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What is the CPA Exam?

By DeVry University

May 13, 2023

9 min read

The CPA exam is a professional credentialing examination composed of 4 distinct sections designed to test your competency and understanding of various accounting principles. Once you pass the CPA exam and meet any additional licensure requirements from your state, you may qualify for licensure as a Certified Public Accountant.

The exam itself consists of four separate sections: Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) and Regulation (REG).


If you're looking to take the CPA exam or are simply interested in learning more about it, we're here to help! In this article, we'll answer the question "What is the CPA exam" and explain how you can prepare in the following sections:

How Difficult is the CPA Exam?


As with any exam, the level of difficulty will vary from person to person. You might also find that you struggle with specific exam parts more than others. While some may consider the Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) section of the CPA exam to be the hardest due to its comprehensive nature, you may find that you are more challenged by other topic areas.

Ultimately, how difficult the CPA exam will be for you depends on your level of preparation and the amount of time you’ve given yourself to study. You may find it helpful to enroll in a CPA exam preparation program, such as our Graduate Certificate in Accounting Certification Preparation with a Specialization in CPA Exam Preparation here at DeVry, which offers resources such knowledgeable teaching staff and elements of Becker’s CPA Exam Prep built into the curriculum.1

Prerequisites for Taking the Exam

In order to take the CPA exam, there are a few requirements that you must meet. Keep in mind that these requirements may vary from state to state.

The first and most notable requirement involves education. In most states, a candidate must have completed a minimum of 150 credit hours of coursework, often achieved while earning a Bachelor's Degree in Accounting or in another relevant program. In certain cases, some states may allow candidates to take the exam once they reach 120 hours, so long as they meet their 150-hour requirement before obtaining their license.

Some states may also require students to take specific classes in order to sit for the CPA exam, such as an ethics course. If your state requires an ethics course, you typically must complete it within 1 to 2 years after taking the CPA exam.

Depending on the number of credit hours built into your bachelor’s degree, you may need to pursue additional education to reach the 150-credit hour minimum for taking the CPA exam. You may decide to earn an MBA with an Accounting SpecializationMaster's in Accounting, Graduate Certificate in Accounting or another accounting-related degree such as a Master's in Accounting and Financial Management to help close the gap.1

How to Study for the CPA Exam

Preparing for the CPA exam is a unique experience for everyone. Different techniques and study methods work for different people, so you will likely need to do some experimenting in order to find the best approach for your learning style.

That said, here are a few universal tips that may help as you consider how to study for the CPA exam:

  1. Enroll in a CPA exam review program: A CPA exam review program can help you refresh your understanding of concepts and may provide more insight as to what may be covered by the exam. If you need to earn additional credit hours, our Graduate Certificate in Accounting Certification Preparation can help you prepare to take the CPA exam with built-in exam prep courses.1

  2. Study outside of your review program: If you’re in school it might seem like you’re covering a lot already, but you'll most likely need to take some time to study outside of whatever prep course or program you take. Starting the review process early will give you extra time to help reinforce your understanding of the exam concepts.

  3. Use a practice exam to simulate the test: Timed, lengthy tests like the CPA exam may fluster some candidates. Using a practice exam can not only help you become more familiar with concepts that may be included on the exam, but can also give you a chance to practice pacing yourself for the real test.

  4. Study with regularity: Avoid long cram sessions when studying. Instead, set aside some time a few times a week to study at a reasonable pace. This way, you’ll give yourself more time to discover what challenges you are facing and what areas might require more preparation. Spending more time studying leading up to the CPA exam may help you to keep the information at the top of your mind.

CPA Exam Breakdown

There are 4 sections, or individual tests, that make up the CPA exam:


Auditing and Attestation (AUD)

This section is focused on problem-solving, auditing and attestation-related issues, applying compliance protocols, gathering evidence and developing reports of financial statements.

Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)

This section covers areas ranging from corporate governance to financial management, operations management and beyond.

Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)

This section goes over the foundations of financial reporting, as well as select financial statements and select transactions. Requirements based on state and local government are also covered.

Regulation (REG)

This section covers business law, ethics, taxable income and tax procedures. This includes knowledge of contracts, individual income tax, retirement plans and taxable items.

