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Ace Your CPA Exam with These Tips & Resources

Passing the CPA exam is required for licensure. Sweating the exam, on the other hand, is optional. This guide covers everything you need to know to pass your test with flying colors.
A person is seated at a desk, writing in a notebook and using a calculator. Open binders, a stack of papers, and office supplies are scattered on the desk. The scene is well-lit with natural light.

After staring at seemingly endless numbers, spreadsheets, and QuickBooks documents, you’re approaching the home stretch of your accounting journey. You’re ready to become a certified public accountant (CPA) and start bringing in an impressive base salary of $96,249. However, there’s one last hurdle between you and a serious boost in your income and credentials: passing the CPA exam.

Passing the CPA exam is required for CPA certification, and with the right preparation, taking the exam need not be a panic-inducing experience. Read on as we cover the basics of what you need to know and the resources available to give you the edge to come out on top.

CPA Exam FAQs

What are the eligibility requirements for the CPA exam?

To take the CPA exam, your application must meet certain eligibility criteria. Depending on where you live and where you intend to practice, eligibility requirements differ. The U.S. and its territories are broken into 55 jurisdictions, each with its own board of accountancy that determines eligibility requirements and awards certifications.

There is also a difference between what’s required to take and pass the exam to earn CPA certification, and what is required for licensure. Exam requirements tend to be less stringent, and might include:

  • Age: Some jurisdictions require a minimum age of 18, some require 21, and some don’t have an age minimum.
  • Education: Applying to take the exam usually involves proving you’ve reached certain education benchmarks related to credit hours and subject matter.
  • Ethics: Most jurisdictions tie licensure to some tangible proof of trustworthiness, and many do the same for their exams, such as mandating the completion of a particular ethics exam within a certain timeframe.

Licensure requirements include:

  • Experience: Along with an approved degree, many jurisdictions require field experience in a relevant role.
  • Residence and Citizenship: While not a requirement in every case, most jurisdictions have an expectation regarding where you live and work; the most strict require citizenship (or similar work authorization in the U.S.), plus proof of residency in the jurisdiction.

It’s best to research the requirements for your state/jurisdiction to determine exam and licensure eligibility.

How is the CPA Exam Structured?

The Uniform CPA Examination, developed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) is the “bar exam” for this profession nationwide. No matter your jurisdiction, the exam itself is the same, but note that some jurisdictions may have additional exam requirements.

A new CPA exam structure was introduced in January 2024 and includes three core exams with multiple choice questions and task-based simulations. You are also required to pass one of three discipline exams that test knowledge required for a specific area.

How long is the CPA exam?

Like a lot of tests (including many of the university of high school standardized tests you’ve taken in the past), the CPA exam has set completion times for each of the four sections.

You will have four hours for each of the four exams, and can choose to take them at different times vs back to back. If you elect to take sections separately, you are required to complete the remaining sections within a certain timeframe. Check with your jurisdiction, but the recommended timeline is now 30 months, longer than the previously required 18 months. Many jurisdictions are updating their requirements to match this extension.

Were any changes made to the CPA Exam in 2024?

Yes. As mentioned above, the CPA Evolution Initiative included structural changes to the exam, now with three mandatory sections (referred to as “the three cores”), and a fourth section chosen according to the applicant’s intended specialization.

Am I eligible to apply for my CPA license after the exam?

CPA certification is a core requirement for CPA licensure, so passing the exam to qualify for certification is a critical step. It’s not the only requirement to apply for licensure, and it’s best to review the CPA license requirements in your jurisdiction.

The Four Components of the CPA Exam

Now, let’s dig into more information about the exam sections and how they’ve changed since the most recent update. The test consists of three mandatory core sections, plus a fourth section based on a discipline chosen by the applicant.

The three core sections include Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Taxation and Regulation (REG). The three discipline options are Business Analysis and Reporting (BAR), Information Systems and Controls (ISC), and Tax Compliance and Planning (TCP). Let’s look closer at each section.

