CPA exam evolving to reflect shift in skills requirements

By Ken Tysiac

The tasks performed by newly licensed CPAs have changed in recent years.

The Uniform CPA Examination is evolving to reflect those changes.

“Tasks that an entry-level CPA may have done in the past are now either largely mechanized through electronic mediums” or are being handled by non-CPAs, said Rick Niswander, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., outgoing chairman of the AICPA Board of Examiners.

Niswander, the vice chancellor for administration and finance at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., co-presented information about the ongoing CPA exam update Monday at the AICPA governing Council meeting in Maui, Hawaii. The AICPA is seeking feedback by Nov. 30 on an exposure draft that proposes changes to the exam structure.

The timetable calls for changes to be announced in the spring of 2016, with the new exam set to debut in 2017. The proposed modifications to the exam are intended to reflect a shift in the responsibilities of newly licensed CPAs, as reported in extensive feedback to the AICPA exams team.

Although technical skills remain important, the need for CPAs to possess higher-order skills early in their careers has increased. These include:

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving.
  • Research skills.
  • Greater understanding of the business—not just the accounting.
  • Communication skills.

“Newly licensed CPAs have needed to have those skills for years and years and years. It’s just that the demand for having more of those skills has increased,” Niswander said during a pre-Council telephone interview.

The proposed exam update would keep the current four exam sections but change how content is assessed. The proposal calls for less emphasis on “application” and “remember and understand” skills. Questions assessing higher-level analysis skills would be added, and the AUD section also would assess skills of the highest level, evaluation. New blueprints for each section of the exam would illustrate the content, tasks, and related skills that would be tested, assisting exam takers and educators in their preparation.

Overall, the exam would have fewer multiple-choice questions and more task-based simulations. Total testing time would increase from 14 to 16 hours, with one hour each added to the BEC and REG sections.

Convenience for candidates

Some changes would be intended to make the exam more convenient for candidates to take.

New blueprints for each section of the exam would illustrate the information and skills that would be tested, assisting exam takers and educators in their preparation.

In 2018, a new software package could create the possibility for secure testing at more locations. It’s envisioned that secure testing could take place even at colleges or firms. Excel spreadsheets also would be added to the exam in 2018.

“The phrase we’re using is, we want to make it easier to test, not an easier test,” Niswander said.

Although the AICPA has received extensive feedback during the process of updating the exam, it is seeking more comments—which can be submitted by email at And even as the current changes are in process, volunteers and AICPA staff are looking forward to changes that might be possible in the future as technological capabilities improve. The efforts are designed to preserve the CPA exam’s relevance and role in protecting the public interest as the business world and the demands on CPAs continue to evolve.

“You’re going to see an exam that is more representative of what you will do when you get out and work for a CPA firm or work for a company,” Niswander said. “I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Ken Tysiac ( is a JofA editorial director.

Plans for the exam

The following chart compares the content in the current Uniform CPA Examination to the content proposed for the CPA exam of the future:

CPA exam changes

Source: AICPA exposure draft, Maintaining the Relevance of the Uniform CPA Examination.

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