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All about the CPA Exam

From registration to getting your final scores

The CPA Exam is one of the first steps you’ll take toward completing your mission of becoming a CPA. The registration process, however, can have as many characters and obstacles as a Shakespearian masterpiece. Here’s the Cliffs Notes version of who is involved and what needs to happen to get you testing the right way, the first time.

The Players

Every good production needs a cast, crew, and location in order to pull off a good show. The same goes for the CPA Exam. Here is the view from the nose-bleeds:

  • State Boards of Accountancy (The Producers): They are the authorities on licensing CPAs. They determine (on a state-by-state basis) what requirements you have to meet before you can sit for (and take any part of) the exam. They’ll also determine what education and experience measures must be met before you’re actually licensed. And yes, every state requires that you pass the CPA Exam, so there’s no getting out of it.
  • National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (The Director): NASBA is the membership association of state boards. They serve as the central database of candidate records – collecting information and distributing scores (although some state boards prefer to distribute scores themselves).
  • American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (The Playwright): The AICPA is the national professional membership organization of CPAs (think state societies rather than state boards). With respect to the CPA Exam, the AICPA is responsible for question development and scoring.
  • Prometric (The Theater): These guys own the testing center where you’ll physically take each part of the exam. They also provide all the props — computers and proctors, as well as data communication, registration, scheduling, testing systems and software for the CPA Exam administration process. 
  • You (The Thespian):Your job is to pass the test.

Without further ado, let’s get you prepared for the longest “monologue” of your career.

The Plot

Act 1: Choose a location and meet the requirements

Players: You and your State Board

Before you apply to take the exam, you need to decide where you want to be a practicing CPA (keep in mind some, but not all, jurisdictions have a residency requirement). The state board you choose will direct you through the process.

It’s important to remember that not all state boards have the same requirements. It’s a good idea to make sure you know what they require before you fill out any paperwork. And if you’re not a U.S. citizen, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with additional restrictions on citizenship.

Act 2: Apply for the exam and receive your Notice to Schedule (NTS)

Players involved: You, your State Board and NASBA

Meeting your state/jurisdiction’s requirements and knowing your preferred test taking times set the stage for the next step: applying for the exam. The method and time needed to process your application depends where you apply (some states recommend allowing one or two months). To make the process as smooth as possible, make sure you have all of the materials you need – including transcripts and a valid photo ID (matching the name on your application) – before you apply.

You can sign up for as many sections as you would like on each application, just remember you’re under a deadline. In many states, you’ll be given 6 months to complete each part you have signed up for, but check with your state on their timeline. Overall, you must complete all 4 sections in 18 months.

Once you’re found eligible and you’ve paid all your fees, NASBA will send you an end-dated Notice to Schedule. If your NTS expires before you take sections you selected, your fee money will be forfeited and you’ll have to apply (and pay) for those sections again.

Avoid losing money on exams you can’t get to by planning out your study schedule before you apply.

Act 3: Schedule your exam

Players involved: You and Prometric

After you receive your NTS, contact Prometric to reserve a seat at the examination site of your choice. (You can take the exam at any Prometric location – or an international location if you don’t live stateside – no matter where you plan to be licensed.

Schedule as far in advance as possible (NASBA recommends at least 45 days); you must reserve your spot at least five days prior.

On July 1, 2020, NASBA replaced the four-window testing model with Continuous Testing to allow CPA candidates to take the Exam year round.

Since you’ve got expiration dates on both your NTS and your previous exam scores (18 months from the time you pass the first section), make sure you plan ahead. If something comes up and you need to cancel or reschedule a section, that is an option; however, the expiration date on your NTS will not change.

Act 4: Take the exam

Players involved: You and Prometric

You’ve prepared well and scheduled your exam time. Now it’s show time.

Don’t forget to arrive more than 30 minutes early and bring your NTS, two forms of ID, and all that other stuff you need on test day. You can’t take the exam without it.

Act 5: Get your scores

Players involved: You, AICPA, and NASBA or your State Board

After what seems like an eternity, the reviews of your performance will be in. Scores are released by the AICPA to NASBA twice each testing window. Depending on where you’re getting licensed, either NASBA or your state board will send them to you via mail or email.

Got the short story but need more direction? Read the Candidate Bulletin or ask your state board for more advice.

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