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CPA Certification and the CPA Exam

Learn about the CPA exam and what you'll need to do in order to earn the Certified Public Accountant designation.


CPA Certification & CPA Exam

With new regulations and exam structure that began in 2011 in place, the CPA Exam underwent the first major change to its functionality since Computer-Based Testing (CBT) was introduced in 2004. The new CPA exam, the CBT-e ("e" for evolution) included major changes to these areas:

  • Content and Skill Specifications, which will now include International Financial Reporting Standards
  • Question formatting, including simulations
  • Research functionality
  • Exam structure and new time allocations per section
  • Percentage value of exam components

Sections of the CPA exam: 4

Time period in which all four sections must be taken and passed: 18 months

Total test time: 14 hours

Time per section: Auditing and Attestation* – 4 hours, Financial Accounting and Reporting – 4 hours, Regulation – 3 hours, Business Environment and Concepts – 3 hours

Hours of college credit required to take the exam: 150 (called the 150-hour Rule)

Score needed to pass CPA exam: 75 per section (on a 0-99 scale)

Hours of continuing education required to keep CPA certification: 120 hours every three years, with a 20-hour minimum per year for CPAs in public practice

As expected of such a valuable credential, CPA certification is hardly a piece of cake. It first requires 150 credit hours of college credit, which generally involves an accounting bachelor degree plus some graduate course work, often either via an MAcc or an MBA with an accounting focus. Once you have completed this prerequisite, you will be eligible to take the CPA exam.

The test is comprised of four sections, taken over the course of two days, though testers can choose not to take all of the sections at once. You don't, in fact, have to pass every section at the same time—candidates have up to 18 months to pass the entire exam. Each section itself is comprised of "testlets" (groups of multiple-choice questions) and simulations (mini-case studies), and the exam is now always taken on a computer at specifically designated testing centers. The CPA exam is administered in January, February, April, May, July, August, October, and November.

What CPAs Do

CPAs often go into public accounting, though many CPAs are also management accountants,forensic accountants, government accountants and personal financial advisors. While there are a number of accounting jobs that do not require CPA certification, it is indisputable that passing the rigorous CPA exam  and earning the CPA credential will only help you advance in your career.

*The attestation portion refers to the collecting and communicating of audit, legal and other information.
Sources: American Institute of Certified Public Accountants; National Association of State Boards of Accountancy.