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Reactions to the revised CPA Exam

Faculty, test-takers, and exam creators share their thoughts on the revised version of the CPA Exam.
By Lea Hart

It’s been just under a year since the rollout of the revised CPA Exam. In keeping with the evolution of the accounting profession, the new version of the exam focuses more on critical thinking and analysis and includes more task-based simulations, leading many exam-takers to devote even more time to studying. But what do students and faculty think of the new exam? Here, they share their feedback and offer a few words of advice for future exam-takers.

Why the scores need to be taken with a grain of salt

Results from the revised exam show similar or better pass rates as compared to the previous version. However, those results need to be kept in context, noted John Mattar, director–Psychometrics & Research with the Public Accounting Examinations Team for the AICPA.

“If you just looked at the percentage of those who took the test and passed, [scores do] look pretty consistent [with previous years],” Mattar said.

However, he noted, direct comparisons can’t always be made between versions of an exam. The new exam has a different structure and some changes in the content and skills assessed.

It’s not possible to know if those who took the revised exam in these first few quarters are representative of everyone who is going to take it, Mattar said.

It’s also important to consider who took the test just before the changes were implemented.

“If you look at the pass rates for end of 2016, and beginning of 2017, they were a little lower than the historic trends,” Mattar said. “When you launch a new exam, more people go to take the old exam before the new exam is launched. Our volumes were up pretty substantially at end of 2016 and beginning of 2017.” The increased numbers of exam takers during that time may have affected pass rates if some candidates took the old exam earlier than they might otherwise have and were less prepared, he noted.

Extra preparation seems to have worked

Patrick Kelly, Ph.D., professor of accountancy at Providence College School of Business, said his students devoted more time to preparing for the revised version of the exam, due to the perceived increase in difficulty of the new version. That work seems to be paying off.

“Our students seem to be experiencing similar levels of success as prior graduates from our program,” Kelly said. “Most appear to have a positive experience and ultimately pass the exam.”

Like the previous version, many students talked about the Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) section posing the greatest challenge, Kelly said.

Revised exam was more difficult than expected

Roshawn Kintaudi, CPA, an audit senior associate at Sadler, Gibb & Associates LLC, passed all four sections of the revised exam on the first try.

“Overall, I believe that the exam was harder than I expected,” he said. “As a first-time exam-taker, I felt as if the best way to succeed on each exam was to review the AICPA Blueprints for each exam and allocate hours of studying based on certain topics that were more likely to be tested.” He said that after taking each part of the exam, he “learned that time management, attention to detail, and critical thinking” were also crucial to success.

Kintaudi said he thinks the revised exam challenges candidates to quickly solve problems by “assessing whether they can effectively research issues in a timely manner and arrive at a reasonable conclusion.”

“In my opinion, the skills that are assessed on the exam are imperative for accounting professionals to master in order to be successful in their careers,” he said.

Already, Kintaudi said he’s found these skills to be essential in his own career. He has needed to research guidance about complex debt and equity-based transactions and report his findings to colleagues and clients.

 “After studying for and passing the CPA exam,” he observed, “I felt more comfortable performing the procedures in my professional career.”

Breadth of material covered can make studying a challenge

Victoria Adams, a student in the MBA program at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks, is in the process of taking the exam. She failed Regulation (REG) and Auditing and Attestation (AUD), but still felt she did better than expected walking out of the exam.

“While this was my first go-round, I would agree that this new test may be more challenging because you cannot rely on memorization and have to really be familiar with the material,” Adams said.

“My study materials prepared me for the layout of the exam and what to expect. However, the breadth of the topics made it difficult to know what to spend more time studying for,” she continued. “I think that overall it was harder than I expected.”

A mixed bag

Nolan Huysmans, a student in the Master of Science in Accounting program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, passed AUD on his first attempt and took Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) in December.

Like others, he spent more time preparing, and said he had a mixed reaction after taking AUD.

“There were stretches of the exam that I found significantly easier than I was expecting, but then there were other parts where I really wasn't as confident in how to respond to what was being asked,” Huysmans said.

While none of the questions caught him off-guard, Huysmans said there were a few multiple-choice questions and one simulation that were more in-depth and difficult than anything he had studied.

Some challenging multiple-choice questions

John Garavento, tax associate with RSM US LLP, found the exam to be as difficult as he expected. Some multiple-choice questions were especially challenging, he said.

“There were several questions where I was able to narrow it down to two choices that seemed to have equal merit depending on how the question was interpreted,” he said.

At the time interviews for this article were conducted, he’d taken FAR and AUD, and found AUD to be the more difficult section.

Tips from exam-takers

Several exam-takers offered a few pieces of advice to those preparing for the exam:

  • Focus on simulations and multiple choice. While the exam does contain additional simulations, Garavento said exam-takers shouldn’t lose sight of preparing for the multiple-choice questions as well. “Because the new exam gives equal weight to multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations, it would be easier to overlook the multiple-choice sections, which I think would be a mistake,” Garavento said.
  • Hone your time management and critical thinking skills. Focusing on one question for too long may cause candidates to rush through other questions, Kintaudi said. Make a quick assessment of all questions to determine how much time to allocate to each. Critical thinking will be important because “candidates [will need] to completely assess whether all data presented is relevant, and whether any additional information is needed to properly answer each question,” he said.
  • Study in a way that works for you. “I made sure to become familiar with, and understand, the areas that were changing the most,” Huysmans said. He suggested that students create a study plan that works best for them and follow it consistently. “At this point, candidates should know how they study [best] and learn material,” he said. “Don't feel pressure to deviate from that.”

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact lead editor Courtney Vien, a senior editor for magazines and newsletters at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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