CPA Exam: What You Need to Know About Trends in the Accounting Industry

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A smiling accountant talks on the phone while working on a laptop.While accounting and legal knowledge remain core to the certified public accountant (CPA) profession, new trends in the accounting and finance industries, primarily driven by technological innovation, are changing the role.

As advancements in data analytics and machine learning technologies help automate traditional accounting and auditing activities, CPA roles are moving from reactionary to proactive and strategic, to meet the demands of a more technology-savvy client base, both organizations and individuals. With technological skills becoming increasingly important, the CPA exam is evolving to help prepare CPAs for the future.

Individuals considering a career as CPAs need to understand the fundamental changes that have been implemented in the CPA exam. They should also consider how pursuing an advanced degree, such as a Master of Accountancy, can help them acquire the needed skills and knowledge to prepare for the exam, understand the changes, and advance their accounting careers.

What Is the CPA Exam?

Individuals interested in becoming licensed CPAs must first meet the education and experience requirements to qualify to take the CPA exam. Upon passing the CPA exam, an individual can launch a career as a licensed CPA.

CPAs must understand the core concepts of accounting and auditing and technology’s role in the profession. These and other topics are what the CPA exam is designed to test. Passing the CPA exam demonstrates expertise and dedication to the highest standards in the accounting industry.

The CPA exam is the same for anyone interested in obtaining a CPA designation, but requirements may vary by jurisdiction. For example, different states require different numbers of credit hours, and some have residency restrictions. Individuals interested in taking the CPA exam should check with their state’s Board of Accountancy for details.

CPA Exam Example Questions

Preparing for the CPA exam can take weeks or months. It’s a good idea to take prep tests that include example questions before scheduling the exam. These steps can help make sure you’re ready:

  1. Apply for the CPA exam. First, determine whether you meet the educational and experience requirements. Then, gather your college transcripts (this process can take weeks, so keep that in mind in your schedule). Be sure to include all required paperwork and sign all the necessary forms — missing information is one of the most common reasons for delays in CPA exam application processing.
  2. Schedule the CPA exam. Once you have completed your application, it may take anywhere from three to nine weeks for it to be processed. You’ll be notified that you are qualified to take the exam and receive a notice to schedule (NTS). You will then be able to schedule an exam at your desired test center and pay your exam fees.
  3. Study for the CPA exam. After receiving an NTS you can schedule an exam within days, so while your application is being processed, study the material and take practice exams.

The CPA exam is categorized into four sections: Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG).

Auditing and Attestation (AUD)

This section tests a candidate’s ability to assess problems and ethically judge situations in the auditing process. As this section tests ethics, candidates need to become familiar with the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA) Code of Professional Conduct. CPA exam example questions in this part of the test include:

  • What is the most likely opportunity for theft or fraud by employees?
  • According to professional standards, which of the following circumstances will impair a CPA’s independence?

Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)

Five diverse subject areas are tested in this section: corporate governance, economic concepts and analysis, financial management, information technology, and operations management. Knowledge in these areas is essential to auditing, attesting, financial reporting, tax preparation, accounting reviews, and more. CPA exam example questions:

  • What term is used to represent unavoidable past costs that cannot be changed no matter what action is taken?
  • Which of the following decision-making techniques is most useful to a manager who is attempting to increase the profitability of an area, but who has a problem with limited capacity for the operation of a critical machine?

Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)

This section assesses knowledge and skills in financial accounting and reporting frameworks used in business, nonprofit, and governmental entities. These frameworks include standards and regulations from the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the AICPA, and other accounting governing bodies. CPA exam example questions:

  • Which of the following methods should be used to account for research and development costs with no alternative future use?
  • In the statement of activities for a governmental entity, revenues such as charges for building permits, garbage collection, and dog licenses are reported as which of the following?

Regulation (REG)

Licensed CPAs must demonstrate knowledge of the following: U.S. federal taxation, U.S. ethics and professional responsibilities related to tax practice, and U.S. business law. Topics included in this section range from licensing and disciplinary systems to federal income taxation and gift and estate tax law. CPA exam example questions include:

  • Parents gave securities with an adjusted basis of $10,000 and fair market value of $9,000 to a child. Later the child sold the securities for $7,000. What is the child’s basis for the securities sold?
  • A spouse died on December 31, year 1. The couple had no dependents. What should be the filing status of the surviving spouse in year 2?

