>75

Everything You Thought You Knew About How the CPA Exam is Scored is Wrong

I’m 97% sure most CPA exam candidates are confused by the CPA exam’s psychometric scoring, either because it is supposed to be that way or they haven’t done their research. Either way, I once again got the chance to speak with John Mattar, Ed.D., Director of Psychometrics and Research and Mike Decker, Director of Operations and Development, both of the AICPA’s examinations unit. This time we focused on how the CPA exam is scored. Remember that most of this information is already available on the AICPA’s website, check out How the CPA Exam is Scored and the Psychometrics and Scoring section for more detailed, less sarcastic information than what you might find here. That being said, we appreciate John and Mike taking time to humor us anyway.


Of course, no discussion about how the exam is scored would be complete without rehashing last quarter’s somewhat tardy score release issue. John and Mike compared it to buying a new car but driving home in your old car, meaning scoring is going to be a broke down Toyota Tercel for just two more quarters but if you all can be patient, you’ll be spinning around town in that shiny new Lexus by December. “We’re doing everything we can to administer a quality exam, including communicating with candidates,” Mike told us. They also let us know that they will be using NASBA to push out timely information to candidates in the quarters ahead. See? Told you they were listening to candidates’ scoring concerns.

When talking about how the CPA exam is scored, it’s important to remember that candidates take different but equivalent exams. “It’s not possible to say what each testlet is worth because everyone is taking different exams,” said John. That being said, we did manage to get them to tell us that, contrary to popular belief, candidates are not compared to each other when they are scored. How do we know? While we still don’t know how many points each question is worth, John told us “we can say with 100% assurance if two different candidates get the same question, they will both get the same amount of points or credit for getting that question right.” This whole exam scoring thing is feeling less and less insidious by the minute, isn’t it?

For the final time: the CPA exam is not graded on a curve, nor are you compared to everyone who did better than you, nor are you compared to everyone who showed up to Prometric that day or week or month. “The way the exam is scored, candidates are compared to a fixed ability level. They are not compared to each other. If in the next window candidates maybe aren’t as well-prepared, fewer people will pass. They are being compared to a fixed level of ability,” John told us. Twice. Just to make sure we all got it. Got it? Let’s go over it one more time (from the Scoring FAQs):

The CPA Examination is NOT curved. Every candidate’s score is entirely independent of other candidates’ Examination results.

The CPA Examination is a criterion-referenced examination which means that it rests upon pre-determined standards. Every candidate’s performance is measured against established standards to determine whether the candidate has demonstrated the level of knowledge and skills that is represented by the passing score. Every candidate is judged against the same standards, and every score is an independent result.

Are we clear on that? Awesome, moving on…

Pretest questions make up fifteen MCQ in AUD/FAR and twelve in REG/BEC, one task-based simulation in FAR, AUD and REG and one written communication in BEC. The problem with gaming this system is that you can’t, since you have no way of knowing which questions are pretest and which are operational. So just guess equally on all of them as if every single one counts, mmmkay? Pretest questions will resemble operational questions since they are testing whatever is in the Content Specification Outline, meaning IFRS wasn’t tested on a pretest basis last year. What this means for candidates is that nothing outside of the CSOs will EVER be pretested. Maybe not a life-changing piece of information but really useful to know if you are prone to asking “what should I be studying?” and are familiar with the CSOs.

So what’s with the score report you get when you fail that compares you to those who scored between 75 and 80 in that window? Why not compare you to the CPA exam superstars who pulled down 99s without breaking a sweat?

“If you compared [failing candidates] to people that got all the way up to 99, it’s not as useful,” John said. “We want the basis of comparison that is going to be the most meaningful to the people who failed and that group is those that got closest to passing. If I got a 62 and the comparison group includes all the people who got above 90, that isn’t going to help me as much. Most of the people who pass are between 75 – 80.”

While we appreciate the AICPA taking the time to speak with us, we feel it’s important to point out that, at the end of the day, they are the best source of information for candidates. Answers to most of your questions can be found on their website. If you’re having trouble finding something or have a specific question related to the CPA exam, get in touch and we’ll do our best to do the Googling on your behalf.

