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CMA Exam Pass Rate: What the Latest CMA Pass Rates Mean to You

Do you know how to achieve a CMA exam passing score? Or how hard is the CMA exam? Or even how long it takes to pass the CMA exam? You don’t need to be uncertain. Instead, to understand the CMA exam difficulty, we can analyze the CMA exam pass rate. After all, the latest pass rates for the CMA exam suggest how challenging the exam has been for past candidates. And with this information, you can better understand how to pass the CMA exam.

In this post, I am going to walk you through the CMA exam pass rate for first time exam takers. I’ll also explain what it takes to get a passing score for the CMA exam. Hopefully, this will help you be better prepared to get your Certified Management Accountant credential.

Latest CMA Exam Pass Rates

According to the latest percentages, the average passing percentage of the CMA exam is about 43%. Specifically, the latest data to be released by the ICMA (Institute of Certified Management Accountants) shows that 36.25% of candidates passed Part 1 of the CMA exam. However, more people passed Part 2. In fact, over half—50.5%–of candidates passed Part 2, according to a press release from the ICMA. Therefore, the average pass rate of Part 1 and Part is just over 43%.

2020 and 2021 CMA exam pass rates

The ICMA has slowed down its public CMA exam score release in recent years. In the past, the ICMA used to release CMA passing percentages for each exam part about every 9 months. However, a lot of different factors have affected the CMA score release announcements in the past year or so. First, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down just about everything, including the release of CMA exam scores. Why? Well, to start, the ICMA extended several testing windows in 2020 and 2021. And as a result, the release of scores will be extended, too.

Plus, the ICMA has made several updates to the CMA exam itself. That is, the exam content was different in 2020 compared to previous years. On January 1, 2020, the IMA executed an overhaul of the exam curriculum. Consequently, because of the CMA exam changes, the number of questions covering analytics and technology greatly increased. So first, let’s look at the pass rates of the pre-2020 CMA exam vs. the version that was given in 2020 and 2021.

Passing Rate for CMA Exam: Then and now

  CMA Exam Part 1 CMA Exam Part 2
New CMA Exam (2020 and later)* 36.25% 50.5%
Old CMA Exam (average for 2013-2019) 35.8% 49.7%

Still, you should note that although the CMA exam changed in 2020, the ICMA has only publicly released the pass rates for the January/February 2020 testing window. To clarify, we only know how that first cohort of test-takers performed on the new exam in early 2020. Since then, no updates have been announced by the ICMA. Therefore, we don’t know what the CMA pass rates were for the rest of 2020. And likewise, we don’t yet know how candidates have fared on the exam in 2021.

CMA Exam Pass Rates before the 2020 CMA Exam Changes

Exam Part 2013 2014 2015 2015-2016 2016-2017 2017-2018 2018-2019  
Part 1 35% 35% 36% 35% 35% 40% 35%  
Part 2 42% 49% 55% 52% 50% 50% 50%  

*In 2016, the ICMA adjusted when it releases the CMA exam pass rate data. 

About CMA exam pass rates from IMA

Part 1 CMA pass rates

So what can we learn from the CMA exam pass rates? As you’ll note from the charts above, the rates go up and down. But, some trends are apparent.

First, most candidates take Part 1 first. Although you can take the exams in any order you want, most candidates take Part 1before Part 2. So, the Part 1 pass rates are usually lower than the Part 2 rates. There could be several reasons for this trend.

  • Candidates might be caught off guard if they don’t properly prepare for Part 1. And then, they might step up their game and study more for Part 2.
  • Or, if candidates fail Part 1, they might give up and not even attempt Part 2.

Second, the CMA Part 1 pass rate was fairly consistent at 35% until it jumped up in 2017-2018. Then, the 2017-2018 test-takers seemed to do better, and 40% of candidates passed CMA Part 1. It’s hard to know the reason for this jump, but it’s possible that candidates were just better prepared. After all, the Part 1 pass rates went back down in 2018-2019. However, they did improve a bit with the CMA exam changes after 2020, with 36.25% of test-takers passing Part 1 in 2020.

Part 2 CMA pass rates

Historically, more CMA candidates pass Part 2 than Part 1. It’s possible that the following reasons could be behind the difference:

  • Since most candidates take Part 1 first, they might better understand the format and difficulty of the CMA exam when taking Part 2.
  • Likewise, candidates might just study harder for Part 2. Or, they might use a CMA exam review course that better fits their learning style.
  • Of course, if candidates fail Part 1, they might not even attempt Part 2. And then these lesser-prepared candidates don’t skew down the pass rates for Part 2.
  • Depending on their academic and professional background, candidates might just understand the Part 2 content.

