CIA Exam Difficulty: How Hard Is the CIA Exam Compared to Other Accounting Exams?

cia exam difficulty

Before you embark on the CIA journey, you might want to understand how much of a challenge earning this qualification can be. For example, you may have questions like, “How hard is the CIA exam? How does it compare to other accounting certification exams such as the CPA Exam or CMA exam?” To give you the answers to these questions, we’ll assess the different factors contributing to CIA exam difficulty.

How Hard Is the Certified Internal Auditor Exam?

To determine how difficult the CIA exam is, we can consider several factors of the exam, including the:

  • Pass rates
  • Format
  • Content
  • Cognitive Levels
  • Question Type
  • Duration

Furthermore, comparing these CIA exam aspects to other accounting certification exams also provides a frame of reference for the CIA exam difficulty.

Is the CIA Exam Hard? Consulting the Pass Rates

While the CIA exam pass rates don’t have to affect your personal chances of exam success, they can suggest how much you must prepare to pass. You make your own destiny with the CIA exam, but seeing how many other people pass can still help you gauge the CIA exam difficulty.

CIA Exam Pass Rates


2014 2015 2016 2017


Pass Rate


39% 30% 42%


As you can see, the current overall CIA exam pass rate is 43%. The IIA does not release the pass rates for the individual exam parts, but with such a low overall pass rate, we can still infer that none of the exam parts are very easy.

Furthermore, when we compare the CIA exam pass rate to those of other accounting certification exams, we see that both the CPA Exam pass rates, which average about 50%, and the CMA exam pass rates, which presently average 45%, are higher. The Enrolled Agent exam pass rates are higher and average around 70%. (Our sister site has more information about becoming an Enrolled Agent, including the EA salaries.) Regardless, we can conclude that the CIA exam is a fairly formidable test.

How Difficult Is the Certified Internal Auditor Exam? Figuring Out the Exam Format

The CIA exam is not just one big long examination. Instead, this exam consists of 3 parts:

  1. Essentials of Internal Auditing (Part 1)
  2. Practice of Internal Auditing (Part 2)
  3. Business Knowledge for Internal Auditing (Part 3)

As part of the CIA requirements, you must pass all 3 exam parts within 3 years. Thankfully, this time limit is a bit longer than that of the CPA Exam, which has 4 parts and only gives you 18 months to pass them all. However, the setup of the CIA exam is not as convenient as that of the CMA exam, which only has 2 parts and gives you 3 years to pass them both.

Facing multiple exam parts not only draws out the exam process, but it also increases the difficulty of the exam overall. The fact that the content, cognitive levels, question counts, and duration of each CIA exam part are comparable to those of single-part exams like the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT makes the CIA exam a bigger challenge.

What Is the CIA Exam Difficulty Level? Reviewing the Exam Content

The content that the CIA exam covers also affects how difficult you find this exam to be. Of course, the more familiar you are with this material, the faster you can prepare for it and the more likely you will be to pass it. Consequently, if you haven’t already had a lot of exposure to this information, you will need to study longer and expend more effort to pass.

The CIA exam syllabus reveals that the content of each CIA exam part focuses on specific aspects of internal auditing.

CIA Exam Content

1: Essentials of Internal Auditing

2: Practice of Internal Auditing

3: Business Knowledge for Internal Auditing

I. Foundations of Internal Auditing (15%)

I. Managing the Internal Audit Activity (20%)

I. Business Acumen (35%)

II. Independence and Objectivity (15%)

II. Planning the Engagement (20%)

II. Informational Security (25%)

III. Proficiency and Due Professional Care (18%)

III. Performing the Engagement (40%)

III. Information Technology (20%)

IV. Quality Assurance and Improvement Program (7%)

IV. Communicating Engagement Results and Monitoring Progress (20%)

IV. Financial Management (20%)

V. Governance, Risk Management, and Control (35%)

VI. Fraud Risks (10%)

As you can see, the CIA exam takes a very in-depth approach to internal auditing. The CMA exam and the EA exam are similar in their comprehensive coverage of management accounting and federal taxation, respectively. However, the scope of the CPA Exam is much broader, as it encompasses auditing, business, financial accounting, taxation, and more. Therefore, the CIA exam is difficult in that it asks you to know more information about fewer topics as opposed to less information about more topics.