Here’s What to Expect on the FAR Section of the CPA Exam

Friendly reminder (especially now that tax season is over), if you have a CPA exam question for us, shoot us a note, tweet us, or find us on Facebook and pester us until we answer. Up to you but we know you have questions so stop being shy.

Anyway. We have question from Twitter this week from @jacmelirose:

“What are the most heavily tested subjects for FAR? Help? Taking FAR in a month day for day.”

Alright, let’s start with the obvious: asking “what are the most heavily tested subjects” usually means you haven’t studied up until this point and are looking for a shortcut. Understandable but keep in mind this goes against the CPA exam guru’s advice. Just sayin’.


A good place to start is with the Content Specification Outlines for the section you are studying. For FAR, you can expect to see the following:

Financial statements (17% – 23%) – that means profit and loss, balance sheet, cashflows and footnotes/disclosures.

Typical items in financial statements (27% – 33%) – you’re talking marketable securities (pretty heavily tested or so we hear), receivables, bonds, leases, inventory, PP&E (depreciation, mostly), liabilities and revenue recognition. As much as you hate bonds, expect to see plenty on the subject so get cracking.

Transactional items (27% – 33%) – business combinations (yup, consolidations), contingent liabilities, discontinued operations, earnings per share and extraordinary items.

Government accounting (8% – 12%) – Everyone’s favorite! It’s not heavily tested but you will need to know a little about fund accounting, budgets, and government financial statements.

Not-for-profit accounting (8% – 12%) – Again, not heavily tested but it does show up (several MCQ and maybe a sim) so you will want to be sure to understand how NFP accounting works by understanding the 4 statements: financing, activities, cash flows and functional expenses.

Because we all know it’s against the rules to discuss what actually appears on the exam, we won’t tell you to expect BONDS, LEASES, and PENSIONS (and LOTS of them). We also will not tell you to be on the lookout for inventory in simulations because, again, that would assume we’re telling you we know what’s actually on the exam and of course we don’t.

FAR takes about 132 hours to prepare for – if you’ve got a month to do it, you need to be extra diligent about creating a study plan. Block out no less than 3 hours per day for MCQ/sim practice or lecture videos. Generally your brain tunes out if you’re studying any more than that per day but if you do the math, you realize you need more like 4 hours per day to meet the 132 hour requirement. In other words: a month is not really enough time to study for FAR. Here’s hoping you’ve been studying all along and are just looking for some last minute advice. Good luck!

Here’s Your Study Plan for the Audit Section of the CPA Exam

Friendly reminder: >75 is here to answer your CPA Exam questions so send them over.

A reader sends us the following dilemma:

“I took the audit section only and failed, most of it was due to not committing enough time to it. If you have any tips to develop plans I would like any suggestions to creating a plan.”

First of all, no offense but I think you have already identified where you went wrong, are you sure you need our help? Oh well.


Let’s talk about Audit, shall we? The average CPA exam candidate will spend 60 – 90 hours studying for the Audit section – that assumes watching your CPA Review lectures 1 time and spending 2 – 3 hours on MCQ/sim practice problems for each hour of lecture. If you are taking the self-study route, you will obviously need to spend more time on MCQ/sims (about about 2 or 3 hours on top of the 2 – 3 you would be doing if you had videos to review) and create a structured study plan based on the most current CSOs (Content Specification Outlines), which you can always find on cpa-exam.org.

Those of you taking exams in early 2011 will want to be on top of exam changes planned to kick in in the first quarter, though the AICPA has been helpful and already released the CSOs for that period.

If you’ve taken the exam and failed, you already have an incredibly useful tool at your disposal – your score report. The report provided after you fail will compare you to other candidates: IGNORE THOSE NUMBERS. Who cares how you did relative to other candidates? All you need to glean from that information is an idea of where your stronger areas are in comparison to your weaker sections. The score report is broken down by different components of the CSOs for that section so obviously you will want to focus harder on areas that you performed poorly in.

