How hard is the CMA Exam?

6 min read
Woman studying for the CMA Exam and taking notes

If you are considering sitting for the CMA Exam, you want to answer one initial, very important question: is the CMA Exam hard? 

We’ll break down exam pass rates, challenging sections, study tips, and more to help you find an answer. And remember that Becker is here to make the process less intimidating and help drive your CMA success. 

Table of Contents 

  1. Why take the CMA Exam? 
  2. CMA Exam content 
  3. Which sections are particularly challenging? 
  4. CMA Exam pass rate  
  5. How long should you study? 
  6. Tips to pass the CMA Exam 


The CMA Exam consists of two parts, each covering six content areas. The exam is difficult, with an average pass rate of around 45 percent, but with the right study practices and a proven CMA Exam review, you can increase your likelihood of passing and speed up the process so you can start experiencing the benefits of a Certified Management Accounting certification. 

Why take the CMA Exam? 

Considering earning your Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification is no minor decision. It requires time, money, and dedication. But it’s also an investment into your career and personal growth that can open exciting opportunities in the long term. 

As experts in strategic financial management, CMAs help organizations make successful decisions towards growth. They are vital assets to the organizations they serve and enjoy these perks: 

  • Global recognition and ability to practice internationally 
  • Higher average annual salary 
  • More job opportunities and professional advancement 
  • Broader knowledge of financial skills and management 

Professionals who choose to become CMAs may find great fulfillment in the challenge of earning their certification, then reaping the many benefits of their hard work and new skillsets.

CMA Exam Content 

The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) is the governing body over the CMA Exam, which consists of two separate tests, called Part 1 and Part 2. Each exam consists of 100 multiple-choice questions and two essay questions and covers six key competencies.

Part 1: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics 

  • Planning, budgeting, and finance: 20 percent 
    • Use financial information to plan steps toward long-term goals, forecasting how current spending will play into future revenue. 
  • Performance management: 20 percent
    • Oversee financial operations and determine whether goals are being met and where improvements can be made. 
  • External financial reporting decisions: 15 percent
    • Understand and consolidate data to inform decision-making. This requires deep understanding of reporting under IFRS vs. GAAP, and how the international designation changes the way you do reporting. 
  • Cost management: 15 percent
    • Optimize costs and spending through product costing, cost behavior, supply chain management, etc.
  • Internal controls: 15 percent 
    • Design internal controls, ensure compliance, and help organize new standards that fit within an organization’s policy. 
  • Technology and analytics: 15 percent 
    • Report data and make decisions using technological tools and insights. 

Part 2: Strategic Financial Management 

  • Decision analysis: 25 percent 
    • Deploy advanced cost-volume-profit analyses, break-even point calculations, pricing strategies, and more to inform product decisions. 
  • Financial statement analysis: 20 percent 
    • Demonstrate advanced accounting knowledge in data analysis as the basis of decision-making. 
  • Corporate finance: 20 percent
    • Understand interest and exchange rates, international finances, and long-term revenue generation in favor of raising and managing business capital. 
  • Professional ethics: 15 percent 
    • Integrated into any other topic area, ethics covers the integrity with which CMAs do their work. 
  • Risk management: 10 percent
    • Implement an understanding of Enterprise Risk Management principles in pinpointing and managing risk factors. 
  • Investment decisions: 10 percent
    • Recommend informed investments based on advanced accounting methodology and a deep understanding of capital budgeting. 

The IMA provides a Content Specification Outline (CSO) and Learning Outcome Statements (LOS)1 that go into greater detail about both the concepts and skills tested on the CMA Exam1

Exam Part 1 requires knowledge of the concepts required to perform CMA duties. Part 2 focuses on application, drawing conclusions, and big-picture point of view. 

It is also important to understand the skills tested on each section of the exam. The IMA’s CSO describes three levels, each focusing on specific skills.

LevelSkills tested
AKnowledge and comprehension
BKnowledge, comprehension, application, and analysis
CKnowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation

All topics of all sections on exams Part 1 and Part 2 test candidates’ skills at level C—the highest, most inclusive skill level. 