The CMA Part 2 pass rate was at its lowest back in 2013 at 42%. But the rate rose quickly, and by 2015, about half of candidates were passing Part 2. It’s not likely that the CMA exam got easier. Rather, candidates probably studied harder and wiser. Since then, the pass rate for Part 2 has hovered around 50-55%, even with the new changes that were implemented in 2020.

CMA Exam Pass Rate by Region

Analyzing CMA pass rate data can help us determine what factors contribute to these rates. Unfortunately, we only have regional CMA exam passing rates up to October 2015. (The ICMA no longer releases a breakdown of CMA pass rates by country.) But I think this information can still be helpful. So, I’ve retained this breakdown of the CMA exam pass rate by region and part.

CMA exam pass rate 2015

Source: SF Magazine (Sep 2016)

If you consider the overall pass rates (shown by the green bar), European candidates have historically done a little better than all other candidates. Test-takers from the Americas and Asia aren’t far behind, however. And according to this data, CMA candidates in the Middle East and Africa might need a little more preparation to make sure they are ready for the exam.

Now, let’s analyze the Part 1 and Part 2 worldwide performances in more detail.

Worldwide Part 1 CMA Exam Pass Rates

part 1 cma exam pass rate 2015

The ICMA used to release country-specific CMA exam pass rate info. So let’s look at a four-year period between 2012 and 2015. (That’s the last good country-specific information we have. Now, the ICMA only releases global pass rate stats.)

For this 4-year period, the worldwide CMA exam pass rate was rather scary at 31%-35%. That’s very low in comparison with other exams, like the CPA Exam. But, if you exclude the Middle East, the statistics look much better. These stats show us that candidates from the Middle East scored significantly lower compared to other parts of the world.

Consequently, the charts make it quite obvious that if your native language is English or you have a chance to learn English in your country (notably Europe, and to a lesser extent, Asia), you have a higher chance of passing. Another reason the Middle East could have lower scores is that they lack the resources for study materials available in other parts of the world. For example, many candidates from the Middle East use local study courses that could be out of date. When the study materials are not high quality, it reflects in the pass rates of those taking the course.

I don’t have details about the sudden jump in the Asian pass rate. Likely, the ICMA counted the pass rate of the local language (63%) versus the English language (56%) among Chinese candidates or the weighted average figure. They represented the vast majority of Asian candidates in 2015. How much does language really affect the CMA scores and pass rate statistics? This is another important factor to consider when we examine pass rates.

The Effects of English on the CMA Exam Pass Rates

The CMA exam tends to have wordy and complex questions that could be a challenge for those with slightly weaker English language comprehension skills. After all, the CMA exam includes not only multiple-choice questions but also an essay section that human examiners grade. This essay section weighs heavily on your ability to read and write English. If you are not a native English speaker, this is one part of the exam you may want to give extra attention to when studying.

We find more proof of the importance of English in China, where candidates can choose to take the CMA exam in English or in Chinese, as mentioned above. The 7% point difference in the pass rates for these 2 exam versions is statistically significant. In short, when candidates can take the exam in their own language, they perform better. Still, this is not available globally yet, as the CMA is primarily a U.S. distinction.

In light of this, international candidates should, therefore, practice English writing as part of their exam preparations.

Part 2 CMA Exam Pass Rates

The data reveals that the pass rate of Part 2 during this time period was considerably higher and even more significant in the non-English speaking regions.

The year-on-year improvement was also encouraging, with the Middle Eastern region reaching an all-time high of 45%.

Reasons for the discrepancy between Part 1 and Part 2 pass rates may include the fact that many candidates sit for Part 1 first and, as we can see, many candidates fail. Therefore, Part 1 seems to weed out the less-prepared candidates. The candidates who go on to take Part 2 were well-prepared for Part 1. And, now that they are more familiar with the exam, they are even more prepared for Part 2. You can take the exam parts in any order, but starting with Part 1 is popular, and that may be partly why its pass rates are lower.

Another potential reason for Part 2’s pass rate success is the fact that Part 2 tests candidates on a narrower range of subjects and, consequently, requires a bit less preparation than Part 1. Part 1 covers a broad scope of topics and can, therefore, be more difficult for some.

CMA Passing Rate Compared to Other Accounting Certification Exams

One of the most popular questions I get from my readers is: how does the CMA exam pass rate compare to that of other accounting certification exams?

Usually, candidates are trying to determine which is the hardest accounting exam. Or, they are comparing while deciding which certification they should pursue. It’s not a bad strategy, but pass rates alone are not enough to tell you which exam is the hardest. Nor do they reveal which one is best for your career.

Contrary to popular belief, the overall CMA exam pass rates are lower than those of the “more difficult accounting exams.” The CMA exam pass rate is also much lower when compared to some niche qualifications. For example, the Enrolled Agent exam pass rate is as high as 61-86%. On the other hand, the CFA exam pass rates are closer to those of the CMA exam at 45-52%. In contrast, the average pass rate for the CIA exam is about 40-43%. These statistics usually surprise people, since they expect the CMA to be easier, and therefore, have higher pass rates.