About a week or two before your new exam date, give the entire section a once over just to be sure you are also sharp in areas you did well in the first time.

Schedule your new Audit exam AS SOON AS POSSIBLE as the information is still fresh in your mind. If you have a new exam scheduled in the meantime, reschedule it if you can. Unless you REALLY bombed Audit (68 or below), you will want to jump right back in while it is still floating around in your brain.

As for exam preparation and planning, we’ve covered that plenty of times on Going Concern so check out this, this, and this.

Top Five Excuses for Not Studying for the CPA Exam

CPA exam candidates are good at a lot of things; unfortunately, their most common talent is an exceptional ability to procrastinate and make excuses. A career in public accounting, naturally, seems to exacerbate this problem, creating a laundry list of reasons why candidates can’t put in the time to pass the exam.

In the interest of knocking you all around a little bit (out of love, of course) on this, the second day of the 2nd testing window of 2010, I present the top 5 excuses for not studying I’ve heard from candidates over the years. Perhaps you have a favorite of your own?


I’m too busy – This is a CPA exam candidate’s favorite lifeline. Busy season, pursuing a Masters, brown-nosing management and balancing a drinking habit with a dysfunctional relationship is hard work. We all know how many hours you work a week but some of you forget everyone else can see what you’re doing on Facebook. That hour you spent finding stray ducks in Farmville could have easily been an hour worth of MCQ practice. Stop deluding yourself – if you are too busy to study, maybe you’re too busy to be a CPA. I hear Starbucks is hiring.

It’s too hard – Really? A professional license is hard? You don’t say! Listen, if this were easy, everyone would be a CPA. It’s hard for a reason but it’s also manageable if you attack it with knowledge and preparedness. Go in there like a boy scout amped up on espresso and you’ll get your BEC merit badge in no time.

I’m really bad at tests – Jealous of that asshat you went to school with who could drink all weekend, cram for seven hours and ace finals while you studied your ass off only to get a D? Guess what, you’re in luck. The CPA exam isn’t like college exams and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to pass. Look around your office at some of the CPAs you work with and try to tell me otherwise. That’s what I thought.

I never took auditing (economics/tax/government accounting/et-effing-cetera) in college – So? I bet the guy who wrote the CPA exam questions you’re panicking over didn’t take auditing/econ/tax/etc either. The CPA exam requires you to know a lot about a little, no one is saying you need to be an expert in ANY subject. Again, look around your office and tell me some of those geniuses you work with are experts in anything, let alone subjects like advanced and governmental accounting.

I’m too old – This one is always funny to me, as if there’s an expiration date on your brain. Taking on the exam later in life actually puts one at an advantage: I don’t have official statistics on the matter but my professional experience has been that older candidates actually do better than younger ones. Think about it – if you’re over 30 now, look back to how you were at 22 fresh out of college. Do you really think 22 year old you was better equipped to be disciplined enough to commit 400 hours to studying? Exactly.

The reality is that excuses are more plentiful than CPAs – unfortunately there could be more but the potential future CPAs that could have been obviously got consumed with coming up with excuses instead of coming up with real study plans and goals to pass the exam.

If you’re a candidate struggling to create one yourself, get in touch and >75 would be happy to help. Seriously. Just don’t start making excuses or I’ll front you off on Facebook next time I catch you playing Farmville when you should be learning pensions.

Three Ways to Get Back into Study Mode for the CPA Exam

Masochism at its finest means just thinking about the CPA exam while fully head down, eyes closed and trudging towards the busy season finish line. It’s cool, CPAs are a masochistic bunch and if you’re going to subject yourself to the torture of studying for the CPA exam while tackling your least favorite part of the year, have at it but please be smart about it.

It’s almost April and you know what that means – a brand new testing window filled with fun and exciting >75 action. Hopefully 75s, if you little masochists plan right.


Here are a few tips, you can do whatever you want with them. Ideally, you can ignore them for the next few weeks until you shift from busy season mode back to exam mode.

