How to choose your CPA Exam discipline section
Beginning in 2024, the CPA Exam will be very different from what it is today, with key changes to both the structure of the exam and the competencies tested. As we at Becker have discussed before, this is a result of the CPA Evolution initiative by NASBA and the AICPA, the organizations responsible for the CPA Exam curriculum.
CPA Evolution is aimed at gauging the ongoing trends and changes in the accounting profession and updating the exam curriculum accordingly. Therefore, there will be a greater focus on in-demand skills related to data and technology as well as “higher-order skills” like thinking, problem-solving, analytical ability, professional skepticism and research. These changes were discussed in our blog on the recently published Exposure Draft, which offers a summary of the changes and is currently open for public comment by stakeholders in the accounting profession.
Among the structural changes is one that will significantly impact current students who will be taking the exam in 2024 or later: the replacement of the existing four exam sections with three Core exam sections and one Discipline section. Currently, students sitting for the exam must take the following four sections, regardless of what they plan to focus on in their careers:
- Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
- Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
- Regulation (REG)
- Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
One of the research findings of the CPA Evolution initiative, however, was that the profession is becoming more specialized. It is more common for firms to search for CPAs who have a talent and skillset in a particular area of business. In order to earn a CPA license, each candidate must pass the following three core sections:
- Financial Auditing and Reporting (FAR)
- Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
- Taxation and Regulation (REG)
Candidates must also pass one of the following three specialized discipline exams:
- Business Analysis and Reporting (BAR)
- Information Systems and Controls (ISC)
- Tax Compliance and Planning (TCP)
Which Discipline section should I choose?
We previously offered suggestions for how students can frame their CPA study plan with the CPA Exam changes in mind. This article will help students determine which discipline section they should pursue. Let’s preface this by emphasizing that there is not an inherently right or wrong track to follow for aspiring CPAs. All kinds of specialists will be needed in the future accounting profession, and there are ample opportunities for career advancement across disciplines. That said, this should be seen as a benefit and an opportunity for students to focus on accounting competencies that play to their own strengths and equip them with a specific focus area when they begin to enter the job market. So, if you’re a current accounting student, what Discipline track should you follow?
- If you’re skilled or interested in information technology and data management, you may want to sit for Information Systems and Controls (ISC) exam. Information technology, security and data management are a crucial and growing field of expertise in public accounting, as automation increasingly performs more rudimentary accounting tasks while also creating more demand for accountants who know how to derive insights from data. As a CPA who specializes in ISC, some opportunities may include a data manager (which could lead tot a position as a CIO or CTO) or IT auditor at a public accounting firm while also having fundamental accounting skills and the credential to prove it. Definitely a sweet spot for many CPA firms these days!
- If your interest is in pursuing a career in tax and compliance, prepare for the Tax Compliance and Planning (TCP) exam. Though certainly more “traditional” in a sense than ISC, TCP is just as cutting-edge and ever evolving in its own way since taxes and compliance rules for businesses and individuals are constantly changing. This is a vital public accounting competency for which there will always be a strong demand. If you closely follow tax rules and changes and enjoy the thought of helping clients ensure they’re in compliance and benefitting from tax regulations, this is the track for you. As a CPA who specializes in TCP, some opportunities may include working for the tax department within a company, a public accounting firm, the government, banks, hedge funds or even managing your own tax practice.
- If you enjoy the more technical aspects of accounting and reporting, opt for the Business Analysis and Reporting (BAR) exam. This is a category that is more general than the other two but also elevates your basic accounting competencies above what is taught in the Core sections. Specializing in BAR allows you to help businesses confirm they are gathering the right information needed to analyze financials, make decisions and report to investors and other stakeholders – an always-important function of accounting, especially as new regulatory rules are constantly taking shape. As a CPA who specializes in BAR, you could pursue auditing at a public accounting firm, working in the accounting department at a corporation, becoming a controller, chief accountant, or even a CFO or CEO.
Whatever Discipline track you choose to follow, be sure to not only do your own research but consult instructors and advisors on what they think may be the best route for you. Are you worried that you will select the wrong discipline? If you select a discipline and do not pass that section, you are able to select a different discipline section until you pass one discipline section. Also, after you pass your discipline and core sections along with your other requirements, you will receive a general CPA license which will not reference the discipline that you selected. If you want to change the focus of your career, the discipline that you passed will not hold you back.
We at Becker encourage you to approach this choice with excitement, as it offers you an opportunity to learn more about your desired career specialty. If you’re a career accountant, you may already have an advantage on your chosen Discipline, given your extra work experience. But whatever level of your career you’re at, and no matter which section you choose, you’ll still ultimately become a CPA.
Becker is here to support you every step of the way. Let us help you pass the hardest exam of your career with our industry leading CPA Exam study materials.