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CMA Exam Difficulty: How Hard Is the CMA Exam?

Passing the CMA exam is one of the most involved and intensive steps in earning the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification. Because the exam has 2 parts, presents hundreds of questions, and takes hours to complete, careful and time-consuming preparation is a must. But along with knowing the question counts and content coverage, CMA candidates also want to understand the CMA exam difficulty. As they start the CMA journey, they wonder, “How difficult is the CMA exam?”

We can answer this valid question by assessing the different qualities of the exam. And with this information, we can objectively determine how hard the CMA exam is.

Indications of CMA Exam Difficulty: Pass Rates

The first sign we have that the CMA exam is fairly challenging is the CMA exam pass rate.

CMA Exam Pass Rates

Exam Part

2013 2014 2015 2015-2016 2016-2017


Part 1


35% 36% 35% 35%


Part 2


49% 55% 52% 50%


As you can see, the average CMA exam pass rate for the last few years has been about 43%. In comparison, the overall CPA Exam pass rate is about 50%, and the CPA Exam has a reputation for being very difficult.

So, is the CMA exam more difficult than the CPA Exam? Not necessarily.

One important reason for the CMA exam’s low pass rate is the low CMA exam requirement. To sit for the CMA exam, a candidate only needs a bachelor’s degree. And, that degree can be in any discipline and from just about any country.

The CPA Exam requirements are much stricter. Candidates must accumulate accounting credit hours equivalent to an accounting major and graduate with a 4-year bachelor’s degree. After that, a CPA candidate must earn 30 additional credit hours of education for a total of 150 hours. Therefore, the CPA candidate pool has a much stronger background in accounting, which helps bump up the overall pass rate.

For this reason, we cannot say that the CMA exam is definitely more difficult than the CPA Exam or other accounting certification exams with higher pass rates. However, we can say that at least half of the candidates that sit for the CMA don’t pass, so this exam is certainly not easy.

Indications of CMA Exam Difficulty: Exam Content and Structure

The Institute of Certified Management Accountants (ICMA) has extrapolated on the CMA exam content in the content specification outlines (CSOs). The CSOs reveal that the CMA exam has 2 parts:

  • Part 1: Financial, Planning, Performance, and Analytics
  • Part 2: Strategic Financial Planning

 The first exam part addresses 5 topics:

  1. External financial reporting decisions
  2. Planning, budgeting, and forecasting
  3. Performance management
  4. Cost management
  5. Internal controls
  6. Technology and Analytics

The second exam part covers 6 content areas:

  1. Financial statement analysis
  2. Corporate finance
  3. Decision analysis
  4. Risk management
  5. Investment decisions
  6. Professional ethics

Furthermore, the CSOs list 22 total subject areas under Part 1 and 19 total subject areas under Part 2. Then, the Learning Outcome Statements (LOSs), an additional exam resource provided by the ICMA, digs deeper into the topics and subject areas described in the CSOs to reveal the tasks CMAs must be able to perform. The LOSs list hundreds of tasks under both Part 1 and Part 2.

Clearly, the CMA exam covers a lot of topics. And it does so using a large number of questions. Each CMA exam part contains 100 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and 2 30-minute essay scenarios containing about 8-10 written response questions.

The CMA exam is also quite long. To answer all of these questions, candidates have 4 hours of total testing time: 3 hours for the MCQs and 1 hour for the essays.

While the CMA exam may not have as many parts, topics, or questions as some other accounting certification exams, it nevertheless is a complex assessment that asks a lot of candidates.

Indications of CMA Exam Difficulty: Exam Knowledge Levels

A third indication of CMA exam difficulty is the depth of knowledge the exam expects candidates to possess.