Don’t be unrealistic about your work load – Some of you complain about “busy season” and know damn well you haven’t pushed a difficult piece of paper in months while others haven’t seen the light of Facebook (nor the end of the tunnel) in weeks. Take a reasonable assessment of the free time you have to commit to the exam and plan accordingly. If you’re grinding all the way through April 15th, maybe a late April test date is a tad optimistic and not all that smart.

If you aren’t ready, blow it off – This goes against everything I always recommend to CPA exam candidates but it’s a wise piece of advice this time of year. If you are not ready for an exam, try to reschedule. Maybe taking FAR on April 1st made a lot of sense when you scheduled it in October but now that April is almost here and you haven’t seen daylight in two months, it’s not looking like such a bright idea. Of course, if you’re in a situation where you are about to lose credit for exams previously passed but still not prepared, there’s no harm in going to the exam anyway as you’re basically forfeiting the exam fee and might as well find out what’s on the test for next time.

Don’t permanent vacation yourself just because you’re tired – Shifting from busy season to exam mode, it is really easy to rationalize an extended vacation from studying just because you need a break. The rest is deserved but don’t let a few days of relaxation turn into several months of procrastination. It’s easier than you think and I’ve seen it enough times to know it happens all the time. Don’t be lazy, this is what you wanted.

Four Ways to Force Yourself to Study for the CPA Exam

I’ll save you the hoo-rah, I’m pretty sure you don’t need it. It’s March already; if you aren’t studying, you’re working, and if you’re doing both right now I worry about your decision-making capabilities. Oh well.

Masochistic or not, it isn’t always easy to get yourself motivated to study.

You have entire CPA exam strategies laid out on the CPAnet forums here, here, and look, you even have a hoo-rah. Not everyone is an Elijah Watt-Sells so get that out of your head and worry about what works for you.


That strategy – finding a perfect fit for your own needs as a CPA exam candidate – also goes for motivation.

So how do you force yourself to study? Here are a few ideas:

Bribe yourself – Sock away $xxx for a new toy and reward a passing score with whatever your bribe is. If you’re cheap/laid off/sinking $1000s into failed exam fees and broke, it could be a decent dinner or a movie. Define splurge for yourself and make that the carrot you dangle in front of your face to get you to study.

Commiserate – You can find plenty of miserable accountants taking (and not always succeeding at) the CPA exam. You can also find support and encouragement if you’re actually trying to pass, so use resources like CPAnet and Twitter to find other candidates to speak to. If you’re taking a live review, sign up with someone else from your firm and go to class together. It helps to have someone else keeping you in check.

Visualize your goal – This might be the most, um, cheesy of methods but it absolutely works. Write CPA after your name on business cards and put them up where you will see them frequently (but don’t hand them out, that’d be illegal); though this tactic isn’t meant as a substitute for actually preparing (sorry to break it to you), a little positive thinking takes the anxious edge off.

Plan – Sometimes knowing there is a clearly defined schedule takes some of the panic out of the CPA exam, and if you’re disciplined enough, you won’t need motivation. Sure, it’s robotic, but that’s what studying for the CPA exam is. The exam doesn’t ask you to think critically outside of the parameters of financial reporting and accounting, nor do you get bonus points for creativity. So maybe you just need to have a plan, stick to it, suck it up, and move on until you’re done. It’s the most miserable of the options but sometimes all that works.

So? What worked for you?

>75: How Long Should I Study for Each Section of the CPA Exam?

>75 received this week’s question via Twitter DM from a CPA exam candidate who wished to remain anonymous. Whatever. For those of you who prefer being open, almost crude, about your CPA exam experiences in a social atmosphere, try CPAnet’s CPA Exam Club (GC is there). This guy won’t be signing up any time soon.

Candidate halfway through the exam process asks:

“How long does it take to study for each section? Like is two months enough for FAR?”


I get this question a lot, almost too often. It’s an easy answer: that all depends on you.

The general rule (according to the AICPA) is that you should be doing 2 – 3 hours of self-study (MCQ/sims) for each hour of review lecture you watch. So there is no magic timeframe to aim for; some people take a few weeks to prepare for FAR, others need more than 3 months. Since lecture times vary depending on who you’re with, it’s hard to pin down the sweet spot in terms of weeks or months.

