Inside the CPA Exam: ‘Why Are You Not a Certified Public Accountant?’

Students frequently used to ask me, "Dr. Tapis, why are you not a CPA?" It was a valid question. Four other professional certifications I had earned helped me immensely earlier in my career when I worked for an IT and management consulting group of a regional public accounting firm in the US, but the fact that I had not earned the CPA credential was always on my mind.

I decided to use my spring sabbatical to take the CPA exam so I would not have to field that question again.

Three factors led me to that decision. First, as a member of the accounting faculty at my institution, I felt it was necessary to have a CPA license. Since we as educators consistently encourage students to take the CPA exam, it makes sense for us to hold the credential.

Second, preparing for and taking the exam in its current format provided me an opportunity to see exactly what a CPA exam candidate experiences—and the time and money that need to be invested to succeed.

Finally, I wanted to use the experience to develop new teaching approaches that would better prepare students to succeed in their ultimate goal: earning one of the most respected credentials in business.

The remainder of this article is organized as follows. First, I discuss two important lessons I learned from taking the CPA exam. Second, I discuss how studying for and taking the exam has affected my teaching.

Finally, I discuss how earning a CPA credential can lay the foundation for closing the gap between practitioners and academics.

Preparing for the exam involves mastering different skills. The multiple-choice questions are conceptual and require calculations. The task-based simulation portion requires the application of the concepts

Lessons Learned

I learned two primary lessons from this experience:

  • Don't underestimate the difficulty of the exam
  • A significant amount of preparation time is required to pass the exam

These points cannot be stressed enough to accounting students, and it is important for educators to communicate them throughout students' entire accounting program. Many students contact me after taking their first CPA exam section, shocked at the difficulty and amount of study time required.

There is no getting around the fact that the Uniform CPA Examination in the US is difficult. Some professional examinations focus on a plethora of topics, but lack depth. In contrast, the CPA exam focuses on a plethora of topics and is comprehensive in depth.

This requires candidates to memorize and understand a tremendous amount of material. Preparing for each section of the CPA exam involves a significant investment of time. This is discussed more in the next section.

The exam's difficulty is evidenced by the passing percentages. For example, in 2014, the pass rates for the different sections ranged from a low of 46.35% (Auditing and Attestation) to a high of 55.46% (Business Environment and Concepts). When I began studying for the exam, the knowledge of the low pass rates motivated me to increase my time commitment and made clear the difficulty of the task ahead.

Financial Accounting and Reporting

The current exam format includes two three-hour sections (Regulation and Business Environment and Concepts) and two four-hour sections (Financial Accounting and Reporting, and Auditing and Attestation) consisting of both multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations. (Note that proposed changes to the exam that would take effect in 2017 would allot four hours for each section and increase the focus on task-based simulations.)

Preparing for the multiple-choice and the task-based simulation portions of the exam involves mastering different skills. The multiple-choice questions are conceptual and require calculations. The task-based simulation portion requires the application of the concepts. 

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