Computer-Based CPA Exam
Hints for Managing the Exam Technology
Natalie Tatiana Churyk and Katrina L. Mantzke
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
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, www.cpa-exam.org,
also contains useful information about the CBT.
Overview of the CBT
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.
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 (www.prometric.com/cpa).
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.
have 18 months from the first successful testing date to
pass the remaining parts of the exam.
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
and Time Management
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Technology Behind the CBT
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.