Test Prep Insight is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

How Hard Is The CPA Exam?

Before sinking hundreds of hours into studying, many students and professionals often wonder, “Is the CPA exam really that hard?”

The Uniform CPA Examination is a four-part, in-depth assessment of proficiency in all requirements for public accountancy. It is considered one of the most challenging exams for obtaining standardized professional credentials. When the national pass rate is approximately 1 in 2, those who will eventually need to take the CPA exam should use every resource possible to give them an edge against a nearly 50% fail rate. In this guide, we will answer your questions regarding the difficulty of the CPA exam.

CPA Exam Difficulty Article Outline:

How Hard is the CPA Exam? VIDEO Explanation

In this video, John from the Test Prep Insight team covers what exactly makes the CPA exam so hard, including difficulty and scope of the material tested, pass rates, and how the sections stack up against one another. Keep reading for even more detail regarding the CPA exam.

Gleim CPA – Resource
Studying For CPA Exam? Top Review Course 10% OFF

Is The CPA Exam Hard?

The CPA exam is extremely hard. It tests concepts and working knowledge in a wide variety of fields, and requires quite a large undertaking of planning, studying, and preparing. I found each of the four main exam portions to require demonstrated knowledge of a wide range of accounting topics.

What Makes The CPA Exam Difficult?

There are several factors that make the CPA exam one of the most challenging credentialing examinations. Most test takers have identified the vast amount of information covered on the exam to be the primary reason for its difficulty, which in turn requires a substantial amount of study and preparation. Each section uses a variety of question types, it is time-limited, and it utilizes multi-stage difficulties.

CPA Exam Hard

Question Types

In three of the four test sections, the questions are only multiple-choice questions, however, in one of the sections, there are multiple types of questions that are employed. There are still some multiple-choice questions, but there are also are simulations based on a given task or scenario, and written communication simulations as well. The multiple choice questions are tricky. Often, there is more than one correct answer, and you are tasked with selecting only the best of the provided choices. The task-based simulations and written communication questions are in their own portions of the test, called “testlets”.

Time Limitations

Each of the four sections has a time limit of 4 hours, so by the time you pass the CPA, you will have taken at least 16 hours of tests. You are given an 18-month window, starting from the date you pass your first section, in which you are able to take the remaining 3 sections of the test in any order you prefer. Many applicants choose to take the perceived most difficult exam first, and then the others. There are significant registration fees involved which must be paid again if an exam portion is taken and failed.

A common testing track is, to begin with FAR, then the AUD and REG, followed by lastly with BEC. This will allow a more natural progression that builds on knowledge previously attained.

Hardest Section Of The CPA Exam – AUD, BEC, FAR, or REG?

As mentioned, the CPA is comprised of four sections broken down into testlets, these sections test your knowledge of Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Auditing and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). Most CPA students have said the FAR section was the most difficult. We’ll take a look at each section and what it tests on, so you can be better prepared overall.

CPA Exam Difficulty
Source: Gleim CPA Review

AUD is the section that will cover all auditing and assurance public accounting services. Here, your knowledge of the professional code of conduct (AICPA), audit processes, reviews, compilations, and attestations.

BEC is a comprehensive analysis of the environment that businesses operate in. It will cover economics both macro and micro, cost accounting, management, and information systems and technology.

FAR is often considered the most difficult section. Many people feel this is purely due to the volume of information covered. This section covers the entirety of financial accounting and reporting. You will be tested on the FASB framework, statement preparation, US GAAP rules, and IFRS rules.

REG is the only section of the CPA exam that does not deal explicitly with accounting content. The REG section focuses on the taxation of businesses and individuals, business law, and ethics.

What Is The Hardest Part Of The CPA Exam?

The numbers do not lie, the hardest section of the CPA exam is most definitely the FAR, with a 2020 Q1 pass rate of just over 46%. When this is compared to the Q1 pass rate for BEC, which was a sturdy 61%, it is clear that people are less successful with the FAR.

One last factor is of course the price. You must pay for, and have been issued, an NTS for each section, and those can take several weeks to months to arrive. If you fail a section, you must wait to retake until you have another NTS. This cost and scheduling can often be a large hurdle to finishing within the 18-month timeframe you are given.