Why is the CPA Exam So Difficult?

6 Main Factors that Make the CPA Exam so Hard to Pass

why-is-the-cpa-exam-so-difficultBecoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is tough. There’s no doubt about it. From your college education to the prepping for the exam, your CPA journey is marked by countless hours of preparation, sacrifices, and sheer determination.

The CPA Exam, administered by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), is renowned for its difficulty, with pass rates that often hover around 50%. So, what makes this exam so daunting?

In this article, we delve into the various factors that contribute to the CPA Exam’s reputation for being extremely tough, aiming to provide insights and encouragement for aspiring CPAs.

6 Factors that make the CPA Exam so Difficult

The CPA exam is by far the hardest financial exam and easily the most difficult professional exam. With a pass rate of less than 50%, less candidates pass the CPA exam than the BAR and MCAT exams.

But what makes the CPA exam so hard? The CPA exam is so difficult because of it’s complex topics, short time frame, and high passing score. But those aren’t the only reasons candidates struggle with the CPA exam.

Here are the main six contributing factors that make the CPA exam so challenging for candidates:

  1. Comprehensive Coverage of Topics
  2. Time Pressure and Exam Length
  3. High Standard of Passing
  4. Evolving Content and Format
  5. Psychological Factors
  6. The Investment of Time and Resources

Let’s take a look at each.

Comprehensive Coverage of Topics

One of the primary reasons the CPA Exam is so challenging is the sheer breadth and depth of topics it covers. The exam is divided into four sections: Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). Each of these sections tests candidates on a wide array of topics, requiring a deep understanding of accounting principles, tax regulations, business concepts, and audit procedures.

Candidates need to not only memorize vast amounts of information but also understand how to apply this knowledge in different scenarios. This comprehensive coverage ensures that only those with a robust understanding of accounting and finance can earn the CPA designation.

Time Pressure and Exam Length

The CPA Exam is notorious for its stringent time constraints. Candidates have a limited amount of time to complete each section, often feeling the pressure as they navigate through complex questions and simulations. The exam’s length adds to the challenge, with each section taking up to four hours to complete.

This combination of time pressure and exam length can be mentally exhausting, requiring candidates to maintain focus and work efficiently throughout the exam. Time management skills are crucial, as is the ability to remain calm under pressure.

High Standard of Passing

The AICPA has set a high standard for passing the CPA Exam. Candidates need to score a 75 or higher on a scale of 0 to 99, but this does not equate to a 75% correct answer rate. The exam uses a weighted scoring system, meaning that the difficulty of each question influences the overall score.

This high passing standard ensures that only those who demonstrate exceptional knowledge and problem-solving skills can pass the exam, maintaining the integrity and prestige of the CPA designation.

Evolving Content and Format

The CPA Exam is continually evolving, with the AICPA regularly updating the content and format to reflect changes in the accounting profession. This means that candidates need to stay up-to-date with the latest accounting standards, tax laws, and audit procedures.

The exam also incorporates various question types, including multiple-choice questions, task-based simulations, and written communications tasks. This diversity in question formats requires candidates to be adaptable and well-prepared for different types of challenges.

Psychological Factors

The CPA Exam is as much a mental challenge as it is an academic one. The pressure to succeed, combined with the daunting nature of the exam, can lead to anxiety and self-doubt. Maintaining a positive mindset and building mental resilience are crucial for overcoming these psychological hurdles.

Candidates need to develop effective study habits, manage stress, and maintain confidence in their abilities. Embracing the challenge, rather than fearing it, can lead to a more positive exam preparation experience.

The Investment of Time and Resources

Preparing for the CPA Exam requires a significant investment of time, energy, and financial resources. Candidates often spend hundreds of hours studying, sacrificing personal and leisure time in the process.

The financial cost of exam fees, study materials, and potential retakes can also add up, adding to the overall challenge of the CPA journey. Despite these sacrifices, the long-term rewards of becoming a CPA often outweigh the short-term challenges.


The CPA Exam’s reputation for being incredibly difficult is well-earned, with a combination of comprehensive coverage, time pressure, high passing standards, evolving content, psychological factors, and the required investment of time and resources contributing to its challenge. However, this difficulty serves a purpose, ensuring that those who earn the CPA designation are truly among the elite in the accounting profession.

Embracing the challenge, staying motivated, and maintaining a positive mindset are key to overcoming the hurdles of the CPA Exam. Remember, the journey to becoming a CPA is a marathon, not a sprint, and the rewards at the finish line are well worth the effort.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it typically take to prepare for the CPA Exam?

Answer: Preparation time varies widely among candidates, but most invest several hundred hours over a period of 6-12 months to thoroughly prepare for the CPA Exam.

Is the CPA Exam harder than other professional exams?

Answer: The CPA Exam is considered one of the most difficult professional exams, although the difficulty level can be subjective and depends on one’s familiarity with the material.

How can I manage stress and anxiety during CPA Exam preparation?

Answer: Developing a realistic study plan, taking regular breaks, practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and maintaining a balanced lifestyle can help manage stress and anxiety during CPA Exam preparation.

Are there any strategies to improve my chances of passing the CPA Exam?

Answer: Focusing on high-weighted topics, practicing with a variety of question types, developing strong time management skills, and consistently reviewing material are key strategies to improve your chances of passing the CPA Exam.