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CPA Exam

The CPA Sample Exam Interface [A Challenge!]



As we found it on the comments of most of CPA Exam post on this site, every piece of CPA Exam software will have its unique features. Some of these features are intuitive, and some are not. It is your responsibility to find out how everything works before you get into the exam. The search command on the CPA sample exam interface, for instance, looks like a simple search. At first, I thought that this simple search might produce results that were in chronological order or in the same order of the standards. However, after working with it over several days trying out many searches, the program still seems to prioritize the results by some algorithm, rather than listing them in a specific order.

In this post, I have listed some features of the CPA sample exam [not only the search feature], and explained the challenges I have encountered when working with this sample exam interface. Enjoy!



Entering Numbers or Values

Some answers require that you type in an amount. This makes the CPA exam more like working a problem. The strange part is that when you are supposed to enter numbers, you click on the box in which you want to enter your answer. You think, I will type my answer, and it will appear in that box. No, no, no! That’s not how it works.

When you click on the answer box, the outline of the box turns white. When you start typing in numbers, it jumps up to an input line at the top of the answer area. Your answer doesn’t appear in the answer box until you hit enter. Then the answer jumps from the white input area at the top and lands in the orange box. Be careful here, because it is easy to make a typographical error at the top, hit enter, and not realize you put in the wrong number. Proof the number after it is entered.


Cut, Copy, Paste, and Delete

Interestingly enough, in some parts of the sample exam, you can right click, and you will find some commands. While entering numbers, a right click on the mouse may access a drop-down menu to copy, paste, and delete. This little menu also says that you can copy by pressing CTRL+C and paste by pressing Ctrl+V. You can clear the input area by using the Del key. Oddly enough, I did not get these same commands with my right click when I was in the Communications or other parts of the exam. So, be careful— the commands do not always work uniformly in the various parts of the CPA exam.

Another unusual function I found was when I was at the top of the screen in the data entry line for entering numbers, a right click opens a dropdown menu with a list of functions such as Undo, Cut, Copy, Paste, Delete, and Select All. I am not sure if these are necessary or useful on the exam, but they were on the sample exam. Therefore, these same functions should also be available on the CPA exam.

A third place for the Cut, Copy, and Paste commands in the simulations is in the upper right-hand corner of the chart or table that requires completion. You see a Copy, Cut, and Paste command at the top of the answer area for the particular problem. Normally, you see this feature in areas that require journal entries or problems that require insertion of numbers into tables.


Fill in the Blanks

Other parts of the simulations require you to use a drop-down menu to select answers from a given list. This essentially turns the question into a multiple-choice question. On these fill-in questions, if you click once, the box turns yellow. Click again, and the answers pop up on your screen. You select your answer by highlighting it, and then click “OK.” Your answer will be inserted into the box.


Journal Entries On The CPA Sample Exam Interface

Entering journal entries also has some interesting features. First, there is only one column for the account titles. The account titles are usually chosen from a drop-down menu. However, the account titles for the credit entry cannot be indented. For the amounts, there are Debit and Credit columns that are properly indented. Be sure to place your debit or credit in the appropriate column.

The lack of a debit/credit distinction in the account titles makes your answer more difficult to analyze and proofread, because as accountants we always indent both the title and the amount for the credit entry. From a practical perspective, it is difficult to work with an interface on the exam that is not formatted correctly, but that is the way the exam was programmed. Be extra careful that you place the credit amount in the correct column!

Another point to make about the journal entries is that there is nothing built into the system to force you to balance. As an accountant you should be intelligent enough to check your journal entries and make sure every entry balances. If you have been working in industry with accounting software that displays an error message for entries that don’t balance, don’t expect this to happen on the CPA exam. Check your answer and make sure each entry balances!


The Calculator

The calculator is at the top right-hand corner of your screen, and you can drop it down and move it around within your testing area. Just click on it and drag it where you want it. As you know, it’s a simple calculator with the functions of add, subtract, multiply, divide, and square root. Unlike some calculators, the numbers you need to add (or multiply) together will not show on the input line of the calculator. Only one input number shows, not the entire equation. So if you want to add 1 + 2 = 3, for instance, the calculator will not display the items added or the equation. You type in 1, then you press +, then type in 2, then hit equal, and the answer 3 shows up. Very simple, but sometimes you feel as if you are working blind. Practice with the calculator until you develop speed and proficiency. You should enter the exam room feeling comfortable with the calculator like it is an old friend!