Along with outlining the content of the CMA exam parts, the CSOs also explain the levels of knowledge assessed by each section of each exam part. Specifically, they identify and define 6 cognitive skills candidates must have in order to pass the exam:

  1. Knowledge: the ability to remember previously learned material such as specific facts, criteria, techniques, principles, and procedures (i.e., identify, define, list).
  2. Comprehension: the ability to grasp and interpret the meaning of material (i.e., classify, explain, distinguish between).
  3. Application: the ability to use learned material in new and concrete situations (i.e., demonstrate, predict, solve, modify, relate).
  4. Analysis: the ability to break down material into its component parts so that its organizational structure can be understood; ability to recognize causal relationships, discriminate between behaviors, and identify elements that are relevant to the validation of a judgment (i.e., differentiate, estimate, order).
  5. Synthesis: the ability to put parts together to form a new whole or proposed set of operations; ability to relate ideas and formulate hypotheses (i.e. combine, formulate, revise).
  6. Evaluation: Ability to judge the value of material for a given purpose on the basis of consistency, logical accuracy, and comparison to standards; ability to appraise judgments involved in the selection of a course of action (i.e., criticize, justify, conclude).

The CSOs then delineate 3 levels of coverage for these cognitive skills:

CMA Exam Skill Levels




knowledge and comprehension

knowledge, comprehension, application, and analysis


knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation

The coverage levels build upon each other, so Level C includes Levels A and B.

Finally, the CSOs assign a coverage level to each of the major topics each part of the exam addresses.

Content and Skill Coverage Levels for CMA Exam Part 1


Main Topics

Content Percentage of Topics

Cognitive Skill Coverage Level

External Financial Reporting Decisions

15% Level C

Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting

20% Level C

Performance Management


Level C

Cost Management 15%

Level C

Internal Controls 15%

Level C

Technology and Analytics 15%

Level C

Content and Skill Coverage Levels for CMA Exam Part 2

Main Topics

Content Percentage of Topics

Cognitive Skill Coverage Level

Financial Statement Analysis

20% Level C

Corporate Finance

20% Level C

Decision Analysis


Level C

Risk Management 10%

Level C

Investment Decisions 10%

Level C

Professional Ethics 15%

Level C

As you can see, all of the major topics in both CMA exam parts require candidates to have the deepest levels of cognitive skills. Therefore, in order to pass the exam, you can’t simply memorize some formulas. Rather, you must know the exam content very well. Consequently, getting to these levels of comprehension involves a lot of time, effort, and concentration.

Indications of CMA Exam Difficulty: Candidate Feedback

While this last source of measurement for CMA exam difficulty is somewhat subjective, it is still a useful way to explore this topic.

To inform future CMA candidates about how hard the CMA exam is, I’ve asked for feedback from a few readers who have taken both the CPA and the CMA exams.

Most of them agreed that the CPA exam covers a much wider scope of topics. While this does increase the CPA Exam’s difficulty level, it does not move it out of the range of the CMA exam difficulty. This quote from one of my readers represents common themes of the feedback I received:

“How hard is the CMA exam compared to the CPA Exam? Well, I thought the material was as challenging, but because there are only 2 parts rather than 4, there is less study time overall. I put in as many hours for each section of the CMA as I did for the CPA. I hope it pays off…

“There is some overlap between the 2 exams. Part 1 of the CMA exam has material that is covered in BEC, and Part 2 has stuff from FAR. That’s an oversimplification because really there are things from all sections of the CPA Exam scattered throughout the CMA exam. Of course, there are also subject areas tested on the CMA exam that are not tested on the CPA Exam.

“If you can stomach the additional studying for a few more months (and if you have the money!) I definitely recommend doing them back to back while all the CPA info is still fresh.”

Additionally, you can further determine your CMA exam readiness by utilizing free CMA study resources.

Relief for CMA Exam Difficulty

While the ICMA has designed the CMA exam to be difficult enough to ensure that CMA candidates have all the knowledge and skills they need to represent the profession well, quantifying the difficulty of professional certification exams is tricky nonetheless. That’s because your own prior knowledge and your ability to understand and remember the information with ease affect how hard the CMA exam is for you.

But, one way you can make the study process much easier and give yourself the best chance at success no matter how much you knew before is to use CMA exam prep. I’ve compared the pros and cons of the most popular CMA review courses on the market, so you can get exactly what you need to pass. And, I’ve also gathered some great CMA review discounts, so you can save big on the CMA exam process.

However, you don’t have to pay for everything you use to prepare for the CMA exam. You can get my CMA course that tells you how to pass the exam the first time absolutely free. Learn more about my free CMA course now or sign up below!

​Get Free CMA Information!

About the Author Stephanie Ng

I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley) and the publisher of this and several accounting professional exam prep sites.

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