CPA Exam Structure and Content - Class Bench | Class Bench

CPA Exam Structure and Content

The CPA Exam focuses on the skills necessary for newly licensed CPAs. Per the AICPA, newly licensed CPAs must possess the following:

  • Analysis and application skills, including critical thinking, problem solving and analytical ability
  • Effective communication skills
  • A strong understanding of the business environment and processes
  • Professional skepticism
  • A thorough understanding of professional and ethical responsibilities

Skill levels tested on the CPA Exam

  • Evaluation
    Examination or assessment of problems and the use of judgment to form conclusions. Examples of how this skill may be evaluated: Justify, Critique, Conclude, Judge, Detect, Verify, Recommend, Assess
  • Analysis
    The examination and study of relationships between different areas to identify causes and find evidence to support inferences. Examples of how this skill may be evaluated: Reconcile, Deconstruct, Validate, Deduce, Imply, Integrate, Distinguish, Organize
  • Application
    The use or demonstration of knowledge, concepts, or techniques. Examples of how this skill may be evaluated: Calculate, Implement, Test, Represent, Prepare, Use, Execute, Carry Out
  • Remembering and Understanding
    The comprehension of the significance of an area using knowledge gained. Examples of how this skill may be evaluated: Identify, Classify, Recall, Explain, Categorize, Clarify, Compare, Define

Exam time allotment

You can use as much of the time allotted to complete each part as you wish. The testing computer screen displays a countdown of the remaining time.

A standardized, 15-minute break will be offered after the first Task Based Simulation testlet, which is approximately the exam mid-point, two hours. In addition, candidates may choose to take an optional break between any two testlets but it will count against the total testing time as the exam clock will continue to run.

Auditing and Attestation 4.0 hrs
Financial Accounting and Reporting 4.0 hrs
Regulation 4.0 hrs
Business Environment and Concepts 4.0 hrs
Total Exam Time 4.0 hrs

What types of questions are found in each of the sections?

Each section of the CPA Exam will have a total of 5 testlets, or groups of test questions: 2 multiple-choice question (MCQ) testlets and 3 task-based simulation (TBS) testlets. In BEC, the first 2 TBS testlets will include task-based simulations while the third TBS testlet will include 3 written communications (WC).

As a candidate completes each testlet and submits it for grading, the next testlet will appear. The candidate will not be able to return to a previous testlet or look ahead at a subsequent testlet or simulation until the current one is submitted for grading. However, within each testlet, a candidate will have the ability to “mark” questions to go back to for further review before submission.

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Does the exam include essays?

The Business Environment and Concepts section includes 3 written communication tasks which require you to write a memorandum or letter on a specific topic.

Only writing samples that are generally responsive to the topic will be graded. If the response is offtopic or offers advice that is clearly illegal, you will not receive any credit for the response. Written answers are scored on organization, development, and expression. For more information, refer to

How are written communication questions scored?

Most responses are scored by a computer grading program, while others are scored using a network of readers (all CPAs). If your score is close to the passing score, your written responses will be automatically re-graded by human graders.

What are task-based simulations?

Task-based simulations are condensed case studies designed to complement the multiplechoice questions. The simulations test application, analysis and evaluation skills by requiring candidates to complete tasks that are likely to be performed by newly licensed CPAs.

Candidates can encounter two types of problems — one that requires candidates to select the correct option from a drop down menu or one that requires candidates to type the answer into a cell.

Typically, the simulations include the ability to use a mouse, check boxes, basic spreadsheet skills (not specific to types of software), form completion, fill in the blanks, use of tables, and research (using professional literature).

TBSs can cover any of the topics that are testable on the CPA Exam. For example, FAR can include government and not-for-profit accounting topics, REG generally covers tax-related topics including tax forms; and AUD can cover audits, reviews, compilations, attestation engagements and other topics.

New types of task-based simulation

  • Document Review Simulation (DRS) TBS
    Each DRS will feature a primary document and related source materials. Candidates are required to select appropriate edits to highlighted words, phrases or paragraphs in the document based on the source documents.
  • Enhanced TBS
    Includes an increased amount of background information, such as source documents and other data. Candidates are required to determine whether or not the information is relevant to the question, with some of the information not being needed to solve the problem.
  • Integrative TBS
    Includes content from other exam sections. These TBSs will be based on the content knowledge and skills of the particular exam section, but will also draw on a candidate’s basic knowledge – the level covered in typical college coursework – of general accounting, auditing, tax and business concepts.

Do all questions in a testlet have the same numerical value?

No. The difficulty levels of the test questions are determined through statistical analysis of candidate responses. At the question level, difficulty is not quantified as a category (e.g. moderate or difficult), but as a numeric value along a scale. Testlets are classified as either medium or difficult based on the average difficulty of the questions within that testlet.

Do all candidates in a testing window receive the same exam?

The CPA Exam is a computerized multistage adaptive test. This means that as candidates complete each testlet, their performance is evaluated and the difficulty of the subsequent testlet is adjusted. All candidates start with a medium (difficulty) testlet, those that perform well will get a more difficult second testlet while those that do not will receive a second medium difficulty testlet. Similarly, the third testlet can be a medium or a difficult based on your performance on the first two testlets.

Task-based simulations are not chosen based on your performance on the multiple-choice questions; they are pre-assigned. The scoring procedures take the difficulty of all questions into account so that candidates are scored fairly regardless of the difficulty of the testlets they take.

What are the rules about testing new accounting and auditing pronouncements?

An accounting or auditing pronouncement can be included in the exam in the testing window that begins the later of six months after its effective date, or six months after its issuance date. Changes in federal taxation, Internal Revenue Code and tax regulations may be included in the testing window beginning six months after the change’s effective date or enactment date, whichever is later.

For other materials covered in the Regulation and Business Environment and Concepts sections: federal laws can be included in the window beginning six months after their effective date, and uniform acts in the window beginning one year after their adoption by a simple majority of the jurisdictions.

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