Accounting Industry Trends In 2021 and Beyond

The move toward automation and data analytics is transforming the accounting and finance industries, and CPAs are now expected to have a more digital mindset. While advances in technology primarily drive change in the accounting and finance industries, the pandemic has caused individuals and organizations in the accounting and finance fields to accelerate their adoption of innovations such as cloud technologies.

In addition to technology, tax changes due to shifts in trade and economic policies are behind some of the accounting industry trends in 2021 and beyond. The following are some of the most noteworthy drivers impacting the CPA profession.

Changes in Tax Policy

The Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA), also known as the COVID-19 stimulus, includes provisions relevant to CPAs. For example, in addition to the $600 per-person stimulus payment and extended unemployment benefits, provisions in the act include Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan extensions and employee retention credits. Why do these matter for CPAs? As one example, a CPA can help organizations attain the financial benefits of employee retention credit. This provision gives organizations that keep employees on the payroll a bigger payroll tax credit.

CPAs, particularly those who work in industries with traditionally low tariffs and trade regulations, can help organizations shift to evolving trade and tariff policies by developing effective tariff management strategies. KPMG’s 2019 Tariff Impact Survey reports that companies with mitigation strategies save an average of 59% on tariffs into the U.S.

Automation

Automation is one of the most widely reported accounting industry trends. It allows CPAs to increase their productivity, enhance the quality of their work, and deliver results for clients more efficiently. Artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as robotic process automation (RPA), a type of software that uses AI and machine learning algorithms to perform repetitive accounting tasks, can give CPAs more time for analysis and to serve clients in a strategic advisory role.

While AI can take care of some accounting tasks, it can’t replace the personalization CPAs can offer their clients. However, as more AI tools are used in accounting and finance functions, from auditing to helping determine if an organization or individual qualifies for a loan, CPAs need to bolster their understanding of how AI works to take advantage of the opportunities it has offers.

Data Analytics

CPAs rely on data in their daily work. They report sales data, compute sums, measure cost per client, and audit inventories. CPAs also perform variance analyses and use analytics to report on historical results.

However, more organizations are seeking to use data to predict outcomes and offer actionable insight. As CPAs take on a more strategic role in business, they should understand the part data can play in driving financial performance and growth. For example, CPAs need to become familiar with data analytics tools that draw data and statistics from various sources (enterprise resource management systems, marketing systems, sales databases, etc.) to predict future performance.

Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG)

The notable impacts of climate change on our environment have had a significant impact on the business world. Many consumers determine whether they will buy a product based on the manufacturer’s commitment to social and environmental issues. As clients and investors demand change in the areas of ESG, organizations that want to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability are adopting the practice of releasing ESG disclosures as part of their annual reports.

This accounting industry trend presents practice opportunities for CPAs to assure the validity and accuracy of these disclosures. CPAs can also help clients learn about how ESG reporting can help them minimize the impact of climate change while reaping financial incentives and gaining a reputation as an organization committed to making a difference with its ESG practices.

Cloud-Based Accounting

The COVID-19 pandemic moved millions of organizations to embrace remote work. Whether because of lockdowns or because remote workplace trends were already on the rise pre-pandemic, to support the transition, many organizations turned to the cloud to run their accounting and finance departments. Options include hosting critical accounting applications in a cloud-computing environment or moving to an entirely cloud-based environment.

With the cloud, a geographically dispersed workforce can access the same data from accounting systems, such as an SAP ERP system or Oracle database. Without the cloud, organizations would only be able to provide limited access to key accounting systems for CPAs and other accounting professionals to do their work remotely.

Blockchain

Often discussed as an accounting industry trend of the future, the reality is that blockchain is already here. Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology with the potential to streamline typical record-keeping and business processes, such as financial reporting and tax preparation, by automating accounting data entry processes and eliminating multiple databases. This means that auditors may not have to reconcile disparate ledgers across different systems.

Because each transaction is automatically recorded and verified, blockchain can substantially reduce the amount of time needed to complete accounting processes. In addition, blockchain-based smart contracts can automatically transfer assets to a new owner without needing a third party.