Which Part of the CIA Exam Is the Hardest?

Again, candidates who have years of internal auditing experience will probably fare better with the CIA exam content than candidates who are very new to the industry. In fact, seasoned internal auditors should have a particular advantage over Part 1 and Part 2, as these exam parts stick to the basics of internal auditing and the processes that many internal auditors follow on the job.

However, because Part 3 focuses on topics such as financial management and information technology, auditors who don’t specialize in these areas may struggle more with that exam part. For these reasons, Part 3 has a reputation for being the hardest CIA exam part.

CIA Exam Part 1 Difficulty

But, as you can see from the syllabus, Part 1 contains more content areas than the other exam parts. Furthermore, Part 1 has more questions and a longer testing time than Parts 2 and 3. Therefore, Part 1 is a bigger exam.

Additionally, the internal auditing essentials that Part 1 addresses adhere very rigidly to the Institute of Internal Auditors’ (IIA) International Professional Practices Framework (IPPF). The IIA explains that Part 1 also tests candidates’ knowledge, skills, and abilities relating to the International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing.

So, if you don’t use these methodologies on a daily basis, then you can’t expect your initial grasp of the Part 1 content to be as strong. This statement is especially true for internal auditors who learned a lot of their craft at work and developed their own audit procedures. These auditors will have to review the IIA’s standards more carefully to ensure their auditing tactics align with the IIA’s.

Consequently, because Part 1 has more questions and more specific content, some candidates may have a harder time passing Part 1 than Part 3.

How Difficult Is the CIA Exam? Considering the Cognitive Levels

Not only does the CIA exam expect you to know a lot about internal auditing, but it also requires your knowledge to be deep. To verify that your comprehension of the exam content is strong enough to uphold the Certified Internal Auditor title, the CIA exam assesses your knowledge of each topic at 1 of 2 cognitive levels:

  • Basic Level – Candidates retrieve relevant knowledge from memory and/or demonstrate basic comprehension of concepts or processes.
  • Proficient Level – Candidates apply concepts, processes, or procedures; analyze, evaluate, and make judgments based on criteria; and/or put elements or material together to formulate conclusions and recommendations.

The CIA exam syllabus assigns each cognitive level to the following number of exam part topics:

CIA Exam Cognitive Levels

Exam Part Basic Level

Proficient Level


14 16




3 32


Total 60


Clearly, the CIA exam doesn’t demand that candidates be proficient in the majority of its topics. But the exam still tests you for deep levels of knowledge often enough that it isn’t a walk in the park.

Is the Certified Internal Auditor Exam Difficult? Learning about the CIA Question Types

Each and every part of the CIA exam only presents one type of question: multiple-choice (MCQs). The number of MCQs in each exam part differs.

CIA Exam Question Counts

Exam Part

Number of Questions







The number of questions you must answer on the CIA exam is higher than the question counts for most other accounting certification exams. For example, none of the CPA Exam sections have as many as 100 questions.

The CPA Exam also offers a wider variety of question types, such as task-based simulations and written communication along with MCQs. Consequently, the CIA exam is also one of the biggest accounting certification exams to offer only one type of question. The CMA exam also includes 100 MCQs in each exam part, but it also contains essay questions. Furthermore, the Enrolled Agent exam questions are only MCQs, but none of the exam parts has more than 100 MCQs.

What’s more, the vast majority of the CIA exam questions (especially those in Part 1 and 2) are theoretical questions. And, this lack of question type variety is both good and bad news for candidates.

