retake at least one section of the exam. Time spent retaking a section of the exam cuts into the 18-month window that candidates have to pass all four sections, so choosing a review course that values your time is important.

Based on actual student data, Surgent students are getting exam ready in just 46 hours of study per section, on average. On a schedule of 20 study hours per week, our students are ready to pass the entire CPA Exam in just three months’ time, far less than the 18-month window in which students are required to pass.


Start studying with Surgent CPA Review today and see how fast you can pass!
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