How Hard is the CPA Exam?

Complete Guide to What Makes the CPA Exam so Difficult in 2023

how-hard-is-the-cpa-examThe journey to become a licensed Certified Public Accountant is filled with challenges, but nothing is quick as hard as passing the exam.

The CPA exam is by far one of the most difficult professional exams in the world. With a pass rate of less that 50%, most candidates typically fail at least one section. In fact, it’s not uncommon for candidates to fail multiple sections in a row.

Don’t let these stats discourage you though. Yes, it’s a tough test and you’ll need to commit a few hundred hours of study time in order to pass it, but it is beatable.

Remember, the CPA exam is an academic test. It’s designed to test your knowledge of accounting, tax, and business law. You just need to prepare for it and you’ll do fine.

Let’s look at why the CPA exam is so hard and what makes it such a difficult test to pass.

Is the CPA Exam Hard?

In short, yes the CPA exam is challenging. According to the AICPA, the average pass rate of the CPA exam is between 45-50%. In 2023, the FAR section had the lowest pass rate of 42% while the REG section had the highest at 58%.

This means that over half of the candidates who took the exam didn’t pass. Those aren’t good odds, but that’s why the CPA exam is widely considered to be the most difficult finance exam. Most people don’t pass it.

The exam is made up of four parts that are taken individually. Candidates must pass all of these sections within an 18-month testing window in order to complete the full exam.

  • Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
  • Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
  • Regulation (REG)

Each section is made up of multiple testlets covering a huge range of accounting topics from financial accounting and auditing to taxation and business law.

What Makes the CPA exam so Difficult?

There are a number of things that contribute to the difficulty of the CPA exam, but the main one is its size and length of materials.

The shear amount of information covered on the CPA exam is tough to memorize. It’s like cramming an entire college education into one test. After all, most CPA prep books are 500-1,000 pages long!

The length of the test isn’t the only thing that will trip you up though.

Here are five other reasons the CPA exam is so challenging:

Comprehensive Content

The exam covers a vast array of complicated topics including: accounting principles, tax laws, business communication, and auditing procedures. The CPA exam might be easier if it was narrowly focused on a single topic, but it’s not. The exam consists of every topics CPA is likely to encounter in the real world.

High Level of Detail

The exam questions are designed to fool you. They ask questions in specifically tricky ways to get you to pick the wrong answer. You have to know the topics in detail otherwise you’ll tripped up on questions asking about calculations where multiple answers seem correct.

Time Management

Each exam section only allows candidates approximately 4 hours to complete. With 90 multiple-choice questions and 5 task-based simulations on average, that doesn’t give you much time to answer each question. You have to manage your time very well in order to finish the entire exam on time.

Complex Problem-Solving

The AICPA includes intricate problems that require candidates to apply critical thinking and analytical skills in order to solve them accurately. The real-world scenarios presented in the problems are designed to assess how well you think critically and solve a problem you may not be familiar with.

Changing Regulatory Environment

As with all accounting standards and tax regulations, the CPA exam keeps changing. With new laws and regulations, the exam covers new materials that were never tested before. This means candidates have to stay updated on new regs in order to pass.

Is the CPA exam harder than it used to be?

Yes, the CPA exam is just as hard today as it was 30 years ago. Although the AICPA makes changes to the CPA exam every year, they make a conscious effort to maintain the professional standards and level of difficulty.

The fact that the CPA exam difficulty hasn’t changed over the years is the annual pass rate. The pass rate has remained at 50% for decades.

Don’t let the old timers tell you that it is easier or harder now. It’s the same exam. It’s just a different year.

Hardest CPA Exam Section

Determining the hardest CPA exam section is kind of subjective because it really depends on your strengths, professional experience, and study methods.

Historically, most candidates find that Financial Accounting and Reporting FAR is the hardest CPA exam section with an average pass rate of less than 45%.


The FAR section dives deep into the complex topics of GAAP like: consolidations, governmental accounting, and non-profit accounting. It requires candidates to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of financial reporting, disclosure requirements, and accounting for various entities.

One particularly demanding part of FAR is how much information you have to memorize. You have to memorize way more accounting standards, formulas, and concepts than the other exam sections.

Ultimately, the perceived difficulty of each CPA exam section varies based on your skills and knowledge. Some candidates may find Auditing (AUD) and Regulations (REG) to be more challenging based on their individual strengths and backgrounds.

That’s why it’s so important to get a study guide. You can zero in on the topics you need the most help with and feel prepared on your exam day.

What is the hardest part of the CPA exam?

The hardest part of the CPA exam is the FAR exam section. With less a pass rate of less than 50%, most candidates struggle with the FAR section.

The most challenging part of the CPA exam, as a whole, is the length of materials covered as well as the study time required to learn and memorize all of the information covered on the exam.