Bottom line? The exam is hefty and requires both deep conceptual understanding across a range of topics and the ability to apply these concepts in real-life scenarios. But with the right preparation, this is certainly attainable. 

How hard is the CMA Exam: Challenging content areas 

While it is important to enter the CMA Exam well-prepared in all areas, certain sections are notoriously more difficult than others. 

Many candidates find Internal Controls in Part 1 is the most difficult area. It covers topics concerning the financial procedures and regulations that organizations put in place to maintain accuracy, integrity, and compliance. While the concepts aren’t necessarily difficult, Internal Controls questions tend to be highly subjective. There’s no clear right or wrong answer, but you must choose the best solution from those provided. Candidates can easily spend more time than allotted puzzling over their options, without ever arriving at a certain decision. 

CMA candidates generally agree that Part 2 is much more difficult than Part 1. This is because Part 1 tests your knowledge of the accounting concepts used by CMAs, whereas Part 2 pushes you to apply concepts, analyze, and deduce in real-life scenarios. 

CMA Exam Pass Rate 

To pass the CMA Exam, you need to earn at least 360 out of 500 points on each exam part. The national first-time CMA pass rate is only 45 percent. This is the case for both Part 1 and Part 2, as of 20202. However, by blocking out the proper amount of study time, knowing what to focus on, and having a proven CMA Exam review, like Becker, you can be Exam Day ReadySM

How long should I study for the CMA Exam? 

The Becker CMA Exam curriculum team recommends around 130-170 hours of study per exam part. With this much study time, most CMA candidates spread out their exams, taking 12-18 months to complete both parts. The IMA suggests beginning study for each part of the exam no less than 10-13 weeks before you plan to take it. However, starting early and getting even more preparation under your belt can only help you on exam day! 

Tips to pass the CMA Exam

Passing the CMA Exam requires one main thing: study! But that’s easier said than done, and the study process can be frankly disheartening without guidance. Here are some tips to help you get started: 

Plan ahead

Once you’ve decided to take the CMA Exam, don’t procrastinate your planning. Time goes by quickly and you’d rather have extra time to study than not enough to be prepared. 

Know what to study

We’ve detailed the content topics above, so you have a rough idea of what you’ll need to know. However, maybe you see one topic where you’re already an expert and another that you barely recognize. Let your familiarity guide you in planning your study priorities, but remain flexible to adapt as you go, spending more time on areas that are difficult to you. 

Get in the zone

You want to make the most of your study time, so create an atmosphere that helps you focus. Remove distractions and clear your calendar to focus solely on the material you’re studying. 

Lean into your learning style

Everyone learns differently. You may be a visual learner, auditory learner, tactile learner, or any combination of these. Dig into the study materials that help you best retain the material. Don’t be afraid to try out new techniques; but if you’ve found something that works for you, get your hands on all the resources you can within that learning style. 

Study the difficult sections

We mentioned earlier that Internal Controls is known as difficult. Make sure to take plenty of practice questions around this topic and become familiar with their subjective nature. Likewise, as exam part 2 tends to be more difficult in the application and analysis of concepts, be sure to take practice exams that put your deductive reasoning to the test. 

Find a CMA Exam review partner

Perhaps the most important key to easing your study path is finding an exam review course that provides you with abundant materials for all study styles, accurate and relevant study plans, simulation exams and practice questions, fits within your schedule, and is proven to truly help you pass the exam. This will also ensure you’re given a structured study path and surrounded by a community of peers and instructors to provide encouragement. 

Pass the CMA Exam with Becker Students who choose Becker to help them prepare for the CMA Exam report a 96 percent satisfaction rate. Why are they so pleased with their experience? Of course, they put in the hard work. And Becker also works hard to help them fully prepare, on their schedule, and with the materials that fit their learning—so they can be confident taking the exam and thrilled with their CMA success. 

Our CMA Exam review packages offer unlimited access to relevant, up-to-date review content across learning styles, on-demand videos and webinars, practice questions and test simulations, and much more. Try our CMA Exam prep for free and explore the user-friendly platform, one-on-one support, Exam Day ReadySM tracker, and unparallel assistance that make Becker the trusted brand in CMA Exam preparation.

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