A lot of prospective students are interested in learning about the CPA Exam Difficulty. They want to know “is the cpa exam hard?” The short answer is that the exam is challenging for most students.

In order to answer this question in more depth, I will first compare the CPA exam to other professional exams. I will then examine passing rates as of 2017-2018. I will then analyze if the CPA Exam difficulty increased after the 2017 CPA exam changes. Finally, I will make some recommendations on which section of the CPA exam are hardest to pass.

CPA Exam Difficulty Relative to Other Exams

A lot of people like to compare the different financial certifications to determine which is the most difficult to acquire. Although “CPA Exam Difficulty” is hard to quantify I will report on what I’ve heard from candidates who have taken several exams.

First of all, most people have the pecking order for the hardest professional exams as:

1. Legal Bar Exam – Lawyer

2. CFA – Certified Financial Analyst

3. CPA – Certified Professional Accountant

4. CMA – Certified Management Accountant

Personally, I am only familiar with the Bar Exam (passed) CFA exam (failed) and the CPA exam.

The Bar Exam for lawyers is generally regarded as the hardest professional exam.  However, the difficulty of a bar exam is largely determined by the State. For example, the New York state bar exam is regarded as a more difficult test than New Mexico state bar exam.

I think that the testing conditions for the bar exam are much more difficult than a CPA exam. Why? The bar exam is an all or nothing one day showdown. The CPA exam is split into 4 sections and most students expect to fail one section. The pressure is much lower for the CPA exam.  If law students don’t pass the bar they can’t bill as lawyers.  If you fail the bar exam you have to wait several months to take the test again. This is significant pressure. Meanwhile if CPA’s fail a section of the CPA exam, they simply take the section in the next available window.

The CFA exam is a hybrid between the Bar Exam and the CPA exam. The CFA exam is split into 3 sections and students study for a full year or more to pass each section. There The bar exam is a pressure cooker in comparison because the exam is only offered twice per year.

The breadth of topics on a bar exam is much wider than the CPA exam. After all, the exam is meant to test students on 3 years of law school. If you stack up Bar exam textbooks they would tower over CPA exam materials.

The Bar exam pass rates in a state like California are about 45-50%  which is in line with the pass rates for the CPA exam. However, the national average for the Bar Exam is a pass rate of over 60%. Perhaps on a national level, the CPA exam is more difficult to pass than the Bar exam.

I do not think that there is much to pick and choose between the content of a CPA exam and the CFA exam. I’m only familiar with the first two sections of the CFA exam and I’ve heard that the third section is much more difficult than any section CPA exam.

In conclusion, the state bar exam for lawyers is most likely the hardest professional exam to pass. However, the CPA exam is hard to pass in it’s own way.

CPA Exam Difficulty
2017 CPA Exam Pass Rate

CPA Exam Difficulty Since 2017 Changes

A lot of CPA candidates were wondering whether the CPA exam became more difficult since the 2017 changes. 

From reports and discussions with recent test takers the content has remained similar to years past. AICPA did not amped up the  CPA Exam difficulty in 2017.

The major difference was that the new exam required more intelligent test taking strategies.  One  cannot get “stuck” on a question. You have to allot a specific amount of time per section and you have to stick to the plan. Otherwise you get crushed.

Students were never particularly good at allocating time between two MCQ sections. Adding a third section and SIMS has caused major time management problems for a lot of test takers.

In years past, a test taker could move back and forth in the exam. Thus, one could search for the easiest SIM to tackle. Since the new exam in 2017, students must complete a section in order to move on to another section. This rattled students because they encounter a SIM that they cannot understand and the wheels fall off from there. In years past, most students were well trained enough to find the easier questions to tackle first. Getting hit with a difficult opening SIM question has had a big impact on most first time test takers.

It is important to remember that the content has not changed much over the years. Don’t listen to the students who proclaim that the exam content requirements have become more onerous this year. That is simply not the case. The exam is more difficult for most students because SIMS are not easy. You can’t guess your way through SIMS the way you could guess your way through MCQ’s. There is a reason why AICPA changed the format after all.


What is the optimum order of taking the four sections of the CPA exam? Which section is generally considered the most difficult portion of the CPA exam?

Generally FAR and REG are considered the most difficult sections. Recent FAR/REG exams have been noticeably more difficult than AUD or BEC for most CPA candidates. The usual response after someone has just written the FAR exam is, “I failed.” However, from a statistical level, the pass rates are not that different between the various sections. However, this number could be inaccurate because there might be a number of second or third time test takers skewing the data.

It is generally recommended to start with a section that you have fresh in your mind. For example, if you just finished college and you took a lot of accounting courses you might want to start with the FAR exam. If you have been working in government and are familiar with the most recent regulations you might want to start with REG.  There is no optimum study schedule nor CPA exam order that works for all candidates.

Some candidates prefer to take the most difficult exams first and third. The theory is that you don’t want to be burnt out by the time that you have to study for FAR or REG. In addition, you don’t want to ratchet up the pressure to pass the most difficult section if your deadline is looming.

Thus, a sample CPA exam order would be:

  1. FAR
  2. AUD
  3. REG
  4. BEC

Most candidates take the AUD exam after the FAR exam because there is some overlap in the material.

Another CPA exam order might be;

  1. BEC
  2. REG
  3. FAR
  4. AUD

The final strategy that some candidates use is to take the easiest exams first in order to gain confidence. A sample cpa exam order would be:

  1. AUD
  2. BEC
  3. FAR
  4. REG

In conclusion, there is no ideal CPA exam order as every candidate has  a different background and a different amount of study time. However the rotations above are three of the most common that I come across.

Is The CPA Exam Hard

In conclusion, to answer vague question, “is the CPA exam hard” one must look at it through the lens of other professional exams and recent passing rates. The CPA exam difficulty level is not as hard as most students make it out to be. You need to block out the noise and figure out which sections of the CPA exam would be hardest for you as an individual to pass.