The rise of blockchain technology doesn’t mean that CPAs need to learn to code; however, they should understand the fundamentals of blockchain technology and its value in improving accounting and auditing processes. Additionally, as cryptocurrency, a blockchain-based digital asset with financial value, becomes more mainstream, CPAs will be needed to consider its role in accounting, auditing, and taxation.

CPA Exam Changes 2021

Due to the transformations taking place in the accounting profession, the CPA exam has changed to help future CPAs prepare. The purpose of CPA exam changes in 2021, primarily focused on IT systems, IT controls, and manual controls is to help ensure that future CPAs have the knowledge and skills to work with data-driven processes in an increasingly digital world.

Each of the exam’s sections includes new areas. For example, the AUD section has an increased focus on risk assessment and internal controls, while the BEC section tests the relationship between business processes and risk controls, and the technology that enables these processes.

What Are SOC Reports?

A big 2021 CPA exam change is the increased focus on system and organization controls (SOC). As cloud technology usage rises in the industry, many organizations are outsourcing key business processes. This can help an organization improve efficiency and lower costs.

But there are risks associated with outsourcing business processes concerning security, data integrity, privacy, and data availability. Through the system and organization controls (SOC) reporting process, a CPA can verify that an organization is following best practices when outsourcing a business function and provide a framework to help organizations minimize risks.

There are three different types of SOC reports, each with a different focus. SOC 1 reports focus on controls that affect an entity’s financial statements. SOC 2 reports are restricted use documents that cover security, confidentiality, and privacy issues for internal parties, and SOC 3 reports cover the same issues as SOC 2 reports but are freely available to the public.

When Does the CPA Exam Change?

As of July 2021, the AICPA made the initial CPA exam changes to focus more on technology. Other changes will be forthcoming over the next three years to help align CPA requirements with developments taking place in the accounting field. For example, while the CPA exam will continue to test candidates on their accounting, auditing, tax, and technology proficiencies, candidates will also need to show advanced knowledge in one of three areas:

  • Business reporting and analysis
  • Information systems and controls
  • Tax compliance and planning

Exactly when does the CPA exam change? The revamped CPA exam is scheduled to debut in January 2024. AICPA has joined efforts with the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) on its update.

Expand Your Knowledge of Accounting Principles and Emerging Trends

As digitization and globalization change the accounting industry and the CPA profession, licensing bodies such as AICPA and NASBA are changing the CPA exam to help ensure CPAs are ready to compete in the accounting industry of today and tomorrow.

Traditional mathematics skills will continue to be a critical component in a CPA career. However, technology and data analytics know-how are already becoming increasingly relevant as well, as CPAs are expected to continue to take a strategic role in driving business decisions.

With a curriculum that includes traditional CPA subjects, such as advanced auditing and assurance services and professional ethics, in addition to new subjects focused on data and technology, including predictive analytics, the Online Master of Accountancy program from Ohio University can help you prepare by providing the educational requirements to sit for the CPA exam.

Find out more about how Ohio University’s Online Master of Accountancy can help you launch a new career.

Recommended Readings

Exploring the Field of Corporate Accounting

Year-End Tax Planning Strategies Accountants Should Know

Advanced Accounting Careers: How to Become a CPA

Sources:

AICPA, Accounting for and Auditing of Digital Assets

AICPA, AICPA Code of Professional Conduct

AICPA, Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology

AICPA, Everything You Need to Know About the CPA Exam

AICPA, Get Familiar with the CPA Exam by Practicing with Our Sample Tests

AICPA, System and Organization Controls: SOC Suite of Services

AICPA, Uniform CPA Examination Blueprints

AICPA, Uniform CPA Examination Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) Blueprint

AICPA, Uniform CPA Examination Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) Blueprint

Becker, CPA Exam Changes: SOC Reports

Becker, CPA License Requirements

Becker, “July 2021 CPA Exam: What’s Changing”

The CPA Journal, “Hidden Gems in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021”

The CPA Journal, “An Introduction to Blockchain”

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Investopedia, “The CPA Exam: What You Need to Know”

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KPMG, “Tariff Mitigation Roadmap”

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Oracle NetSuite, “15 Accounting Trends to Pay Attention to in 2021”

Oracle NetSuite, “2021 CPA Exam Changes — and What They Mean for the Accounting Profession”