What students need to know about the updated CPA exam

We outline structural changes and point you to comprehensive resources.
By Samiha Khanna

As most CPAs are aware, the Uniform CPA Examination is in the midst of some big changes, with the next version of the exam debuting April 1, 2017.

This marks the first major update to the exam since 2011. The changes demonstrate one of the most important lessons in business: As the field evolves and clients' needs change, CPAs must also evolve and expand their skills to maintain their relevance and reputation as some of the most valued members of any team or organization.

"Business is not stagnant," said Joe Maslott, AICPA senior technical manager–Examinations. "From our research, outsourcing and technology have a huge impact on what a CPA does. As the business environment gets more complicated, so do the tasks of a CPA."

Maslott and his colleagues from the examinations team spent two years meeting with stakeholders such as boards of accountancy, academics, regulators, firms, and others, as well as conducting research on the types of tasks newly licensed CPAs regularly perform.

It's not enough to regurgitate information, Maslott said. CPAs must apply that information, analyze problems, propose solutions, and give guidance to colleagues, among their everyday tasks. Accordingly, the exam will place more emphasis on critical thinking such as analysis, problem-solving, and professional skepticism.

Not everything will change, though. The overall structure of the exam retains the same four sections: Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG).

Here's what CPA candidates eager to learn more about the changes need to know:

  • Total testing time will increase from 14 to 16 hours; candidates are allowed four hours to work on each section of the exam, minus any time they take for breaks that are not standardized.
  • The tests will feature fewer multiple-choice questions and more task-based simulations.
  • Weighting for multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations has also changed; each will now count for 50% of a candidate's score on the AUD, FAR, and REG sections.
  • On the BEC section, multiple-choice questions will count for 50% of the score, with task-based simulations counting for 35%, and three written communication questions making up the remaining 15%.
  • Candidates will now be offered a standardized 15-minute break approximately halfway through each section; this break stops the exam clock. The break is optional, but if candidates decline it, they will not be offered an additional opportunity to stop the clock for a 15-minute break. Additional breaks between testlets will still be permitted, but they won't pause the clock.
  • The Examinations team has released new blueprints to replace current content outlines. These blueprints detail 600 representative tasks aligned to the content and skills required of newly licensed CPAs. The documents, publicly available on the AICPA website, are a comprehensive resource for candidates studying for the exam, as well as accounting professors.

For a more detailed breakdown of the new Uniform CPA Examination's structure, section by section, download a white paper from the Examinations team.

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this story, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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