If you are going alone without a review course and using just practice questions, you can substitute textbook reading (like Wiley CPA Review textbooks) for lecture hours but you will probably want to count half an hour of reading as the equivalent of one hour of lecture. Sorry, that means more MCQ.

A key point to keep in mind is that studying for the CPA exam is like dieting, you’ll do better if you take it in smaller pieces. If you were trying to lose some of that audit engagement weight, you’d eat several small meals instead of three large ones. Your study plan should be the same, spending no more than 2 or 3 hours at a time plugging away at lectures or practice questions. Anything beyond 4 hours and you’re zoned out.

I know, you’re unemployed and have all this time and want to knock out FAR in three weeks studying 8 hours a day every day. Best of luck with that! You’re wasting 5 hours a day as your brain tunes out around hour 3 and will not be able to draw upon what you’ve studied once you’re actually at Prometric.

As I said, this doesn’t really answer your question because only you can answer that question. Is two months enough time for FAR? Sure. Adjust it accordingly based on whether or not you are employed, dating, engaged in any other activities, and/or have any sort of life whatsoever. Just don’t ever ask me how to study for BEC in a week again, obviously that is not enough time.

Is the AICPA Lowering the Bar on the CPA Exam?

Friendly reminder: >75 is here to answer your CPA Exam questions so send them over.

Sadly, JDA is technically still employed by a CPA Review course (and, of course, not a CPA) but hey, if any of you are looking to protect the public interest, have at it.

This may just be some wild speculating here but I have to admit my first thought upon seeing this was that the AICPA is scared everyone will freak out when IFRS hits the CPA Exam on January 1, 2011 and bomb horribly. Does this mean it’ll be graded on a curve? If so, I’m starting to have some concerns about that “protecting the public interest” bit.


Lowering the bar, AICPA Board of Examiners style:

THE AICPA EXAMINATIONS TEAM IS SEEKING CPA NOMINEES TO SERVE ON CPA EXAMINATION PANELS

When the new Uniform CPA Examination is launched on January 1, 2011, changes in content, format, and structure will be introduced. These changes will require the current passing score to be re-examined. The process to do so will include convening four panels of CPAs – one for each examination section – to prepare the groundwork for the passing score decision by the AICPA Board of Examiners. A new passing score determination is necessary in conjunction with the new examination to ensure that legally defensible CPA Examination pass/fail decisions continue to be made in protection of the public interest.

Panel Nominees

The AICPA is seeking nominations for passing score panel membership. Nominees should be CPAs who:

• have been licensed for between 3 and 5 years
• have supervised entry-level CPAs during the past year
• have NO affiliation with CPA Examination review courses, and
• are willing to participate in an August 2010 two-day meeting in Chicago, IL at the expense of the AICPA.

The selection of panelists from among qualified nominees will be made to ensure broad representation from all segments of the profession and demographic categories. Panelists will be given training at the August meetings on their responsibilities as panel participants.

Submitting Nominations

Nominations may be submitted online at http://vovici.com/wsb.dll/s/4e5ag3f124 or the forms completed and returned by FAX to 609-671-2922. Or, the names and contact information of nominees may be sent by e-mail to passingscorepanel@aicpa.org The information collected about nominees will be used only for the purpose of selecting panel participants.

The deadline for submitting nominations is MARCH 31, 2010.

Like I said, JDA is out; any of you kids in on this?

>75: What am I Supposed to Do With This Ethics Exam?

Editor’s note: Welcome to latest edition of >75, our weekly post on a question related to the CPA Exam. Send your questions to tips@goingconcern.com and we’ll do our best to answer as many of them as possible. You can see all of the JDA’s posts for GC here and all our posts related to the CPA Exam here.

If you are in an ethics exam state and trying to figure out how to pass it (first of all: fail), don’t worry, I’ve got some advice. An email from a reader who prefers not to expose his unethical-ness comes to JDA thusly:

I’m having trouble passing the ethics exam, I’ve failed twice. How can I pass it?