Auditing and Attestation (AUD)

As the name implies, the AUD section covers auditing. It’s focused on the accuracy and integrity of financial records, both from an operational standpoint and from an ethical one. It covers material related to topics such as risk assessment and response; ethical responsibilities; investigating, collecting evidence, and assembling reports; and comparing official records to actual financial facts.

Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)

This section is the counterpart to auditing, namely, the aspect of accounting involved in preparing the records auditors check, including financial statements, balance sheets, profit and loss reports, and the like.

Taxation and Regulation (REG)

Tax law, regulatory issues, and similar topics are covered in this section. Its primary focus is tax procedures and related business laws, as the particulars of achieving reporting compliance, adhering to tax regulations, and so forth are reserved for one of the disciplines found below.

The Three Disciplines

Taking the place of the now-defunct Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) section, the fourth section consists of discipline-specific material, chosen by the tester. This change was intended to reflect major changes in the profession and the financial/business landscape at large.

Business Analysis and Reporting (BAR)

An extension and expansion of the material in the FAR section, the BAR discipline goes beyond to include a big topic in today’s business and finance — how to analyze and use the mountains of data generated daily. The intersection of digital systems and financial transactions is key for innovation and growth, impacting CPAs across multiple industries.

Information Systems and Controls (ISC)

Just as financial data can be an asset, it can also be a critical liability. CPAs aren’t expected to be system administrators, but it’s imperative for those with this specialty to know and understand the risks and best practices for virtual transactions and payments.

Tax Compliance and Planning (TCP)

In this sections, applicants are tested on the specifics of processing tax returns, estimating tax payments, and handling complicated or less common tax issues and questions.

CPA Exam Prep Courses & Programs to Consider

There are many review and test prep courses available to help you be as ready as possible to ace your CPA exam. Many CPA applicants use more than one prep course, so find what works for you on a given topic/section/question format, and pair it with other options to help fill in the gaps.

Becker

Frequently the first name mentioned in lists of leading CPA exam review courses, you’ll find Becker recommended on major financial sites and in reviews. Users often praise Becker for its extensive library of multiple-choice questions, lectures, and study materials. It loses points, however, for a higher-than-average cost and lackluster explanations of practice quiz answers.

UWorld

UWorld is the result of a merger between two different test prep providers. Founded by Roger Philipp, CPA, CGMA, UWorld made a name for itself with its entertaining instructional style. UWorld later acquired Wiley Efficient Learning, rebranding the new company as UWorld Accounting.

Both companies were widely praised by users, noting Wiley was a less expensive, yet expansive source of practice questions and UWorld was a better lecture format. Now that they’re under the same umbrella, CPA hopefuls can benefit from both without making a separate purchase.

Gleim

If you have to choose between “too much” and “not enough,” exam prep is one place where the former is preferable. That’s how Gleim customers describe the test prep materials that helped them pass the CPA exam. The Gleim model features adaptive technology, a realistic exam environment, and live support.

Ninja

Ninja began as a test prep supplement in 2010 and has since expanded its study materials and now offers a complete CPA review course. The company’s proprietary study framework includes a planner, study methods and a scheduler to help prospective test takers. The company encourages test candidates to choose the Ninja-only path for their test prep or the supplemental option for use with other testing materials.

Surgent

Most agree Surgent shines with its exam simulations, specifically for the AUD test portion. Surgent is repeatedly noted for its one-to-one representation of what test takers can expect to see on the exam.

