The Computer-Based CPA Exam
Hints for Managing the Exam Technology

By Natalie Tatiana Churyk and Katrina L. Mantzke

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JULY 2005 - Prior to 2004, the format of the Uniform CPA Examination changed very little. While the coverage of the exam kept pace with the ever-increasing breadth of accounting knowledge, the most significant format change was the move from a two-and-a-half-day, five-part exam to a two-day, four-part exam. All that changed last year.

Beginning in April 2004, the Uniform CPA Examination became a computer-based test (CBT). This new format means that candidates must not only master the technical content of the exam, they must also master the exam technology. The official website of the Uniform CPA Exam,, also contains useful information about the CBT.

An Overview of the CBT

Much like the old paper-and-pencil-based exam, the CBT tests a candidate’s knowledge base by using multiple-choice questions. To further test candidates’ integrated accounting knowledge, the CBT also uses case-based simulations to replicate tasks candidates will see or have seen in practice. The simulations require candidates to research the relevant authoritative literature, apply appropriate analytical skills, and communicate their solution in a coherent manner.

In making the change to a CBT, other aspects of the exam have changed as well. The exam is far more flexible than it was in the past; candidates may sit for the four parts of the exam separately and in any order. After candidates have determined how they want to approach taking the exam, they schedule to sit for the exam at Thomson-Prometric test centers located throughout the United States ( The tests are offered during the first two months of each calendar quarter. The only limitation is that a single part of the exam can be taken only once in a single testing window. Candidates have 18 months from the first successful testing date to pass the remaining parts of the exam.

In addition to the format changes, the new CBT has a broader content coverage than the old exam. The aim is to keep the exam current in terms of the ever-increasing breadth of accounting and business knowledge that CPAs must employ. Due to the far-ranging coverage of the CBT, candidates must prepare broadly for the technical content of the exam. By its very nature, the CBT also introduces technology issues that must also be addressed by candidates if they are to successfully complete the exam. The almost continuous offering of the CBT challenges a candidate’s time management differently from the old exam, which was held twice a year at specified times. The CBT’s technological quirks can be confusing unless candidates become aware of them in advance and are prepared to deal with them in the testing process.

CBT and Time Management

As in any testing situation, time management during the CPA exam is very important. The different parts of the exam vary in length, so candidates must budget a different amount of time for each part of the exam. The longest part of the exam (Auditing and Attestation) runs 4.5 hours, and the shortest part (Business Environment and Concepts) runs 2.5 hours. The CBT assists candidates with overall time management by providing a clock that counts down the remaining time available for completing that part of the exam.

Candidates should be aware that there is a difference between the exam time and their testing session time. The session time is 30 minutes longer than the exam time, to allow candidates to sign in and complete a brief survey. Completing these tasks quickly does not increase the amount of time allocated to the exam.

Once candidates start an exam, it is important for them to be prepared to actually take the exam. Between five and 10 minutes is allotted for candidates to read and follow the instructions listed on introductory screens. Most candidates surveyed indicated that three to five minutes is adequate to complete this task. On the other hand, some candidates reported pausing at this point to collect their thoughts or to focus themselves for the exam. If candidates do not work through these screens in a timely manner, the system will time out: Their exams will be terminated before they have a chance to answer any questions, and their exam sessions will be registered as failed attempts. The consequences of timing out can be significant: Candidates will have to wait for the next testing window and will have to pay again for the opportunity to sit for this part of the exam.

Each part of the exam is broken up into a number of “testlets.” While the Business Environment and Concepts part currently consists of only three multiple-choice testlets, the remaining three parts of the exam (Auditing and Attestation; Financial Accounting and Reporting; and Regulation) are comprised of five testlets each. Three of these testlets include multiple-choice questions, and the remaining two are simulations. The CBT administers the multiple-choice testlets first, followed by the simulation testlets. Candidates must complete the testlets in the order in which they appear.

Managing time within each part of the exam is also very important. Each candidate’s approach to managing the time allotted for the entire exam will depend on her relative comfort with answering multiple-choice questions versus finding solutions for case-based simulations. One approach would be to mentally reserve a set amount of time for the simulations, spreading the rest of the time across the multiple-choice testlets. The CPA exam website suggests that most candidates need from 30 to 50 minutes to complete each simulation. If candidates are concerned that they will struggle more with the multiple-choice questions than with the simulations, they may want as much time as necessary to work their way through the multiple-choice testlets, which are presented first, and then split the remaining time in half to address the two simulation testlets.

Interestingly, candidates report that not all multiple-choice testlets are created equal. Multiple-choice testlets can include anywhere from 24 to 30 questions, but all three testlets in a section will have the same number of questions. Because a candidate receiving the 30-question testlets is not given additional time, a candidate receiving the 24-question testlets has “lucked out.”