First of all, I’m going to ignore the fact that this question — by itself or to a casual observer not in public accounting — is pretty fucked up. You shouldn’t need help with this. I can understand needing an explanation on how to get your foreign degree evaluated (I still don’t quite get it) but this should be easy. However, for the purposes of this post, I’ll disregard that part.

For starters, the ethical thing to do would be a Google search on the ethics exam, not posting Craigslist ads offering to pay people to take it for you. But if you’re like most public accountants trying to get a license, you copy off of your coworkers. I shouldn’t have to tell you that. If I do, it probably means you’re not cut out for this line of work.

There are other things you can do. Some state societies of CPAs have resources like tips or even experts you can consult to help you. Again, this shouldn’t be hard, it’s supposedly your first mandate in public accounting.

It’s open book, there’s no timer and you can bring a weapon to wherever you’re taking the test (unlike the CPA exam itself). Why are you making such a huge deal out of this?
Abacus said the Wisconsin ethics exam, while being tough, just needed some diligence to get through. What’s scary about that?

If you absolutely run out of ideas, some ethics exams have a “Lifeline”. Here in California, if you bomb three times, you can call CalCPA’s Education Foundation and they might give you a hint or two along with three more chances to pass.

Give it enough time and understand the subtle nuances of the questions, don’t just try to barrel your way through it and you might pass this time. Good luck.

>75: Who Is Going to Pay for My CPA Exam Materials?

empty wallet.jpgEditor’s note: Welcome to latest edition of >75, our weekly post on questions that you have related to the CPA Exam. Send your questions to tips@goingconcern.com and we’ll do our best to answer as many of them as possible. You can see all of the JDA’s posts for GC here and all our posts related to the CPA Exam here.
It’s a question I get all the time at work. “I’m starting with such-and-such firm, do they pay for your CPA review course?”


So! A commentator asks >75 the same question:

I did a bit of research, and it turns out that PwC is the most generous – paying for Becker + Flashcards, while E&Y will not pay for the Flashcards, and KPMG apparently requiring [sic] its staff to attend live classes offered by Becker, and have signed attendance sheet to get the reimbursement.

First of all, smarty, what makes you think pre-packaged flash cards are your secret to CPA exam success? If anything, it has been my professional experience that candidates who make their own flashcards do better than those who rely on a review course to make them on their behalf. I had a student who admitted his handwriting was so bad even he couldn’t read it but just the act of creating a set of note cards for FAR helped him reinforce the key topics. So just because you get a bunch of shit for free doesn’t mean you’re any better off than the guy who had to charge his review course or skip a couple happy hours to pay for it.
As you probably know, the firms do not discuss their agreements. I know what they are but I’m not telling either. That being said, in this economy, I’m not sure if you think you’re going to get a free CPA Review ride. Um, you did comment on a layoff post after all.
I deal with quite a few public accounting HR staff as a result of my job and let me give you a hint: there’s no such thing as a free ride on the other end. They are reluctant to hire if they think they will be used for a free review course and a CPA to sign off on hours like some cheap whore.
The firms are tightening their belts and they are most certainly being more conservative about hiring bodies to fill chairs and kicking down $1,500 – $3,000 for review courses. You might be sick of it too if you paid for staff member after staff member only to be abandoned the minute that staff hits 2 years. Those days are over.
My advice? Ask around but don’t count on it and don’t you dare let on that you care in an interview; HR managers that I know will instantly – albeit silently – slide your pathetic little resume to the bottom of the pile in favor of someone who has already started on the CPA exam process without their hand out.
As someone on the original post from which this question came said:

all of you, seriously, this is the most important thing right now to you?? suck it up and take the exam. it is not your god given right to get reimbursed for everything. and besides, you morons missed the biggest things about the exam and passing it – the bonuses firms pay to pass it. the reimbursement is the smallest piece of it. the bonus is the bigger issue. but you are so busy talking nonsense about flashcards you miss the big picture. you should have been part of the lay offs

Amen! (Someone please tell me that guy passed??)