Length of Materials

Most CPA prep course books are over 1,000 pages. It’s essentially memorizing all four years of your college courses for a single exam. It’s just a lot of information to learn, memorize, and retain.

Study Time

With this much information to learn and memorize, you have to commit to a lot of study time. Most candidates study more than 300 hours over the course of 6-18 months preparing for the CPA exam.

This is a huge time commitment. Not to mention that if you fail a section, you will need to take it again as well as start your study process all over again.

Keeping a consistent study schedule is one of the most challenging parts of preparing for the CPA exam.

Strategies to Overcome CPA Exam Difficulty

Structured Study Plans: Creating a consistent study schedule that you can stick to is one of the most important ways to prepare for the exam. It’s all about systematically learning the materials.

Comprehensive Review Materials: Get a review course. Using reputable study materials like video lectures and practice exams will speed up your study process and help you understand the information way more efficiently than trying to study on your own.

Exam Simulations: Do as many practice questions and problems as you can. There is no better way to practice for the exam than taking practice exams. It prepares you for the real thing!

Consistent Practice and Revision: Always go back and review the last chapter or test that you took the day before. This will improve your memory of that topic and help you better understand it when you go over it a second time.

Get a Mentor: Sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated to study on your own, so get a mentor or join a study group. We are all in this together. Look for a local group to join to hold yourself accountable. You can also find a mentor in your CPA review course.

How hard is the CPA exam compared with other exams?

The CPA exam is widely regarded as the most challenging professional examination for a few reasons. Its length, number of topics, and technical details covered typically rank it harder than the BAR and MCAT.

The CPA exam requires candidates to demonstrate proficiency in financial accounting, auditing, taxation, and business law, among other areas. Also, the CPA exam tests candidates’ knowledge and skills with both multiple-choice questions and simulation tasks.

Furthermore, the CPA exam is dynamic and adapts to changes in accounting standards and regulations. This means candidates have to stay current with industry developments, tax regulations, and GAAP updates.

Overall, the CPA exam’s depth content coupled with its adaptability to industry changes makes it consistently ranked one of the hardest professional exams.

Is the CPA harder than the BAR?

Yes, the CPA exam is widely considered more difficult than the BAR exam. The CPA exam is a multi-part exam that must be passed within 18-months, whereas the BAR exam is a single test.

Regardless what your lawyer will tell you. No, the CPA exam is not easier than the Bar.

Comparing the difficulty of the CPA exam and the Bar Exam is subjective and depends on your strengths, knowledge, and background. Both exams are rigorous and demanding in their respective fields.

While the CPA exam assesses knowledge in accounting, taxation, auditing, and business law, the BAR Exam, on the other hand, evaluates a candidate’s understanding of legal principles and their ability to apply them in various scenarios.

Ultimately, determining which exam is “harder” is a matter of personal experience and expertise in either accounting or law.

Is the CPA harder than the MCAT?

Yes, most candidates typically consider the CPA exam more difficult than the MCAT exam. The CPA exam covers more detailed information over a wider range of topics.

Comparing the difficulty of the CPA exam and the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is challenging because bother exams test vastly different fields of knowledge.

The CPA exam focuses on accounting and taxation; where as, the MCAT evaluates a candidate’s grasp of biological and physical sciences.

Both exams test the candidates’ critical thinking and problem-solving abilities; so deciding which is “harder” largely depends on your background and proficiency in accounting or medical sciences.

Bottom Line

The CPA exam is really hard. The AICPA purposely makes the test difficult to ensure candidates are qualified and well equipped to uphold the highest standards of the accounting profession.

While it requires dedication, discipline, and tons of studying, passing the CPA exam is an achievement that’ll open doors to many different opportunities for your future career in accounting.

It doesn’t matter how tough the exam is. It’s about preparing for it. You can pass anything if you put your mind to it. Get the right study course and get started today!


How common is it fail a CPA exam?

Yes, it’s common for CPA candidates to fail at least one section of the CPA exam. On average, CPA pass rates range from 45% to 55% depending on the section. This means that half of candidates fail the exam, according to the AICPA.

How stressful is the CPA exam?

The CPA exam is extremely stressful. CPA candidates often struggle with test anxiety to study prep fears because the exam is extensive and requires months of preparation.

Is the CPA exam the hardest professional exam?

With a pass rate lower than the BAR and MCAT, the CPA exam is often considered the most challenging professional exam. Candidates consistently struggle with the extensive content and rigorous testing format of the CPA exam.

Is the CPA exam difficult to pass?

Yes, the CPA exam is considered difficult to pass due to its extensive content and level of detail. However, with diligent preparation and focused study methods, candidates can increase their likelihood of passing the exam.

How hard is it to pass the CPA exam on the first try?

Passing the CPA exam on the first try can be challenging for any candidate due to the rigorous testing format and complex topics. However, most candidates who form a well-structured study plan and practice simulations are able succeed on their initial attempt.

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