CPA Exam vs. Bar Exam: Which One is Harder?

cpa exam vs. bar exam image

Comparing apples and oranges is the oft-used expression when two things of different qualities and characteristics are evaluated side by side. Sometimes, however, it’s necessary to make such comparisons, as life-altering decisions are made after these assessments.

For professionals who are looking to take the next step in their careers, a big choice is often whether to take the CPA exam or the Bar exam.

The CPA Exam and the Bar Exam: Which is More Difficult?

While comparing the CPA to the Bar is akin to comparing apples and oranges, there are enough similarities to make this a difficult decision for those in the accounting, legal, and financial industries. Someone with a CPA can work in a law firm and an individual with a Juris Doctor could be employed at an accounting or financial entity.

Keep in mind, the Bar exam has much more difficult requirements to even sit for the exam—you need to go to law school, which is quite a commitment, both financially and in terms of time. While the CPA requires accounting experience and coursework, there’s a lower bar for entry for this test.

CPA Exam and Bar Exam Similarities

Alright, so why are these tests similar? Well, first and foremost, you need to study for both of these exams for a significant number of hours. The material on each is difficult, but if you prepare enough for an extended period of time, they are both passable.

Both tests have a writing component and multiple choice questions. The ratio of these is basically inverse, but there’s some overlap with regard to test structure. Each exam is also offered at certain points during the year, so you cannot just retake the test immediately if you do not pass.

That’s really it in terms of similarities—other than those basic overlaps, the tests are VERY DIFFERENT. Each is among the hardest of the standardized exams, but they are this way for very different reasons.

CPA and BAR Exam Structure

The CPA exam is four different sections (tests), all of which differ significantly, so it’s tough to figure out which exam to take first. One of the sections features a long writing portion, as well as multiple choice questions and task-based simulations, while the other sections just contain the latter-two components.

The multiple choice question testlets change based on how you do on the previous sections, and the task-based simulations will vary significantly. There’s a chance that a large portion of what you study won’t appear on the test, so be prepared to be caught off guard. Luckily, cpa prep courses have become increasingly sophisticated to help you study, based on your strengths and weaknesses.

The Bar exam is basically three different tests, but they are presented back-to-back-to-back for three consecutive days. There are six different versions of the exam, so you’re not going to get the same version as other students. This isn’t as rigid of a test, as there isn’t a “right” answer to many of the questions.

The multiple choice questions are presented one day, so you’re going to be able to knock these out during that testing session and be done with this part.

Two of the days will feature essays known as writing prompts—your hands are going to hurt after these days. Based on how you respond, using logic and your legal knowledge, you can be right or wrong, so memorizing answers isn’t going to help at all.

CPA and BAR Exam Content

So, in terms of the actual exam… there’s a big difference for each state in terms of the Bar. California and New York are famously difficult, with the former having 13 “topics” and the latter having 14. Although that’s a lot, you’re not going to need to know all of that, but you won’t know which of the topics are going to be on the exam!

While it’s extremely difficult to study and understand such a massive amount of information, there’s not too many surprises on the Bar exam.

The CPA exam is far different in terms of content. The four sections are drastically different, so you’re going to break the studying into specific topics for each test. Your exam may not cover everything and could actually include just a small portion of what you studied.

For the CPA it’s basically about trying to know a little bit about each of the topics. Since there’s four different tests, you need to know different information for each test. It’s kind of a pump and dump method—once you pass a given section, it’s best to clear your mind and start over for the next portion.

This test varies in difficulty for each section, too. The FAR section is way easier for some people—this depends on work experience, school, etc.—while the REG or AUD sections could be a cakewalk for other people, when compared to the other topics. So, just know that you’re going to do much better on certain sections than others.

Testing Schedules for the CPA Exam and BAR Exam

The CPA exam scheduling is difficult to keep up with, as it changes constantly and is confusing. Even applying for the test is difficult, as you can see here. But, once you’ve applied and you can sit for the test, there’s a specific window in which you can take your first section. Then, after you take, and hopefully pass that first section, you have 18 months to pass all four portions of the exam. If you fail to pass all four sections, then you’re going to watch sections EXPIRE, which is devastating.

There are certain time periods in which you can take the various sections: the first two months of each quarter and the next 10 days of the following month. So, basically, you cannot take the test for 20 or so days each quarter. Annoying, but not terrible.

The Bar, while not as complicated, is offered only twice a year, and you have to wait a full six months to take it again if you fail. If your job and future depends on passing the exam, then you’re not going to be happy with this lack of testing availability.

Which Test is More Difficult: BAR or CPA?

So, in the end, which is more difficult? Well, that’s really impossible to say. For a short period of your life, the Bar exam will be the WORST thing in the entire world. This is not a feeling that you’ll have with the CPA, as that test is more extended misery than short-term desperation.

If you’re more of a “by-the-book” person, I would say go for the CPA. The Bar exam is more based on inferences and applying knowledge, while the CPA is about being able to recount information, remember formulas and processes, and perform standard problem solving methods.

If you were a great studier in college, went to class every day, and did well on exams, I’d say the CPA exam is easier. If you were someone who crammed for tests, the Bar exam is probably going to be the easier option. Get started on prepping for the bar exam today!


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