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. 

The result of these two sections is intense time pressure. Thus, a candidate is required not only to know the material well, but also to be able to apply and understand it under significant time constraints.

To prepare for the exam, I used a professional test preparation package. I watched the videos and went through thousands of multiple-choice questions and several practice simulations.

This process allowed me to identify my weak areas so I could spend additional time on these topics. This part of my preparation was key to my success on the exam. Identifying my weak areas expeditiously allowed me to increase my efficiency when studying.

Students are often surprised that I went through more than 3,500 questions for a section of the CPA exam that is my area of expertise. I stress to students that overconfidence is not a luxury they can afford

The first section I took was Financial Accounting and Reporting. Due to the depth and breadth of this section, I decided it would be the only one I took in this test window. While I passed on my first attempt, it was clear that I reviewed an insufficient number of practice questions – even though I went through several multiple-choice practice tests totaling 5,006 questions.

When I communicate this to students, the initial reaction is shock. At first, this amount of time and preparation sounds overwhelming to them, especially to those in the beginning of the accounting program. However, when conveying this, I remind them that this is a key reason the CPA is one of the most respected credentials in business. It is not easy to obtain.

Three Other Tests

In the next testing window, I took the sections on Business Environment and Concepts, and Auditing and Attestation. My teaching and research interests are managerial accounting and accounting information systems. Thus, the Business Concepts section contained the material most familiar to me.

However, since I would have only three hours to complete this section, I went through 3,680 practice questions in an effort to improve my efficiency when answering questions.

For the Auditing and Attestation section, I completed 6,890 practice questions and several practice simulations. I passed both sections on my first attempt.

Students are often surprised that I went through more than 3,500 questions for a section of the CPA exam that is my area of expertise. I stress to students that overconfidence is not a luxury they can afford (both figuratively and literally) when it comes to any portion of the exam.

I tell them that if this is the number of questions I practiced in my area of specialization, this should serve as a baseline for the amount of time they must invest into any particular section of the CPA exam.

The last section I took was Regulation. When I was in public accounting, I never completed a tax return; this is also not my teaching or research specialization. Thus, this was the most challenging section for me, and I dedicated a single testing window to it.

My house was littered with tax return forms I printed out, and I made sure I was familiar with all returns associated with the tested topics. I went through numerous practice simulations and 10,193 multiple-choice practice questions. The investment paid off as I passed on my first attempt.

In the Classroom

After passing the exam, I was able to reflect on the "journey" and develop some new approaches to teaching and assessment.

I have found that incorporating my experiences into the classroom gives students a different perspective. I have made three primary changes to my teaching. These involve introducing, applying, and testing the material.

First, when introducing topics to students, I usually begin by noting which section of the CPA exam the topic appears in and refer to the Content and Skill Specifications for the Uniform CPA Examination. Students are told by potential employers that obtaining a CPA license is an expectation for continued employment. Therefore, saying "this appears on the Business Environment and Concepts section of the CPA exam" immediately grabs students' attention.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from taking the CPA exam is to not teach to the test. While obtaining a CPA license is certainly important for my accounting students, it is not—and should not be—the sole driver of accounting programs

Furthermore, while it is tempting for students to "purge" information from their memory after taking an exam, constantly reminding them that this material will reappear on the CPA exam has resulted in students keeping their notes and increasing their focus in the classroom.

The Content and Skill Specifications for the Uniform CPA Examination document is provided to all of my accounting advisees when they meet with me the first time. (The proposal for updating the CPA exam includes new blueprints that would replace this document and would be designed to be even more helpful to future exam takers.)

Second, as mentioned previously, simply knowing the material is insufficient for the demands of the CPA exam, particularly when it comes to the task-based simulations. Thus, application and analysis must be demanded from students.

To determine the topics for these exercises, I refer to the Content and Skill Specifications for the Uniform CPA Examination document. For example, when teaching Accounting Information Systems, I heavily use Section IV.B. (Systems Design and Other Elements). I have students complete an exercise that involves the use of narratives of the accounting information systems process.

Using these narratives allows me to integrate business process designs, control objectives, segregation of duties, and policies and procedures into one exercise involving application and analysis.

The final change I have made is in the method of assessment. Each exam is a simulated CPA exam. My exams are 75 minutes and include 30 multiple-choice questions and three mock task-based simulation testlets. They are designed to simulate the format and time pressure of the actual exam.

The goal of these three teaching method changes is to help students reach a point where, after they graduate, their preparation for the CPA exam will consist of more "review" than "learning."

Don’t Teach the Test

While these changes are beneficial for the CPA exam, I am also cognizant that accounting is about more than just passing the exam. Therefore, I make a conscious effort to teach the material, and not simply "teach to the test."

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from taking the CPA exam is to not teach to the test. While obtaining a CPA license is certainly important for my accounting students, it is not—and should not be—the sole driver of accounting programs.

My goal as an educator is not just teaching material but also teaching critical thinking and preparing students for lives as accountants. When discussing the latter with folks practicing accounting, the overall perception is that there is a gap between academics and those in industry.

Therefore, the CPA exam offers a unique opportunity to open the dialogue between accounting faculty and practitioners. This is something we have begun at my institution, and it has proved successful.

Opening dialogue between academics and practitioners can improve accounting programs by integrating and synthesizing theory, application, and practice. One suggestion for this is the use of accounting advisory boards. At my institution, the Advisory Board is composed of accounting practitioners in both public and private practice. We meet annually to discuss our program, its progress, and areas for improvement.

At our most recent meeting, these three topic discussions revolved around the proposed changes to the Uniform CPA Examination as well as the skills required for recent accounting graduates. The results of these discussions indicate that there is indeed a need to balance the focus on accounting theory, application, and the CPA exam.

Faculty should use practitioners to remain current on the latest accounting technology and requirements of the profession

Practitioners are a great resource for expectations of our students in the workforce and can offer suggestions about topics for class projects. For example, practitioners have conveyed to me their reliance on the master budget and the Balanced Scorecard.

Therefore, I am able to dedicate time when teaching cost accounting to these two topics covered in the CPA exam while simultaneously providing students with required skills in the accounting profession.

Thorough Preparation

I am no longer asked, "Dr. Tapis, why are you not a CPA?" More importantly, studying for and taking the CPA exam helped me develop new teaching approaches that I hope will increase student interest, demonstrate the importance of particular material, and prepare students for the rigorous process of studying for the exam.

As educators, it is incumbent upon us to prepare students for the exam. We should begin doing so at the Principles of Accounting level and continue this through the advanced accounting courses.

It is also important that we continue recognizing the increasing complexities of our field. As evidenced by the breadth of the material on the CPA exam, the accounting profession is also broad in that it requires working knowledge of accounting, finance, information technology, law, etc. Thus, as educators, we are constantly managing the battle between parsimony and comprehensiveness when it comes to preparing courses.

Finally, academics and practitioners should work together so that faculty, practitioners, and students all benefit from our classroom efforts. Faculty should use practitioners to remain current on the latest accounting technology and requirements of the profession.

By incorporating some of the suggestions of practitioners into our classes, we can better prepare students for employment and maintain a working relationship with accounting firms. Accomplishing this is a win-win for academics and practitioners and can only serve to improve our field.

About the Author

Dr. Gregory P. Tapis ([email protected]) is an assistant professor of accounting at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, in the US. This article first appeared in the Journal of Accountancy.

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