How Hard is the CMA Exam? Understanding CMA Exam Difficulty

how hard is the cma exam

How Hard is the CMA Exam?

So you want to know how difficult is the CMA exam? Based off CMA pass rates alone, I’m not surprised that many potential candidates are put off from wanting to tackle this exam. In fact, the majority of candidates don’t get a passing score.

With CMA exam pass rates as low as 40% for Part One and 50% for Part Two in 2017, there is obviously some level of difficulty.

But why is the CMA test hard and what can you do to bridge the gap between the statistics and earning your own passing grade?

There are a few factors that may contribute to these low marks, so let’s break down some of the most common issues.

CMA Exam Prerequisites

The first step in getting your CMA certificate is to earn a bachelor’s degree. What’s interesting about this is that that CMA doesn’t care what kind of degree you have. Unlike other career niches where you are required to have an applicable degree, anyone can take the CMA exam. That is to say you could have a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and that qualifies you for the CMA exam.

In my opinion this puts you at somewhat of a disadvantage because you will not be familiar with any of the study materials or content prior to preparing for the exam.

While there is an experience requirement that candidates must fulfill – two continuous years in an applicable field of management accounting – I still think the degree prerequisite adds to the low passing rates.

CMA Exam Structure

This exam is made up of two different parts. As I mentioned above, the passing rate for Part One is only 40% and 50% for Part Two as of 2017.

Each Part of the exam contains 100 multiple-choice questions and an essay section. The essay section is comprised of 2 scenarios with anywhere from 2-7 questions that must be answered within it. Candidates have 3 hours to complete the MCQ section and 1 hour to complete the essays.

The exam is taken at one of the many global Prometric centers and are computer based. It has been my experience that many candidates get jammed up on how to study for the CMA exam and don’t use the right tools to prepare; ie. the right review course.

Exam Content

In terms of content, each Part of the exam covers quite a bit of information. Part One is all about Financial Reporting, Planning, Performance and Control. This requires understanding external financial reporting decisions, planning, budgeting and forecasting, performance management, cost management and internal controls.

Part Two consists of Financial Decision Making, which covers the topics financial statement analysis, corporate finance, decision analysis, risk management, investment decisions and professional ethics.

Each of these topics is broken down even further and covers a ton of material. So if you were wondering how to pass cma exam be sure to use a study planner and strategically plan out all the material!

The shear volume of information covered in each part of the exam is one of the reasons getting a CMA exam passing score is so difficult. For this reason I highly recommend using a review course with adaptive learning technology so you can focus your study efforts on the information you don’t understand that well vs wasting your time on content you comprehend.


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Skills the Exam Tests You On

Due to the fact that the role of a certified management accountant is so specialized, it’s necessary that the exam tests candidates various cognitive skills to ensure they really know the material.

The ICMA (the governing body responsible for scoring the exams) tests the following skills:

    • Knowledge – ability to identify, define and list learned materials and facts
    • Comprehension – ability to grasp and understand the content
    • Application – ability to demonstrate how knowledge is used in real situations
    • Analysis – ability to break down components, identify and interpret relationships between causal relationships, etc
    • Synthesis – ability to use knowledge learned from analysis to formulate new procedures or operations
    • Evaluation – ability to criticize material, justify its accuracy and form conclusions

Your ability to demonstrate each of these cognitive skills, especially during the essay portion of the exam, is critical to success.

CMA vs CPA Exam Difficulty

I get a lot of questions about whether or not the CMA or CPA is the right way to go. There are similarities between the two designations (a likeness for numbers and accounting), but there are several differences between the CMA vs CPA exams, respectively.

Unlike the CMA exam that covers all the aforementioned topics in just two exam parts, the CPA exam is broken down into 4 parts. By splitting up topics into smaller chunks, it makes it easier for CPA candidates to focus their study efforts on key material without overwhelming themselves with a ton of information.

This could account for the slightly higher CPA exam pass rates. The overall pass rate for CPA’s is nearly 50%.