So, since many CMA candidates also consider other accounting credentials, let’s compare how many candidates pass the CMA exam to the CPA pass rates.

CMA vs. CPA exam pass rates 2018 to 2020

Like the CMA exam, the CPA exam is also known for its high level of difficulty. As such, the CPA pass rate is usually about 50% for the 4-part exam. Here’s a breakdown of how CMA candidates have been doing in comparison to CPA candidates:

  • 2018: The average CMA pass rate (between Parts 1 and 2) was 45% for the 2017-2018 cohort. Compare that to the CPA pass rate of 52.43% in 2018.
  • 2019: In 2018-2019, about 42.5% of CMA candidates passed. Conversely, the CPA exam pass rates for 2019 were higher at 53.41%.
  • 2020: Just over 43% of CMA candidates passed their exams in 2020. In contrast, the CPA exam pass rates for 2020 were much stronger, with 57.67% of candidates passing.
  • 2021: Although we don’t yet know the 2021 CMA pass rates, the CPA exam pass rates for 2021 show that about 54% of CPA candidates have passed.

Lessons from the CMA Exam Pass Rate

Before you let these low pass rates scare you away, let me explain some other important details about the CMA exam. These things impact the pass rates, so let’s explore them.

1. Diversified Pool of Candidates

First, while the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) welcomes CMA candidates from all over the world, the exam format is U.S.-centric. Candidates outside of the U.S. may not be familiar with the terminology in the multiple-choice questions. And if their native language is not English, scoring well on the essays can be quite challenging.

2. Low Barrier of Entry

Second, the IMA lets candidates with just about any type of bachelor’s degree take the CMA exam. It is not specific to accounting degree holders. Conversely, CPA Exam candidates must take a substantial number of accounting and business courses.

As a result, the low barrier of entry attracts candidates who just want to give the exam a try. In addition, these casual takers do not invest sufficient time, money, or effort into properly preparing for the exam. However, you don’t have to be one of them and add to the statistic of lower pass rates. Instead, check out this article about CMA study tips.

Conclusion

Now that you know more about CMA exam pass rates, you can adequately prepare to pass on your first try.

Therefore,

  • If you have a good command of English, and/or
  • If you work hard and complete lots of practice questions to get familiar with the style of the multiple-choice questions,

your chance of passing the CMA exam is much higher than the average CMA exam pass rate. Don’t let the numbers intimidate you. When you study and prepare yourself properly, you can be in the percentage who pass.

Next, let’s look at some ways you can increase your CMA exam pass rate. After all, no one wants to fail the CMA exam. Therefore, preparation is key to your success.

Ways to Increase Your CMA Exam Pass Rate

Obviously, if you are planning to take the CMA exam and you are reading this post, you already have an interest in doing well. That’s great! It means you’re on the right track and you’re doing the legwork necessary to ensure you have a passing score the first time you take the exam.

To give yourself the best chance at CMA exam success, you must review thoroughly and study well. You can learn exactly how to do that in my ultimate CMA exam prep guide, which includes 50 actionable tips to help you nail the exam!

Another way to ensure that you have everything you need to pass the exam is to use CMA exam prep. You can learn all about the most popular courses and get my advice on which ones to trust in my CMA review course comparison.

How to Study for the CMA Exam

To ensure you pass the CMA exam Parts 1 and 2, you need to study properly. As I mentioned above, one reason for the low CMA pass rates is that people simply did not prepare for the exam properly. For instance, they may have been told it was the easier exam. Or, they may have just dropped into it on a whim, without much preparation put into it. Furthermore, they could have taken the CMA exam when they were not an accounting major and without doing the proper research to ensure they passed.

You don’t have to be a statistic. When planning your study for the CMA, here are some tips:

  • Decide which part you are going to take first. There are two parts to the CMA exam and you don’t have to take them in order. Some people choose to take Part 2 first, since it tends to be easier. Once you know which part you are taking first, you can begin to study that part.
  • Choose which exam window you are going to test in. There are only three times of the year that testing windows are open: January-February, May-June, and September-October. You will need to schedule your exam for one of these windows. Then, you will know how much time you have to study and prepare.
  • Create a solid study plan. I talked above about using study guides and review courses, but even the best guides are only as good as you allow them to be. It’s essential you make a study plan and then stick with it consistently. This is how you get efficient study in before your big day, so you can feel confident you will pass the exam.

Finally, to learn all about the CMA exam process, you can sign up for my e-course, which is completely free! Learn more about the course or sign up directly below.

​Get Free CMA Information!

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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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