There’s a lot of debate online about which one is harder: the CPA Exam, or the Bar Exam. Many times we’ll see conversations between law students and CPA Exam candidates arguing about why the exam they’re taking is more difficult and why. So in order to get a better, more informed perspective regarding this topic, we thought—why not chat with someone who’s had to take both?
We spoke to Quan Vuong—a student success story we featured a few months ago regarding his life as both a lawyer and CPA. Here’s what Quan had to say that can perhaps lay this topic to rest—if only for a little while.
The California Bar Exam has a total of 13 topics that you must study and prepare for. However, of these 13 topics, approximately 10 of them will actually be tested on the exam. Therefore, you obviously leave nothing to chance and must know all 13 topics thoroughly in order to pass. The good thing about this is that you’ll never be surprised by a question since the exam preparation pretty much lays out everything you can expect to be asked. As long as you practice and really grasp the material, you won’t get anything unexpected on the Bar Exam.
The CPA Exam, however, is a bit different. It’s broken down into 4 sections because each section covers a myriad of topics categorized into sections and subsections. Since there’s so much material to cover and only a few hours to test them in, you have to know a little bit of information about a lot of topics to cover everything. But the CPA Exam can be fickle as it may emphasize some topics more than others. For example, if you studied really hard and have strength in 70% of the material, you could have a test version that focuses heavily on the 30% of material that are your weaknesses, and fail as a result.
The Bar Exam consists of 1 day on Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQs) and 2 days on responding to writing prompts. There are 6 different versions of the exam that are administered. Everyone takes the same exam with the questions and topics rearranged by order. Because there is no cookie cutter way for writing responses to be evaluated, you have a greater chance of doing well on the written portion. Everyone will respond differently and they will score your answer accordingly since there can be multiple explanations to any one writing prompt.
Each CPA Exam section consists of 3 Multiple-Choice Question testlets and a written portion known as either Task-Based Simulations or Written Communication questions. Each test, even if it’s for the same section, can be drastically different from one another in terms of topics and questions. In addition, each MCQ testlet changes in difficulty based on your performance on the previous testlet. For the written portion, there is only one correct answer, so there is much less leniency here since you either know the information or you don’t.
Time Allotment & Administration
The Bar Exam is only offered twice a year. Although each state controls where it administers its Bar Exam, the fact that it’s a standardized test means it must be administered on the same day across the country—usually the last Wednesday in July and the last Wednesday in February. The good thing about this is that many law firms know when the exam is and will be more lenient and accommodating during these times to let their clerks and graduates study.
However, this puts a lot of pressure and stress on law students who not only have to sit through 3 testing consecutive days; but also have very finite windows in which they can take and pass the exam. If they fail, they have to wait a whole 6 months to retake it, which can be grueling as they spend another half year to re-study.
On the flip side, many jurisdictions do not have a limit as to how many times you can re-take the Bar Exam. For the ones that do, they impose limits in different ways, such as requesting special permission.
The CPA Exam, in my opinion, is more flexible. You study for one section at a time and schedule your exam based on the day/time that works best for you and are at the testing center for no more than 4 hours. However, because exams are scheduled throughout the year and at your own pace, there aren’t as many widespread rules at accounting firms to be more lax on their staff. There are only 4 blackout months (the third month of every quarter) in which you can’t take the exam, and although you can’t take the same section more than once during any single testing window, you only have to wait a few months to re-take a failed section. There’s less pressure on candidates here.
The downside to this though, and perhaps where pressure does start to kick in, is you only have an 18 month rolling window to pass all 4 sections. The window begins from the time you pass the first exam, and you begin to lose credit for sections passed once this time frame is up.
Test of Discipline vs. Test of Aptitude
When it comes down to it, both exams are difficult to prepare for and pass. I think to say that one is harder than the other is subjective only to the test taker themselves. For me, personally, I look at these two exams as one that’s a test of discipline and one that’s a test of aptitude.
The CPA Exam, as Roger says, is a test of discipline. This couldn’t be truer. Everyone says that you will pass this exam once you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired of studying and failing. All you have to do is bog down and give it your all. There’s a lot of topics to cover and there are many hours you’ll spend studying—but as long as you put in the effort, you will pass.
The Bar Exam is a test of aptitude because it is, in effect, not as black and white as numbers are. Studying, learning, and applying law to different scenarios, cases, and situations will have various outcomes. There is no one clear cut definition answer on how to approach cases, and it’s up to the lawyer to utilize his knowledge and judgment to make the most informed decisions possible and to come up with the best direction/strategy to take.
In the end, I couldn’t say that one exam was more difficult than the other. They were both challenging in different ways and this will also vary depending on the type of person you are. If you’re someone who likes things to be black and white, the CPA Exam may be more doable for you. If you’re someone who does better reading in between the lines, the Bar Exam may be your preference. Whatever the case may be, don’t let either exam intimidate you from becoming a CPA or lawyer, or—in my case—both! If you’re passionate about what you do and work hard, everything will fall into place.