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January 27, 2023

Reddit is Bickering Over the CPA Exam Getting Harder (or Not) Over the Years

There’s a fun little conversation happening on r/accounting right now (it was yesterday actually but I have the rona and time is a meaningless measure when one is contending with brain fog of this level) and we’d be remiss if we didn’t recap it for you. First, the original post:

I didn’t realize Barry Melancon moved from the AICPA to higher education.

While the topic of foregoing the CPA exam and potentially ruining your entire career is a worthy subject on its own, we’re just going to skip right past that and get to these comments.

SHOTS FIRED. You hear that, oldies? You kids had it so easy back in the day. You push the CPA exam as the only option because back in your day it was a breeze (or something).

Actually, it is fact that the content of the exam has grown over the years as the breadth of knowledge an entry level CPA is expected to possess has expanded (source: just trust me bro). That isn’t to say the modern CPA exam is harder, just more. Moving on…


Here’s some ancient data I unearthed from a treasure chest beneath NASBA headquarters on candidate numbers over the years, “the years” being 1950-1990:

Candidate Performance on the Uniform CPA Examination (1991)

Wow that’s a real relic, isn’t it? Actually it has no relevance to this conversation I just thought it was cool. Really, when was the last time you saw a 31-year-old, hand-scanned PDF? This is a real piece of history here.

What were we talking about? Oh right, whether or not the CPA exam is harder now or was harder back in the day. No discussion of CPA exam difficulty would be complete without the obligatory mention of the 150-hour rule. Fact: requiring a fifth year of education adds difficulty. Unless you really, really like school and student loans.

Did you know: 40 years ago there was no 150-rule? In 1983, Florida became the first state to require 150 units for licensure. As talk of a critical accountant shortage increases, expect to see states seriously consider softening the requirement. Illinois has already done this; effective January 1, 2023, you can sit for the CPA exam in the state of Illinois with 120 units (it’s still 150 for licensure, sorry).

This old timer reminds us that while yes, the “old” exam was difficult, so too is the current one and both for different reasons.

Adding to the above comment, they didn’t even have calculators back in the day. Calculators were added to the CPA exam in 1994, ten years before the exam was computerized.

A 1998 Journal of Accountancy article touches on some of the changes that happened to the CPA exam in the 90s:

During 1996, 122,000 candidates sat for the Uniform CPA Examination, but it was markedly different from the exam CPAs have been taking for 80 years. Because the exam is the gateway all CPAs must pass through, modifications in its content and administration affect the entire profession. Since 1990, the exam has undergone major changes: Candidates can now use calculators in some sections, certain essay questions are graded on writing skills, the time allotted to take the exam has decreased, new objective answer formats have been added and the exam has become nondisclosed.

Note: “nondisclosed” in this context means they stopped releasing exam questions so the questions could be reused. The practice questions released by the AICPA now do not appear on the exam.

Harder? Not harder? One OG from back in the day argues their case:

Can we all just agree the exam is hard? It was hard then and it’s hard now. /thread.

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1 Comment

  1. Can you imagine how different the profession would look if we still had 120,000+ annual candidates? We are now down to only 32,000 new candidates and trending lower. That would suggest the exam is currently harder or at least the benefit doesn’t exceed the cost, including the requisite 5th year or extra 30 credits.

    Sitting in a room for 2 days would suck, but that was also a time when firms supported the exam, funded parts (if not all) of a 5th year, gave time off to a study, and had only traditional busy seasons, not year-round busy seasons. Not only did the exam have less content, but the environment was much more employee and student-friendly. It is far from that now.

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