Have you ever wondered why CPA exam questions are so plain? I mean, you’d think they could take it easy on CPA exam candidates held captive in Prometric for hours at a time by peppering the questions with just a little humor. It doesn’t have to be memes or anything, just, you know, why can’t Company B turn into Beyonce Industries? Well, as it turns out, they do that on purpose.
According to the Journal of Accountancy, the CPA exam is intentionally “pure vanilla.” The opposite being FAR questions on balancing a sex toy company balance sheet while hogtied with one of those fake animal tails up your butt? I guess that might be too oddly specific.
If you could assign a flavor to the questions on the Uniform CPA Examination, it would undoubtedly be pure vanilla.
Tales of adventure, romance, and violence can be found at the bookstore or in the movie theater, but not on the CPA Exam, which is carefully designed to avoid topics that could unnecessarily distract CPA candidates from the actual purpose of the exam.
In drafting exam content, the examinations team specifically avoids including anything not relevant to the accounting content of the question that might distract the candidate, much like I avoid pointing a laser at my boyfriend’s crotch when my cat is in the room with us.
“We design the text of each question to be easy to process. We avoid needlessly complicated wordings and logical structures,” said Timothy Habick, Ph.D., a test development manager for the AICPA Examinations team. “Now some people might wonder how logic could be an issue relevant to the CPA Exam in the first place, and that is the point. We purposely craft the text so that candidates will not need to use logic to understand the intended meaning of any sentence in context. Our goal is to create clear, coherent, and cooperative communications. This tends to make the text of our questions somewhat unremarkable, but that is our intention.
“Candidates are supposed to focus on the essential accounting content, not on our use of language. For the same reason, we tend to avoid using names for individuals and companies that could attract the candidates’ attention. So whenever possible, we refer to ‘a taxpayer,’ ‘an auditor,’ or ‘a company’ without using realistic names. Proper names can contain allusions to irrelevant historical events and individuals, which could be distracting. We’re here to assess the candidates’ accounting-related skills, not to entertain them. We try to include only content that the candidates need to demonstrate what they know. Everything else is removed in order to create a smooth testing experience.”
It makes sense if you think about it. Associations can be hard to break. I went to elementary school with this little prick named Cedric who was always putting gum in my hair and talking shit about my guinea pigs, which were a point of pride when I was 7 because I was 7 and not old enough to pride myself on holding my liquor I guess. So every time I meet a Cedric, I automatically assume he’s probably an asshole. Truth be told, some of them are but that’s beside the point. The point is that if I were cruising along on a professional exam and some made-up scenario involving a made-up taxpayer named Cedric popped up, I’d likely stop what I was doing and instantly flash back to that time we were watching Slim Goodbody in class and that deviant little bastard sat behind me and sheared off a chunk of my hair with dull safety scissors. I’m getting pissed just thinking about it. I’m not sure I can finish this article.
The JofA article goes on to give some pretty interesting insight into how CPA exam questions are drafted (spoiler: it’s not at some Bohemian Grove seance headed up by a war-painted Barry Melancon summoning an ancient demon to grant them the wisdom to create the hardest questions possible) and what scenarios are strictly forbidden. Not allowed under any circumstances? Humor, irony, and satire. This makes perfect sense, considering Internet arguments based on misunderstood or misplaced satire will likely be the cause of the Third World War.
Political views are also a no-no in CPA exam questions. So don’t expect to see questions littered with charged terms like “snowflake,” “orange toddler,” “fascist dictator,” or any number of topics frequently flung around Facebook with the enthusiasm usually only reserved for zoo monkeys with turds in their hands.
Lastly, the examinations team does not deploy scenarios “involving suffering, war, weaponry, or acts of violence,” as these topics can bring up strong emotions in people. Besides, most candidates get all the suffering they need just by the very process of studying for the exam.
“Of course, we don’t know the candidates personally, but we still need to communicate effectively with them,” said Habick. “We have no idea what dialect they speak, what their worldview might be, or what personal issues they might be experiencing on the testing date. All we know is that they were approved to take the CPA Exam. So our job is to make their testing experience as smooth, fair, and effective as possible.”
So next time you’re walking out of Prometric convinced that they must hate you with the fury of a thousand fire ants, know that they’re actually trying to offer you a “vanilla” exam that tests only the things you need to prove you possess the technical knowledge to be a CPA, and not your mastery (or lack thereof) of the English language.