The scope of material covered for financial management varies by designation and your personal interest in the material can play affect in your success. For example, if you are enjoying the CMA content you will be more apt to stick to a study program and of course, more likely to retain the information. On the other hand, if you find public accounting topics more exciting then the CPA exam may be right for you.

How to Pass CMA Part 1 and 2 With Ease

It’s true, the general format and volume of material covered in each part of the CMA exam can make it difficult, but there are ways around this.

For starters, understanding the multiple-choice section of the exam and what is expected from you during the essay section of the exam process can be incredibly beneficial. The more familiar you become with the exam structure, the more likely you are to succeed.

In addition to that, choosing a CMA review course that taps into your personal learning style and ensuring you study the right amount of hours per week can increase your odds too.

Also, learning to avoid procrastination and surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family can make a world of difference.

When it comes down to it all, the CMA exam is constantly changing. Developed by the Institute of Management Accounts in 1972, they are continuously introducing new exam questions and evaluating the effectiveness so candidates are being tested fairly. Just make sure to put in the study time, use a high quality CMA review course and believe in yourself. You can do this!

Worried about passing or have any other questions to ask? Drop them in the comment section below.

Preparing for the CMA exam with Your Coach Nathan




More from Nathan:

CMA Exam Passing Score: How is the Exam Graded?
How to Study for CMA Exam – My Best Study Technique Revealed
Why You Need Live Coaching Calls to Stop Over Analyzing Your CMA Study Material

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10 Comments on “How Hard is the CMA Exam? Understanding CMA Exam Difficulty”

  1. Hi Nathan,
    Thanks for all the helpful info on the CMA exam. I read every article you send out.
    I would like to know if I can take the second CMA exam before the first one, as it has a higher pass rate.
    Kind regards,
    Michael White

    1. Hi Michael,

      You are very welcome. To answer your question, yes you can take Part Two before taking Part One. That’s the order in which I took the exams too. Thanks, Nathan

  2. Hello Nathan,

    Thanks for your article. It’s very informative. As someone with an educational and professional background in Accounting, the CMA exam would be the ideal qualification for me. Alas, my problems are : (1) The entry fees are pretty high for the CMA . The rate of exchange of my local currency to the USD does not make it any easier and with no payment plans offerred by IMA, this makes it difficult to enter for this exam. (2) The exam is not offerred in my country, so if I register for the CMA, I would have to factor in airfare and accommodation into my budget. This makes me very frustrated as I know I could do very well in the CMA. Tell me what you think.

  3. Pingback: CMA Exam Changes in 2020 - CMA Exam Academy

  4. Thank you for the information it’s was very helpful.
    In order to succeed in CMA exam the most important factor is time . Time management that you implement during the exam . I would like to ask you some tips and tricks on how to effectively utilize the time during exams.

    1. Hi Anmol,

      I’m glad to hear you found this article helpful!

      I totally agree that effective time management is a critical factor when it comes to exam success.

      In my video below I explain how to tackle the most questions in the shortest period of time and thus earn the most points on your exam:

      Hit reply if you have any other questions. I’m happy to help!


  5. Hi Nathen,

    I just want to know that which type of work experience in management accounting is required to start CMA?
    Can i start CMA with no work experience and get experience along with my CMA?

    1. Hi Chandan,

      I have another article on the work experience requirement, check it here:

      You absolutely can take the exam first and then fulfill the experience requirement within 7 years of passing the exam.

      You’ll then receive your CMA certification as soon as you submit the education and experience qualifications to IMA.


  6. I have just received my CMA part 1 result and unfortunately I couldn’t pass it. I had prepared
    using Gliem material for the exams. I want to re take the exam can you guide me onhow to pass the exam

    1. Hi Farzana,

      I’m sorry to hear you didn’t pass the exam this time. I absolutely can guide on how to prepare for the retake, and I’m confident that if you follow our study plan you’ll pass the exam next time around 🙂

      Here’s the link to our flagship course if you’d like to enroll. But if you have any other questions or need anything else, don’t hesitate to hit ‘reply’.

      Thank you,

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