Understanding the CPA Exam parts

The CPA Exam basics

One of the first steps to becoming a licensed CPA is passing all four parts of the Uniform CPA Exam. Administered by the AICPA®, the CPA Exam is a computer-based test comprised of four sections testing the minimum knowledge and skills required of a CPA. The current version of the exam takes a total of 16 hours.

While every state/jurisdiction has its own unique requirements for obtaining a CPA license, they all require that a candidate pass the CPA Exam, and you have 18 months to finish all 4 parts of the CPA Exam (clock begins ticking after you pass your first section), so be mindful of scheduling and studying.

CPA Exam parts

Here is a breakdown of the 4 parts of the CPA Exam:

CPA Exam sections

Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
4 Hours (72 questions and eight task-based simulations)

AUD tests in four key areas and are weighted as below:

  • Ethics, professional responsibilities and general principles (15-25%)
  • Assessing risk and developing a planned response (25-35%)
  • Performing further procedures and obtaining evidence (30-40%)
  • Forming conclusions and reporting (10-20%)

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

BEC covers the following areas and is the only part of the 4 parts of the CPA Exam that has a written component:

  • Enterprise Risk Management, Internal Controls and Business Processes (20-30%)
  • Economics (15-25%)
  • Financial Management (10-20%)
  • Information Technology (15-25%)
  • Operations Management (15-25%)

Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
4 Hours (66 questions and eight task-based simulations)

FAR tests in these four areas:

  • Conceptual Framework, Standard-Setting and Financial Reporting (25-35%)
  • Select Financial Statement Accounts (30-40%)
  • Select Transactions (20-30%)
  • State and Local Governments (5-15%)

Regulation (REG)
4 Hours (76 questions and eight task-based simulations)

The REG part of the CPA Exam covers:

  • Ethics, Professional Responsibilities and Federal Tax Procedures (10-20%)
  • Business Law (10-20%)
  • Federal Taxation of Property Transactions (12-22%)
  • Federal Taxation of Individuals (15-25%)
  • Federal Taxation of Entities (28-38%)

CPA Exam questions

The CPA Exam consists of three question types:

1) Multiple-choice questions

The CPA Exam sections include three multiple-choice testlests or groups of questions covering topics described in the Content Specification Outlines (CSOs).  All three of Becker's CPA Review packages include thousands of multiple choice questions written by subject matter experts and provide extra practice for your personally challenging topics. You will have access to Microsoft Excel on this part of the exam to perform necessary functions.

2) Task-based simulations

The CPA Exam simulations use real-life work situations to test your in-depth knowledge and skills in a particular subject area. The simulations appear on three of the exam parts: Financial Accounting and Reporting, Auditing and Attestation and Regulation. Hundreds of task-based simulations are included in all three of Becker's CPA Review packages. You will have access to Microsoft Excel on this part of the exam to perform necessary functions.

3) Written communications tasks

Only appearing on the Business Environment and Concepts CPA Exam section, these tasks require you to respond in either memo or letter format to a scenario based on the topics outlined in the CSOs. You will have access to word processing to prepare your answers.

Detailed descriptions of the specific testable content for each of the CPA Exam sections can be found in the Content Specification Outlines (CSOs) published by the AICPA.

Testable Content
  Multiple-choice Task-based Written
Auditing and Attestation (AUD) 50% 50% -
Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) 50% 35% 15%
Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) 50% 50% -
Regulation (REG) 50% 50% -

The AICPA provides CPA Exam sample tests using the real CPA Exam software. The CPA sample questions within the test provide a sampling of CPA test questions, including multiple-choice questions (MCQs), task-based simulations (TBS) and written communications tasks (WCT) for each section of the exam. Each CPA Exam sample test has five testlets with 10 MCQs and 6 TBSs, except BEC, which has 10 MCQs, 3 TBSs and 2 WCTs.

Find the sample CPA Exam questions on the AICPA website.

Grading system

You MUST pass all four CPA Exam parts to become a certified public accountant. Each examination section is graded on a scale of 0 to 99, using a rigorous scoring structure. The minimum passing score is 75. This is not a percentage correct score. It is a weighted combination of scaled scores from the MCQs and TBSs.

Learn more about how the CPA Exam is scored. 

CPA Exam schedule: What order should you take the exam in?
Option #1: Hardest 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. 

Option #2: Best foot forward

It might make sense to start with the part you’re most comfortable with. It’s a great way to start off the exam, with material you know best while you gain experience in exam format. For example, if you've just taken a tax course, Regulation (REG) may be a great section to start with.

Financial (FAR)

Financial encompasses the largest volume of information, which can make it challenging. However, most students take several classes relevant to this section of the exam during their degree program, so it is also likely to be relatively fresh. Candidates should expect some questions focused on key differences between financial statements prepared on a U.S. GAAP basis versus those prepared on an IFRS® basis. In addition, if you had the opportunity to take a course in governmental or not-for-profit accounting or both, that will be an advantage in taking this section.

Auditing (AUD)

Auditing encompasses the entire audit process, plus other services including compilations, reviews and attestation engagements, and the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. If you took your auditing class during your final semester or you’ll be working in the audit practice of a public accounting firm, Auditing might be a great place to start. On the other hand, you may find it beneficial to take the Auditing exam after Financial since a strong understanding of U.S. GAAP and IFRS will help you answer many of the questions in this section.

Regulation (REG)

Regulation is the combination of federal taxation and business law, including ethics and professional responsibilities. Students who are familiar with tax, whether personal, partnership or corporate, should be comfortable with the Regulation materials. The areas covered within the business law portions are straight out of most university business law core classes. And, since the Regulation exam tests U.S. tax law and business law, it is effectively immune to IFRS. If you will or are working in a tax practice, Regulation might be a place to start to gain confidence.

Business (BEC)

Business can be a challenging test because of the breadth of the material, including operations and strategic management, economics, financial management and information technology. Many students find it helpful to take the Business exam after Financial and Audit because issues related to auditing (e.g., internal controls) and financial accounting (e.g., IFRS, working capital, and debt/equity financing) may be tested as part of the corporate governance, economics and financial management sections. A significant component of the BEC exam is the three written communication tasks; 15% of your score will be based on your ability to effectively communicate in writing. If you are a capable writer, this may prove a great advantage in succeeding on this part of the CPA Exam.

CPA Exam Frequently asked questions

What is the CPA Exam? 

The Uniform CPA Exam is one of the first steps to becoming a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA). All U.S. states require CPA candidates to pass the CPA Exam in order to earn licensure.

How long is the CPA Exam? 

The current version of the CPA Exam is four parts and takes a total of 16 hours. Once you pass your first exam section, you'll have 18 months to finish the remaining three parts.

How much does the CPA Exam cost? 

CPA Exam costs will vary depending on the state where you're applying. At a minimum, you'll need to pay an application fee and CPA Exam fees. Some states also require a registration fee when you sign up for CPA Exam sections. Here's some information on CPA Exam fees.

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