While you can take the tests in any order you prefer, they must each be scheduled separately and passed within an 18-month window. Each section is broken down into 5 smaller “testlets” which contain a range of questions, including task-based, written communication and multiple-choice, which must be completed within a 4-hour timeframe.

Each part is scored individually, and you need to score a minimum of 75 or higher (out of 99) to pass the exam. Your score is calculated through a weighted combination of scaled scores from each exam portion, taking into account both the difficulty of the question and whether or not you answered it correctly.

Which CPA Exam Section Should I Take First?

There are varying strategies for trying to pass the exam, including deciding which CPA exam section to take first. While there is no single solution, there are multiple strategies you can consider as you determine your own exam schedule.

Strategy 1: Start with the hardest exam

One method is to start with your most challenging section of the exam before tackling the rest. This will allow you to feel accomplished that the biggest challenge is out of the way. This theory also makes sense when it comes to studying. The hardest part of the exam will likely require the most time and effort on your part. If you take on your most challenging section of the exam first, you may have more time available to study for the rest of the sections during the 18-month period.

Of the four CPA exam parts, FAR tends to have a reputation for being the most difficult section due to its length and the scope of information it covers. The FAR section tests broad yet foundational knowledge, some of which overlaps with the AUD section of the exam. For that reason, some may advise that you take AUD after passing FAR.

However, while some sections are thought to be more difficult than others, that does not mean your experience with the CPA exam will be the same. For example, you may think that AUD will be harder than BEC based on what others have said, but your own personal experience and interests will play a role in which sections may pose more of a challenge and which may be easier for you to tackle.

Strategy 2: Start with the easiest exam

If you would rather start with something that feels more manageable and save the challenging sections for last, consider beginning with the exam that feels easiest to you. This may be an ideal strategy if you need the confidence of an accomplishment before moving on to more difficult subject areas. This can also be a worthwhile strategy as you begin the CPA exam study process but cannot immediately devote as much time to exam preparation.

As there is no universally defined "easiest" exam section, you may need to determine which one to begin with based on your own strengths and preferences. If you have no strong preference, you may want to pick a section that was recently covered in your CPA exam preparation courses. The course material may be fresh in your mind, making it an easier subject to approach. Alternatively, you could also choose a section that aligns with subjects you excelled at while in school.

Consider these tips for identifying which section may be the easiest for you:

  • AUD: You have experience as an auditor.

  • BEC: You prefer the shortest exam section, or you are good at written communication tasks – something unique to this exam section.

  • FAR: You have experience as an auditor, or you just finished a degree covering the fundamentals of accounting.

  • REG: You have experience in tax accounting.

Strategy 3: Complete them quickly

Another strategy for the determined individual is to immerse yourself in test prep and then knock out taking all 4 tests within a few months. Though this strategy will not be a good fit for everyone, it can be extremely rewarding for those who are willing to put in the extra effort.

If you are a fast test-taker, you may be able to take two sections during the same testing window. For example, you might consider taking FAR and AUD at the same time, since they are related. But before choosing this course of action, consider how much time you are able to commit to studying each week or if you have other commitments that will take priority.

Test preparation takeaways

As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for preparing for the CPA exam. The 4 parts of the CPA exam will pose different challenges for different individuals. The key is determining what strategy works best for you. Whether you choose to work your way from difficult to easy or the other way around, tackling the CPA exam is about knowledge and perseverance. Study hard, stick to your strategy and you may be more likely to see the positive results of your hard work.

Start Preparing for the CPA Exam Today

If you're ready to prepare to pursue a career in accounting, we can help. Get started by taking a look at our Graduate Certificate in Accounting Certification Preparation, or if you’re looking to continue your education, explore our various hybrid2 and online accounting degree programs.

Study on your terms here at DeVry. Our 6 academic sessions per year allow you to start when you’re ready and learn at your own pace, finishing on a regular or accelerated schedule that meets your personal and professional goals.

1Credits and degrees earned from this institution do not automatically qualify the holder to participate in professional licensing exams to practice certain professions. Persons interested in practicing a regulated profession must contact the appropriate state regulatory agency for their field of interest. For instance, typically 150 credit hours or education are required to meet state regulatory agency education requirements for CPA licensure.
2Program, course, and extended classroom availability vary by location. In site-based programs, students will be required to take a substantial amount of coursework online to complete their program.

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