Comparing CPA Test Prep Programs

Name Starting Price Video Lecture Hours Exam Study Guide Exam Questions Additional Features
Becker $2,499 190+ Yes 7,800+
  • Extensive catalog
  • Industry leading test prep
  • Most widely known and recommended option
UWorld Accounting $1,999 100+ Yes 8,000+
  • Merger of two previously separate, well reviewed test prep courses
  • Lively lecture videos
  • Deep library of helpful sample questions
Gleim $2,499 100+ Yes 13,000+
  • Top-tier question difficulty
  • Useful for CPA applicants to over-prepare for the exam
Ninja $69/month Not listed Yes 7,300+
  • Lowest base cost
  • Full course or supplement structure
Surgent $1,299 Not listed Yes 9,200+
  • Well-known brand
  • Known for sims that closely mimic exam material

Scheduling & Taking Your CPA Exam

As you can see, there is a fair amount of homework that precedes a successful crack at the CPA exam. Some of that is likely already under your belt in the form of education, work experience, and the like. But test prep courses, daily study, and a bit of home-stretch cramming still lies ahead. Preparation and planning can help.

Step 1: Submit Your Application

All of this starts with your exam application. This process is largely the same across the whole country, with one exception: 37 jurisdictions allow you to apply through NASBA’s CPA Examination Online Application System. The remaining 18 require you to file your application through your local Board of Accountancy. In either case, NASBA can help you sort out the how and where.

Fees vary by jurisdiction, but average anywhere from $1,300 to $2,000 for the entire process (including completing the CPA exam in its entirety). Standard fees include initial eligibility application, registration fees for each section, and exam fees for each section. Some jurisdictions may add extra fees due to additional steps, including costs for required ethics exams and state-specific licensing fees.

Finally, you may incur some further costs in the event of rescheduling, section retakes, or for applying from a location outside the U.S.

Step 2: Schedule Your Exam

After you’ve submitted your application and paid any fees required prior to taking the exam, you’ll be waiting for a verdict on your eligibility. Once approved, you’ll receive a Notice to Schedule (NTS) form, indicating you are open to contact Prometric to schedule online or by phone.

When you schedule your exam and how far out you schedule the exam date are important considerations. Scheduling in advance is strongly advised, but don’t take a section test before you’re ready.

Keep in mind that your NTS doesn’t last forever. For most jurisdictions, an NTS is only good for six months. Take scheduling seriously, because rushing or dragging your feet can both interfere with your progress toward licensure.

Step 3: Arrive Prepared

You’ll take your exam at an authorized Prometric test center that can be outside of your chosen jurisdiction, as long as it’s proctor approved.

Remember to bring your NTS and your identification to your examination. Forgetting either or bringing one with an incorrect name will prevent you from taking the exam that day. We recommend double-checking that your name is listed correctly before test day.

Here are some other things to know, do, bring, or watch out for as you head to the testing center:

  • Arrive at least 30 minutes prior to your appointment to avoid incurring additional fees.
  • Bring approved earplugs if desired.
  • Dress accordingly, as you will be scanned via metal detector and closely inspected similar to airport security.
  • Be ready to have your picture taken.

Prometric will provide pencils and paper, so don’t worry about bringing your own. There is a list of prohibited items, so travel light and plan on storing just about everything you bring in the lockers provided.

Lastly, you’ll be allowed to take breaks after each subsection of the exam. The first one is offered to you as a freebie (it doesn’t count against your test time), though any others you take won’t pause the clock. Breaks are only allowed between the subsection “testlets,” and they’re all optional.

Step 4: Review Your Score

Prometric sends the anonymized tests to the AICPA for scoring, and AICPA sends the scored tests to NASBA to match scores to the correct candidate. The NASBA sends everything to the appropriate Board of Accountancy for approval, then sends the final result to you. It usually takes a few days before you know how you did on the exam.

If you do not pass, you’ll receive feedback to guide you as you review the section’s material and prepare to retake that portion of the exam. This is intended to make it easier for you to identify the topics you need to work on and study more effectively to increase your chances of passing.

Step 5: Plan for the Next Test

Once you complete a section, if there are any remaining (or you need to retake a section to pass), you’ll receive a new NTS no sooner than 72 hours after you’ve received your score. As soon as the new NTS is in hand, you can schedule your next exam date. You can retake a section as many times as you need within waiting period times.

