CPA timeline: schedule and preparation

The timeline for CPA Exam prep

For college students, graduation is not only a celebration of years of hard work, but also a time to start thinking about the future. Along with finding that first job, there’s one major moment looming for new accounting graduates: passing the CPA Exam. Passing the CPA Exam takes hard work and determination, so planning how to start tackling the exam can be just as important as actually studying for it.

Becker wants to make sure that you plot the best course to find success on the big exam day. With that in mind, we’ve created a basic CPA Exam schedule and timeline to help you plan your path forward and alleviate unnecessary stress along the way.

The path to CPA Exam success: your CPA Exam schedule

1. Getting started with your CPA study plan

While passing the CPA Exam is the ultimate goal, it’s important to remember that there are a number of hurdles to clear between now and exam day. First things first: you need to determine your eligibility. Each state or jurisdiction has their own specific eligibility requirements regarding education stipulations, experience and residency. Visit the NASBA website to find eligibility information and review your jurisdiction’s specific prerequisites that you’ll need to complete prior to scheduling your CPA Exam.

Before you can sit for any part of the CPA Exam, you first must read the Candidate Bulletin and complete your application through your state board. Once you submit the required documentation, your application will be verified for eligibility and you’ll receive a Notice to Schedule (NTS). Your NTS will indicate the first and last days you’re eligible to take the CPA Exam and is valid for six months. Once you've received your NTS, you're better able to define your CPA Exam schedule for studying and sitting for the exam.

2. Understanding the CPA Exam

Administered by the AICPA®, the CPA Exam is split into four sections to test the minimum knowledge and skills required of a CPA. The exam content is frequently updated to reflect the most relevant information for newly licensed CPAs. In total, the exam takes 16 hours to complete, with four hours allotted for each section. The four exam sections are:

Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
4-hour exam consisting of 72 questions and eight task-based simulations

Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
4-hour exam consisting of 62 questions, four task-based simulations and three written communications tasks

Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
4-hour exam consisting of 66 questions and eight task-based simulations

Regulation (REG)
4-hour exam consisting of 76 questions and eight task-based simulations

Once you understand the scope of the exam material, you’ll be able to hone in on what will be the easiest or most difficult sections for you and plan accordingly. Becker can help you create a CPA study schedule that best works for your needs.

3. Organizing your CPA Exam study schedule

Passing the CPA Exam requires a great deal of time and effort, so it’s important to allow for adequate study time of the in-depth material. Remember that once you pass your first exam, you’ll have 18 months to pass the 3 remaining ones. By planning your CPA test schedule ahead of time, you can make sure you’re best prepared to pass the exam with flying colors. Most candidates spend between 350 to 450 hours of time studying for the entire exam; that’s about 20-25 hours per week, which can be a substantial time commitment on top of your other obligations. You’ll want to make sure you leave room for lectures, practice questions, mock exams and any other kinds of studying you choose to partake in.

PRO TIP: Plan your time strategically

In order to create a realistic CPA Exam schedule, remember to consider the outside influences that could affect your CPA study schedule. Ask yourself a few questions: Are you starting a new job soon? Is it your firm’s busy season? Do you have any events coming up in your personal life (weddings, vacations, etc.)? You need to take these things into account to ensure you give yourself the proper amount of study time. Read this blog to learn how to balance study time with your personal life.

4. Scheduling each section of your CPA plan

The four parts of the exam are not equal when it comes to difficulty, with the FAR and REG sections often regarded as the most challenging for students to pass. So, it’s important to put some thought into what order you want to schedule your CPA Exam sections. The exam sections pass rates may be a helpful reference to figure this out. There are two main schools of thought when it comes to scheduling the order of your CPA Exams:

Hardest first

This approach entails taking the section that will be the most difficult for you first. Remember, your 18-month clock doesn’t start until you pass your first section, so if you don’t do well your first time, there is no rush to retake the test. Plus, passing your most difficult section first gives you a big confidence boost heading into sections you know better. 

Best foot forward

You may want to start with the section you’re most comfortable with. It’s great to start off the exam on a high note with material you know best while you gain experience in exam format. If possible, it may make sense for you to start with the exam section that’s the most recent in memory. For example, if you took a business accounting course your last semester before graduating, you might want to start with BEC, as the business concepts and topics will be the freshest in your mind. Similarly, if you’re starting in an audit role post-CPA Exam, you may want to save the AUD section for last, so that you’re ready to dive in headfirst with your AUD knowledge.

PRO TIP: Account for the unexpected

You may want to plan for things not going your way when figuring out your CPA Exam schedule and timeline. Whether it’s not passing a tricky section, an extra-heavy busy season or unforeseen obligations, a number of factors can impede your CPA Exam progress, so always allot more time than you think you’ll need to clear the exams. During COVID, a number of state boards are experiencing delays in issuing NTS, and things like inclement weather can force exam center closures. Although these factors are out of your control, you can make sure to be proactive in planning your CPA Exam schedule in case one or more of these situations occur. Be sure not to wait until the last minute to schedule your CPA Exams!

Your next question is probably, how do I schedule my CPA Exam? When you’ve determined your CPA Exam schedule, use your Prometric portal to find the most convenient testing center and schedule your exam. Once you complete a section, you can visit the AICPA Score Release Dates page to find out your results. For more information on how to schedule your CPA Exam, click here.

5. Taking the exam

You must pass all four parts of the CPA Exam in 18 months with minimum score of 75. Your “clock” begins when you pass the first exam section. Remember that the content may change between exams, so it’s important to make sure you’re using the most up-to-date material to prep. The new 2021 CPA Exam Blueprint will be tested starting on July 1, 2021 and includes a few important changes, primarily on the AUD and BEC sections. These include:

  • More emphasis on business processes 
  • In-depth content on data analytics and digital skillsets 
  • Increased emphasis on SOC 1® reports

Read a more in-depth breakdown of the changes and how they’ll affect the 2021 CPA Exam.

6. Applying for your license

Once you pass the CPA Exam (congrats!), it’s time to apply for your CPA license. Before you do, make sure you meet the requirements to become a fully licensed CPA.

Basic requirements

  • 150 credit hours of education with a concentration in accounting. This includes:
    • 30 hours in accounting subjects
    • 24 hours in business administration subjects
    • 15 hours in accounting must be at upper division or graduate level
  • Minimum of one year of experience (approximately 2,000 hours) verified by a licensed CPA including accounting, attest, auditing or tax

To determine your state specific licensure requirements, visit the NASBA website or contact your local Board of Accountancy.

Once you’re a fully licensed CPA, remember that you’ll need to maintain your CPE credits and other professional obligations based on your state/jurisdiction.

Take a look at Becker's recommended CPA Exam schedule, and download it here for a closer look.

CPA study schedule - Final thoughts

We know the timeline for taking and passing the CPA Exam can seem a bit overwhelming. But, by understanding the timeline of the CPA Exam process before you start studying, you can create a comprehensive CPA schedule that gives you the best chance of success. With the right plan in place, you can accomplish your goal to become a licensed CPA in no time.

Ready to start studying for the CPA Exam? Becker is here to help. Explore our top-notch CPA Exam Review packages to help you find success on exam day.

Now Leaving

You are leaving the website. Once you click “continue,” you will be brought to a third-party website. Please be aware, the privacy policy may differ on the third-party website. Adtalem Global Education is not responsible for the security, contents and accuracy of any information provided on the third-party website. Note that the website may still be a third-party website even the format is similar to the website.