The calculator on the sample exam contains a fascinating feature. Even though the calculator does not have an “xy” key, you can manually perform this operation by entering in your first equation, and then hitting the equal sign (=) repeatedly. Try this: 3 x 3 will equal 9. Then hit = again, and you get 27. Then hit = again, you’ll get 81. So basically each time you hit the equal sign for a number times itself, you are raising it to another power.


Try Present Value calculation with the calculator! This feature also works with the divide sign, where you can generate present value factors by yourself without a table. Key in the following: 1 ÷ 1.10 will equal .909090 (repeating). This is the present value factor at 10% for one period. Then hit = again. It divides your last result by 1.10, which gives you 1 ÷ 1.102 which is .82644. This number is the PV factor at 10% for two periods. If you hit = again, it brings it back 3 periods. Why is this feature important? Sometimes in the multiple-choice problems, they give you only a part of the PV table, or part of a PVA table.

Sometimes they give you a PVA due table instead of a regular PVA table. Knowing how to do this quickly on the calculator will allow you to check your work. You can quickly generate your own PV or PVA table. To make a PVA table, you must add the PV factors. Try this on the sample exam with a PV table handy so you can check your work! It’s a nice little trick!

I would also recommend that you extensively use the calculator on the sample exam and try all the memory functions. When I have my favorite calculator with me in class, I feel more comfortable working problems.


When I forget my calculator and borrow someone’s calculator, I don’t feel as secure with a strange calculator. Quite honestly, when I borrow a calculator and I am not comfortable with the keyboard, I make more mistakes. The same thing will happen to you on the CPA exam. Therefore, make sure you use the computer calculator extensively. Be sure to find your comfort level with the on-screen calculator before you sit for the CPA exam. Speed and agility are important here. Become pals with your online calculator!

Some CPA candidates fellow of mine have told me that they didn’t practice very much with the calculator because there were only five multiple-choice sample questions. Do not limit yourself only to the practice problems provided with the same exam. Use that calculator for whatever you want! I opened the sample exam and used the calculator several times for regular homework in the classes I teach. Sometimes I would open the sample exam and make up numbers and play with the calculator for about an hour or so until I knew what it would do. So, use the calculator extensively on the sample exam, and you’ll feel like an expert when the time comes to use that online calculator!


Spreadsheet Functions On The CPA Sample Exam is Unlike in Excel!

The spreadsheet functions may not work exactly like the spreadsheet functions in Excel. You should check your Resources tab for the spreadsheet formulas in the sample exam, and then practice with various formulas before you take the exam.



Beware that the input entry for your memo will expand (perhaps infinitely) to accommodate either your creative brilliance or your lack thereof. Avoid the urge to become verbose just because the space expands to fit your needs. Your best strategy is to outline quickly the key points you want to make, and then write your memo. Remember, it’s a professional memo. No slang!

Avoid the temptation to open the infobase and copy or paste something from the infobase. The AICPA has commented on their Web site that some candidates have been copying and pasting research answers into the communications component. The communications components exist to grade your writing; therefore, the answer should be in your own words.

Also, proof your memo for key items such as subject-verb agreement, dangling modifiers, spelling, etc. I found that sometimes the spell-checker works, sometimes it doesn’t. If the spellchecker doesn’t work, make sure you report it to the test center and the AICPA immediately after the exam. Instructions for reporting problems with the test and software are found at the AICPA Web site in the CPA Candidate Bulletin.


The Infobase On The CPA Exam

The CPA sample exam search engine appears to be a simplified version of the FARS Online search engine. There are two search functions on the CPA exam: simple search and advanced search. You should be aware that they can produce considerably different results. Therefore, you should practice extensively with each search command until you master them and can determine which search command works best for you.

If you use the search function immediately upon entering the infobase, you will see results from all three sources: the Original Pronouncements as Amended, the Current Text, and the Topical Index. This gives you a great deal of information to read if you try to search all areas of the infobase at once. Actually, searching all three areas provides too much information most of the time.

If you click on Original Pronouncements, and then type in a keyword, and click on Within, this will keep your search within the Original Pronouncements as Amended. Searching within will limit the number of matches. The Search Within command on the CPA exam is similar to the Search Within command in the FARS Online search engine. After you enter your search terms, you need to view the results of your search. The View Results command allows you to view the list of results.

Sometimes, the results list is not very helpful because the titles are not descriptive as to the source of the document. In order to see the source or citation for the pronouncement being retrieved, you must open the document.