On a related note, you can have more than one active NTS at the same time, but you can only have a single active NTS for a given section of the exam. Once an NTS has been used and a score issued, that NTS is no longer valid.

Additional CPA Exam Resources

  • National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA)
    This organization represents the interests of the many accountancy boards across the country and is a close partner of the AICPA (the organization that creates and scores the tests). This will likely be your most accurate, reliable, and complete source of information about the CPA exam and all related topics.
  • NASBA CPA Exam Guide
    NASBA offers a free PDF guide to help applicants prepare for the CPA exam and successfully qualify for certification. We referenced this resource heavily in writing this article.
  • American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
    This is the organization that creates and scores the exams. The site, while a good resource, requires membership for additional content and information.
  • Prometric
    Prometric’s network of testing centers administers the Uniform CPA Examination. Check their website for center locations, scheduling your exam, lists of prohibited items, what to bring to the exam, and more.
  • IPasstheCPAExam.com
    This website, run by a licensed CPA, assists CPA hopefuls as they prepare for the exam with free resources and test prep provider reviews.
  • CPAEXAM.com
    Another website full of free resources and information, this one focuses on exam requirements and state-specific considerations.
  • CPA Exam Guy
    This CPA-run website offers promo codes for test prep providers, insight into CPA salaries and professional trends, and other helpful tips to help you reach CPA status and find success.
  • r/CPA
    Remember how we mentioned user feedback? A lot of that can be found right here, in the subreddit dedicated specifically to those both pursuing and practicing in the CPA profession.

Exam Insights from a Licensed CPA

Jeremy ONeil

Jeremy O’Neil, JD, CPA, MBA, FACHE, FHFMA, is currently a hospital administrator with Providence Valdez Medical Center (PVMC), an organization with a strong track record of robust financial performance and efficient revenue cycle practices. Below, he provides insight into preparing for and passing the CPA exam.

1. What study strategies did you find most effective in preparing for the CPA exam?

I found a study product that had a ton of questions, and I just took as many sample tests and questions as I could until I was able to master the topics tested.

2. How did you manage your time effectively while studying for the CPA exam? Slow and steady, in bursts, or in one big lump at the end?

Similar to physical exercise, the best exam prep is done with frequency and rigor. There would be some cramming leading up to test day, but for the most part, there was a solid three months of daily preparation prior to the exam.

3. What were the most challenging parts of the CPA exam for you, and how did you overcome them?

They were all challenging, but I think the Audit section or the FAR section required the most time to prep for me.

4. Can you share any tips for staying motivated throughout the CPA exam preparation process?

Truely, once I set my mind to putting the time to study, passage was just a foregone conclusion. I do believe honest effort is rewarded.

5. How did you balance work or other commitments with studying for the CPA exam?

This was very difficult. I pretty much had to prioritize the exam over other things I enjoyed. But if I could do it with a small family, and working full time, it can be done.

6. What advice do you have for someone who is feeling overwhelmed by the breadth of material covered on the CPA exam?

Take it one step at a time. I believe the exam allows for more compartmentalizing now than it did in the past. Find a study product that can pinpoint your weaknesses and focus on the things that you need to strengthen. Eventually you can get it together for a solid effort.

7. How did you approach practicing multiple-choice questions and simulations during your study sessions?

This is where I spent most of my time. Yes, you should have a working knowledge of the principles, but at the end of the day, it’s an exam and you have to be proficient in taking the exam. Do as many simulations and practice questions as you possibly can until you feel solid in your abilities.

8. Can you share any memorable or unexpected experiences you had while taking the CPA exam?

I took the exam a couple times before I even started taking it seriously. The firm I was working for paid for me to take it and I hadn’t obtained the necessary audit hours yet, but once it was time to take it seriously, I remember having a pretty elated feeling when I got my passing results.