For those who do not like calculations, answering only MCQs is great. However, many candidates appreciate the very clear, black-and-white style of computational questions and dislike the theoretical questions in which more than one answer seems to be correct and you must pick the slightly better one. This predicament is typical for internal control questions.

Therefore, you either love or hate the CIA exam questions depending on your love/hatred towards theoretical questions. And, depending on your feelings toward the questions, you may find the CIA exam more or less difficult. However, answering the CIA exam questions is easier if you have practical internal auditing experience and are able to pick the correct answer intuitively.

How Hard Is the CIA Exam? Discovering the CIA Exam Duration

The CIA exam difficulty level is high not only because it contains a large number of questions, but also because it doesn’t give you a lot of time to answer these questions. Consequently, the average amount of time you can commit to each question is low. Total testing time for each CIA exam part and the recommended amount of time to spend on each question are as follows:

CIA Exam Testing Time

Exam Part

Total Testing Time Amount of Time Per Question


150 minutes (2.5 hours) 1.2 minutes
2 120 minutes (2 hours)

1.2 minutes

3 120 minutes (2 hours)

1.2  minutes

When you compare total testing time for the CIA exam to the CPA Exam, you see that the CPA Exam has 4 sections (Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environments and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG)) and you have 4 hours of total testing time for each section. Again, these exam sections only contain several dozen questions each, so in some instances, you have between 10-30 minutes to answer all offerings of one question type.

Furthermore, as mentioned, the EA exam has 3 parts (Individuals, Businesses, and Representation, Practices, and Procedures), and each part has 100 MCQs. However, you also have 3.5 hours of total testing time for each EA exam part, which is almost twice as long as you have for most of the CIA exam parts.

On the CMA exam, you also have 3 hours to answer 100 MCQs as opposed to the 2 hours you have on the CIA exam.

And, the CIA exam does not penalize you for getting a question wrong. Therefore, you’ll want to get to every question so that you can at least guess at the answer and increase your chances of earning points. Consequently, you must practice strict time management to do so. For these reasons, the abbreviated amount of total testing time you have contributes to the CIA exam difficulty.

How Does the CIA Exam Difficulty Compare?

Based on the factors we have discussed, I believe that for most candidates, the CIA exam is likely less difficult than the CPA, especially if you are working in the IA or general audit and compliance industry. Furthermore, the CIA exam difficulty level is probably on par with the CMA exam, but not as easy as the EA exam.

CIA exam Part 1 and Part 2 should be relatively straightforward for most candidates with relevant experience. Consequently, Part 3 could be more of a challenge as it covers IT, business acumen, and financial management.

What Steps Can You Take to Alleviate the CIA Exam Difficulty?

You can prepare for the CIA exam by taking several different steps. First, you can discover the CIA exam pass rate. Then, you can learn more about the CIA exam format. And don’t forget to consider your exam prep options to find the best CIA review course for you. And, use a CIA review discount so you can save on your perfect course.

Finally, you can learn how to pass the CIA exam on your first attempt in my free CIA course. Sign up below!

Conversely, if the CPA Exam doesn’t sound so bad, you can learn more about how the CIA certification compares to the CPA so you can know which may be better for your career. You can also learn how to pass the CPA Exam with CPA review courses and CPA review course discounts.

Or, if you decide that getting both the CIA and the CPA credentials is best for your career, there is another option. Passing the IIA CIA Challenge Exam offers an expedited path to becoming a CIA. Basically, if you already hold certain accounting credentials like the CPA, the IIA lets you pass the Challenge Exam instead of taking the normal path to become a CIA.

The exam is tough, however. Still, you can study with a course like the Gleim CIA Challenge Exam Review System or even use the HOCK CIA Challenge Exam Material and get the tools you need to pass. Therefore, passing the IIA Challenge Exam after you earn your CPA could help you gain both qualifications faster.

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About the Author Stephanie

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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