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Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination


The certified public accountant (CPA) is a designation awarded by a state or other governmental jurisdiction to individuals to practice as a licensed CPA. The candidate for the CPA must meet education, examination, and experience requirements. The Uniform CPA Examination is required for licensure in the fifty-five U.S. jurisdictions (the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Commonwealth of North Mariana Islands.


Examinations were used as early as 1884 to test the qualifications of accountants and to issue certificates of proficiency upon passage of the examination. In the 1880s two competing organizations, the Institute of Accounts and the American Association of Public Accountsthe predecessor to the current American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)were issuing certificates based on satisfactory completion of an examination or years or experience as an accountant. Neither organization was able to effectively control the practice of accounting by nonmembers. Consequently, the two rival organizations cooperated to introduce legislation in New York to regulate the practice of public accounting. In 1896 New York State passed the first accountancy law, which required testing the qualifications of those who wished to practice as public accountants. The first examination was administered in December 1896. This led to the issuance of a state license to practice as a CPA and the emergence of accounting as a profession with education requirements, professional standards, and a code of professional ethics.

Other states followed this lead, and eventually fifty-five jurisdictions in the United States (50 states and 5 territories) enacted legislation requiring an examination of candidates for licensing as CPAs. The boards of accountancy of each jurisdiction are responsible for administering compliance with the public accountancy laws. Efforts are underway to make the requirements more uniform among the various jurisdictions, so that it would be a relatively simple process for a CPA to participate in the interstate practice of public accounting.

By the 1960s all the jurisdictions in the United States required CPA candidates to pass a Uniform CPA Examination developed and scored by the AICPA. The AICPA has provided this service since 1917. The objective of the examination is to provide reasonable assurance to the boards that candidates passing the examination have the level of technical knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to protect the public interest. The examination content and format have changed over time as the world in which public accountants function has changed.

The Uniform CPA Examination entered a new era with the introduction of a computer-based test in April 2004, replacing the paper-and-pencil predecessor exam. The AICPA continues to create and grade the examination. The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy is responsible for the national candidate database, which will record information about all persons who apply for the examination. Thomson Prometric, which develops electronic testing products, administers the exam throughout the United States at more than 300 computer testing centers. The fifty-five individual boards of accountancy continue to be responsible for determining eligibility and notifying candidates of their grades. The boards oversee the administration of the CPA exam in their jurisdictions, as was the case with the earlier type of examination.


With the introduction of the computer-based format, candidates can choose to take the examination at a convenient time for much of the year. They may also take the examination at any location throughout the jurisdictions, regardless of where they live or work. The examination is offered five (and sometimes six) days per week during two months of every quarter. These periods are known as "testing windows." For example, the schedule for 2006 provided testing in January and February, April and May, July and August, and October and November; testing was not available in March, June, September, and December.


The computer-based examination emphasizes information technology and general business knowledge and reflects a broader approach to testing candidates' understanding of auditing concepts. Also, there is increased testing of skills in areas such as research and analysis.

Some research activity is required, usually involving an electronic search of or access to authoritative literature, the Internal Revenue Code, and income tax regulations. Questions need to be answered and some writing is required, including a letter or memorandum.


The examination consists of four timed sections, with a total time of 14 hours allowed to complete the exam. The four sections, each of which is considered a separate examination, include:

Auditing and Attestation (AUD; 4.5 hours)

This section deals with generally accepted auditing standards, auditing procedures, standards related to attest engagements, and the skills needed to apply that knowledge.

Business Environment and Concepts (BEC; 2.5 hours)

This section deals with the general business environment candidates encounter and the concepts needed to comprehend the underlying business reasons for and the accounting implications of business transactions and the skills needed to apply that knowledge.

Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR; 4 hours)

This section deals with generally accepted accounting principles for business enterprises, not-for-profit organizations, and governmental entities, and the skills needed to apply that knowledge.

Regulation (REG; 3 hours)

This section deals with federal taxation, ethics, professional and legal responsibilities, and business law, and the skills needed to apply that knowledge.

General Format

While there are variations in the format of the four examinations, the AUD, FAR, and REG examinations are a combination of multiple-choice items, objective questions, and condensed case studies, called simulations. The BEC examination is composed of multiple-choice items only.

Candidates take different, equivalent exams. Each candidate's exam consists of items drawn from a pool of test questions according to defined specifications, so that there is assurance that results of candidates' tests are comparable. The specifications include "exposure controls" to limit the extent to which examinees are administered the same sets of questions.


While all jurisdictions use the same examination, the requirements and procedures for applying to sit for the examination differ among the jurisdictions.

Candidates must complete an education requirement, which varies among the jurisdictions. Most require at least a bachelor's degree with a concentration in accounting, but a majority of the jurisdictions have legislated an education requirement of at least 150 semester hours. Normally this includes a bachelor's degree plus thirty semester hours of advanced coursework. The date this requirement becomes effective varies among the jurisdictions.

Some jurisdictions specify the number of required semester hours or courses in accounting and related business subjects. Candidates must first decide on the jurisdiction to which they will apply. International applicants must follow the same procedures. The examination is available only in English. Special accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act may be requested as part of the application process. These procedures are included in the application materials provided by the candidate's state board of accountancy.

Other requirements for taking the examination vary among the jurisdictions as to residency, place of employment, and U.S. citizenship.

Candidates should contact the board in the jurisdiction where they plan to sit for the examination or plan to practice for the most current education, residency, and citizenship requirements as such requirements are subject to modification.

As a general rule, eligible candidates may schedule sections in any testing window and in any order. Nevertheless, candidates may not take any single section twice in the same window. Candidates need to check their board's requirements for the rules that apply to them.

While the boards of accountancy determine the time limit for passing the four sections of the examination, most boards allow eighteen months for the remaining three sections, after successful completion of one section.


The AICPA provides an online tutorial to help potential candidates with the types of questions and responses used in the computer-based test and with moving from one section to another.

The objective of the examination is to test the knowledge and skills that a candidate needs to practice as a CPA in planning and implementing a public accounting engagement. The examination requires candidates to display evaluation, judgment, presentation, and decisionmaking abilities related to accounting and auditing information.


The computer-based test has been designed with measures to prevent and detect cheating and other dishonest activities. The test's emphasis on simulations and increased number of multiple-choice questions from which there are random selections reduces the value of memorization and it is virtually impossible for candidates to anticipate specific questions.

The computer-based exam has stringent security measures to protect the confidentiality of personal information. The AICPA, the state boards of accountancy, and Thomson Prometric are prohibited from using information from the database for any purpose other than administering the exam. Candidates' personal information, as well as their test scores, is maintained with a high level of security.


For further information on the Uniform CPA Examination:

For information from the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy on the examinations:

For details about the structure, length, content, skills definitions and content weighting of the CPA exam: computer.html

see also American Institute of Certified Public Accountants ; National Association of State Boards of Accountancy ; State Societies of CPAs


American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. (2005). Uniform CPA Examination Candidate Bulletin. New York: Author.

Flesher, Dale, Miranti, Paul J., and Previts, Gary John (1996, October). The first century of the CPA. Journal of Accountancy, pp. 5157.

Snyder, Adam (2003, December). The new CPA exam: Meeting today's challenges. Journal of Accountancy, p11(2).

Bernard H. Newman

Mary Ellen Oliverio

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