When you open the document, the source is listed in bold black print at the top of the document. To read the document, scroll through the document. To go back to the list of results, click View Results. The list of results window reappears, and you can select another result to read. Viewing results of keyword searches can be a time-consuming process. If you intend to search by keywords, practice moving back and forth between the results list and the documents so you become faster.

Once you open a document in the results list, the title changes to a different color in your view results list. If you open a document, the title in the list turns maroon. If the document has not been opened, it remains blue. This, of course, is similar to an internet search. This is a nice feature of the program because you can see which results you have read. Other important functions on the CPA exam interface are Back, View History, Clear, and Home.


The Simple Search On The CPA Sample Exam Interface

A nice feature of the simple search is the ability to search within a particular standard. You can search within a particular area or level of the infobase (i.e., Original Pronouncements, ARBs, APB, or FASB Statements), by clicking on the appropriate folder, typing in your search terms, and then clicking on Within. This narrows your search nicely. Search within is particularly fast when you know your accounting pronouncement, and click on the relevant part that should have the accounting rules. This is very fast with the FASB Standards. Try it with the one of the standards on the sample exam interface.
One peculiarity with the CPA exam infobase is caused by the way the infobase is divided into documents. When you search for two terms, if you do not use quotes, it will search for documents where both terms are found in the document—not where they are found in the same paragraph or where the words are found together. This produces results that may be completely irrelevant. Search within can sometimes help alleviate this problem by focusing on the appropriate standard. Of course, you need to know your way around the standards to search within a particular standard.

Another method for counteracting the irrelevant results produced in keyword searches is to use quotes around your search terms in the simple search. This very quickly narrows the search. The only problem with this strategy is that you must have a very precise accounting vocabulary to find the answer. For example, you would need to know whether the standard uses the terms depreciable asset, assets to be depreciated, or depreciation of assets. You will see very different results with each of these search terms!


The Advanced Search

Now we will examine the advanced search more in depth. The advanced search has several search choices. They are:

  • Containing all of these words
  • Not containing any of these words
  • Containing one or more of these words
  • Containing this exact phrase
  • Containing these words near each other


At the bottom of these choices, you have more choices where you can check the box for these items:

  • Find alternate word forms (stemming)
  • Find synonyms (thesaurus)
  • Search within the currently selected text


As we discussed earlier, if you are searching all areas of the infobase, you will probably have too many results to manage. Search Within is probably the best and most powerful option because it narrows the search.

You will also see other search commands such as finding synonyms with the thesaurus. Don’t go there! This feature does not look for accounting terminology; it is just a regular thesaurus. If you are trying to use that command during the exam, you have reached a point of desperation, and you should not waste any more time. Remember, you should not be trying out new things during the exam. You must practice searching before the exam, and you must rely on the research methods that are within your comfort zone.

You can use the advanced search to narrow your search. However, beware—the advanced search also produces results in a different order of priority. Advanced search prioritizes results based on the program’s algorithms. The advanced search results will not be displayed in the same order as the simple search results. With advanced search, the number of matches, the results, and the order of the results can be very different. You should practice with advanced search on the sample exam before relying on it during the real exam.


Three other features are found in the advanced search: Stemming (alternate word forms), thesaurus, and search within the currently selected text. Stemming will broaden your search. Stemming is not necessarily a good feature when you are under time pressure because it produces more results to read. In my version of the FAR sample exam, the stemming box was automatically checked. Watch out for this, and don’t let the infobase give you too many results that you don’t want. If stemming is already checked as a default setting and you don’t want it, be sure to uncheck this box.

The thesaurus is often inappropriate for accounting research. The thesaurus is only a regular thesaurus, and it is not unique or modified to our accounting jargon. Therefore, the thesaurus will produce some very strange results. I typed in debt on the sample exam and was sent on a wild reading adventure! I found hits for items charged against earnings, documents with the word debit, documents with the words deferred, assess, and shares for ESOPs. None of these terms were relevant to debt. Yes, it did give me a few hits on topics related to liabilities, but the thesaurus produced far too many irrelevant results. Stay away from the thesaurus completely. It is not time well spent when you are studying for the exam, practicing with the sample exam, or working the CPA exam. It is a time sink you do not want to fall into!

So, it appears that the search command on the screen is a “simple” search and will give you results in some prioritized order. This is nice. However, the search results do not give you titles that are referenced to the exact pronouncement. That’s bad.

Keep in mind, though, that the CPA sample exam has a very limited and abbreviated version of the infobase. There are not enough standards posted on the sample exam to learn the standards. The CPA sample exam is only useful to learn how to navigate on the research component.

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