How to Prepare for the CPA Exam

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A happy young woman is celebrating after receiving an email notification that she passed the CPA Exam.

Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) shoulder a grave responsibility in today’s economy. More than just number crunchers, CPAs guard against fraud and ensure that investors and other stakeholders can rely on the financial statements on which the business world relies. As such, the requirements to become a licensed CPA are strict and include education, experience and a rigorous examination, together known as the three Es.

To ensure CPAs meet the high standard expected of the profession, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) administers, regulates and records results of The Uniform CPA Examination, a streamlined, qualifying test for those who want to operate as professional accountants. While education and experience requirements vary by state, all CPAs must take the NASBA exam to become licensed.

Individuals who pass the exam and are CPA-certified — the industry’s gold standard — are qualified to sign off on audits and financial reviews. Licensed CPAs may also have better job prospects when applying for positions such as internal or external auditor, business advisor, managing partner, and corporate or business accountant. Students can learn how to prepare for the CPA Exam and careers as business and financial professionals by enrolling in a targeted degree program, such as the Master of Accountancy at University of Nevada, Reno.

What Is the CPA Exam?

The CPA Exam is a streamlined, uniform test to ensure protection of public interest by only qualifying those individuals with thorough knowledge of accounting. The exam measures each participant’s mastery of the material over four sections, each of which may be taken separately. They include:

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

Exam questions take the form of either multiple-choice, written communication or task-based simulations. The exam is taken in a sterile environment on a computer provided by the testing center.

These four sections are designed to take examinees approximately four hours to complete, so each participant must have a strong command of the knowledge and skills in their field. In each section, aspiring CPAs must complete approximately 70 multiple-choice questions, 4-9 task-based simulations and in the BEC section specifically, three written responses.

Preparing for the CPA Exam

When planning to prepare for the CPA Exam, it’s wise to take inventory of all the education and experience required to take and pass the test, keeping in mind that each state has slightly different requirements for both. Students will want to check the educational and experience requirements specific to the state where they plan to take the exam and practice.

In many states, to acquire the knowledge to become a licensed CPA, students are required to undergo no less than 150 hours of education. The academic path begins by earning a bachelor’s degree. While no specific undergraduate degree is required to go on to become a CPA, earning a degree in a related field, such as accounting or business administration, can be helpful. It’s also true that no one graduate degree is a prerequisite for sitting for the CPA Exam. However, a degree such as a Master of Accountancy can ease the way toward passing the test. For instance, the University of Nevada, Reno’s Master of Accountancy program is designed to prepare students to pursue CPA certification, in addition to providing students with the knowledge and skills to pursue a variety of accounting careers.

For those wishing to take practice exams to better understand what to expect from the test, CPA Exam Blueprints are published a couple times a year. These simulate the exam challenges one can expect to encounter. Practice tests are important for developing the confidence to sit for the exam and avoid feeling overwhelmed. With increased familiarity of the exam’s content, flow and structure, students are better able to prepare and pace themselves. With this preparation, they’ll know if they’re taking too long to complete a section, or what types of questions they find most challenging.

What Is the Process of Registering for and Taking the CPA Exam?

While some variation occurs due to different laws and regulations in different states, the basic process of taking the CPA Exam can be summarized as follows:

  • Submit an application to take the CPA exam
  • Pay for exam fees
  • Review the tutorial and test samples
  • Receive a notice to schedule your exam from the state Board of Accountancy
  • Schedule a time to take one or all four exam sections
  • Complete the exam
  • Receive your score report

International applicants for the CPA Exam who earned an undergraduate degree abroad and pursued a graduate degree in the United States can have their credentials evaluated.

It’s worth noting that documentation and separate fees may be required each time you take one or more parts of the exam. The name on your application must match the name on the identification you present at the testing site, with some leniency on the middle name as an initial, otherwise you will likely be turned away.

After your application has been processed, you’re deemed eligible to take the exam. Once you’ve paid all your associated fees, the NASBA will contact you with a “Notice to Schedule” to set your exam date and confirm all your personal information. Test takers must print and bring this notice with them to the exam site.

Take the First Step Toward Becoming a Licensed CPA Today

To prepare for the CPA Exam, the importance of academic preparation cannot be understated. A carefully designed Master of Accountancy program, such as the one offered by University of Nevada, Reno, provides you with a solid foundation for taking the exam. Students in the University of Nevada, Reno’s degree program have a strong track record for passing the exam. With the proper coursework and diligent study habits, it’s possible to pass the CPA Exam your first time out.

The university’s program consists of courses designed to help you achieve your goal of becoming a licensed CPA, such as Federal Taxation, Taxation of Corporations, and Business Analysis Methods.

Begin your CPA future today. The Master of Accountancy curriculum is available here for your consideration.

Recommended Readings

How to Become an AccountantWhat Are the Skills Needed to Be an Accountant?

What’s the Real Difference: Finance vs. Accounting Degrees


American Institute of CPAs, 150 Hour Requirement for Obtaining a CPA License

American Institute of CPAs, “Get Familiar with the CPA Exam by Practicing With Our Sample Tests”

American Institute of CPAs, “Follow This General Guide to Earn Your CPA”

American Institute of CPAs, “Learn What to Study for the CPA Exam”

American Institute of CPAs, Uniform CPA Examination Blueprints

National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, CPA Exam

National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, Candidate Bulletin

National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, New Quiz Designed to Help Candidates Start on the Right Path When Applying for CPA Exam

Prometric, CPA

Prometric, What to Expect on Test Day