Although candidates must take the testlets in the order they are presented, candidates can revisit questions and change their answers within a testlet if they so choose. Within the multiple-choice testlets, the CBT allows candidates to mark the questions to be revisited with a checkmark reminder. Each testlet has a “done” button with three choices: review the current testlet; finish the current testlet and move on to the next; or quit the exam. Once a testlet is completed and exited, candidates cannot return to it to review or change their answers.

Given the lengthy nature of the exam parts, the CBT gives candidates the opportunity to take a break after the completion of each testlet. But the exam clock continues to run, so candidates must plan accordingly.

As with any computer-based system, backup concerns exist with the CBT because no tangible record or report is being produced. Candidates have reported that seemingly harmless things, such as right-clicking on the mouse, can cause the computers to freeze up, creating concerns that responses have not been captured. The CBT also employs a pencil icon that indicates when work is being done on a particular page of the exam, and it changes color to indicate that answers have been entered. Candidates report that sometimes the pencil does not change color, leading them to wonder whether their answers have been recorded. Some candidates have run out of time in their final testlet before they’ve had the chance to indicate that they had completed the testlet. Fortunately, the CBT system automatically saves candidate responses every 30 seconds. The CPA exam website reports that problems capturing candidate entries have been extremely rare.

Finally, hardware problems may arise while candidates are taking the exam. If the computer is not functioning properly, a candidate should notify the test center staff immediately. This notification serves two purposes: 1) the test center staff should be able to resolve the problem, preserving as much of the candidate’s valuable test-taking time as possible, and 2) the problem should be documented by the test center staff, creating supporting evidence in the event that a candidate petitions to retake the exam.

The Technology Behind the CBT

A significant difference between the old paper-and-pencil-based exam and the new exam is that the CBT presumes that candidates possess basic computer skills. They must be efficient at using the keyboard to type their answers and at ease navigating with a mouse. Some candidates have reported that the mouse does not always scroll completely through all the relevant material within a simulation; using the arrow keys on the keyboard may be necessary to see all the information. The CBT also does not have the familiar “back” button, but rather a “results” button, along with a “history” button that returns a list of the last 20 pages visited in reverse order. Candidates should be familiar with split-screen capabilities and the use of a four-function calculator, both of which are available within the CBT.

The simulations within the CBT do not use common business software like Microsoft Word and Excel, but rather simple word-processing and spreadsheet programs that don’t operate exactly the same way. Many candidates familiar with Excel and its shortcuts may have a difficult time adapting to the simple spreadsheet program in the CBT. To become familiar with the functionality of these programs, candidates should review the tutorial and practice with the sample tests provided on the CPA exam website. The spreadsheet software is not available during the multiple-choice testlets. The online calculator is the only device available for calculating answers to the multiple-choice questions.

In completing the simulation testlets, candidates must search relevant authoritative literature and use it properly in answering. The tools used within the CBT are not identical to search tools used in research software and Internet search engines, and may be unfamiliar to many. For example, candidates that are familiar with the Financial Accounting Research System (FARS) should be aware that only certain FARS search functions work in the CBT. Unlike most Internet search engines, the CBT is not forgiving of misspellings and typos. In addition, many of the tax research resources used in the real world often provide users with access to editorial materials that can help with comprehending and deciphering the sometimes-confusing language used in the authoritative literature. Only the authoritative literature itself is available for use on the exam. To become familiar with the functionality of the CBT tools, candidates should review the tutorial and practice with the sample tests provided on the CPA exam website.

The copy and paste functions available in the simulation testlets are unique to the CBT. While a copy/paste icon appears on the main toolbar, candidates must use the copy/paste icon that appears in the authoritative literature window within each simulation. Candidates cannot highlight individual words or lines within the text, only entire paragraphs. In the Auditing and the Financial Reporting simulations, candidates are not permitted to type answers in the response space, but must instead rely upon pasted text to communicate their solutions. In contrast, the Regulation simulation requires candidates to type the appropriate citations in the response space. Further guidance regarding the unique characteristics of the copy and paste functions within the CBT can be found on the CPA exam website.


What should a candidate’s approach be to the technical content of the exam? Study the material. Nothing will replace adequate study as test preparation. Candidates should prepare for the technological aspects of the exam with a similar strategy: practice with the online tutorial and sample tests. Candidates should set aside time in their study schedules to read the test instructions and practice answering questions, as this is the only way to experience firsthand how it works. Being familiar with the test and how to answer the questions is especially important for the CBT, where making a mistake during the test may waste precious test time or, worse, lead to an answer not being recorded.

Natalie Tatiana Churyk, CPA, PhD, is an assistant professor and Katrina L. Mantzke, CPA, PhD, is an assistant professor, both in the department of accountancy at the college of business, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Ill.




















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