Which CIA Exam to Take First: Establishing Your CIA Exam Order

cia exam order

As you probably know, taking the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) exam is one of the CIA requirements for certification. Therefore, if your goal is to become a CIA, you must pass the CIA exam. However, the CIA exam actually consists of 3 separate exam parts. Therefore, passing the entire CIA exam involves passing each individual exam part. And the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA), the creator of the CIA exam, does not require you to take the exam parts in any particular order. So, you can arrange the parts in the best CIA exam order for you. And with this information, you can discover which CIA exam to take first. You can also determine which CIA test order you should follow.

What Are the 3 Parts of the CIA Exam?

The 3 parts of the CIA exam are:

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

Furthermore, the CIA exam syllabus reveals that each exam part covers the following content areas:

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%)

Furthermore, we also learn from the CIA exam format that all 3 CIA exam parts contain only multiple-choice questions (MCQs), but they present different numbers of MCQs. What’s more, the amount of total testing time allowed for each CIA exam part differs according to the number of MCQs.

CIA Exam Format

Exam Part

Number of MCQs

Total Testing Time


125 2.5 hours (150 minutes)



2 hours (120 minutes)

3 100

2 hours (120 minutes)

Finally, one of the factors influencing the CIA exam difficulty is the depth of knowledge each CIA exam part expects candidates to have for the topics that the exam part addresses. The CIA exam syllabus refers to the expected depth of knowledge as cognitive levels and defines them as such:

  • 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.

Additionally, the CIA exam parts assess candidates for the 2 cognitive levels with the following number of topics:

CIA Exam Cognitive Levels

Exam Part

Basic Level

Proficient Level

Part 1

14 16

Part 2

14 21

Part 3



The IIA publishes the CIA exam pass rates for each exam part, and the average overall pass rate is currently 48%.

CIA Exam Part 1

As you can see, Part 1 is the longest of the 3 CIA exams. It has the most MCQs and the most total testing time. Part 1 also has the second highest number of topics tested at the Proficient cognitive level with 16. However, due to the nature of its subject matter, Part 1 receives my lowest estimate of total CIA exam study hours.

Exam Part Minimum # of Study Hours Safe # of Study Hours
 Part 1  30-40 hours 55-65 hours

The minimum number of study hours is for candidates who review the content of an exam part and feel pretty confident in their knowledge of it. The safe number of study hours is for those who are uncomfortable with a significant portion of an exam part’s topics.

CIA Part 1 Content

Part 1 also has the most content areas. These content areas align with the IIA’s International Professional Practices Framework (IPPF). Furthermore, the IIA specifies that Part 1 adheres to the Attribute Standards, which include series 1000, 1100, 1200, and 1300. Part 1 also follows Performance Standard 2100.

Because the IIA has designed Part 1 to assess the essentials of internal auditing, this exam part contains the broadest subject matter. However, Part 1’s material relates the most to the daily work of an internal auditor. So, if you currently work in internal audit, you may find CIA exam Part 1 to be the easiest for you despite its size and duration.

However, Part 1 requires you to be very familiar with the IIA’s standardized methodologies. So, if you’ve been an internal auditor for a long time and have developed some of your own methodologies, then you must review the IIA’s standards during your Part 1 preparations. Learning the IIA’s standards is essential for ensuring that your methodologies align. Or, you need this information to see where your methodologies differ from the IIA’s.

Of course, if you are not working in internal audit at the moment, mastering the Part 1 content may require more effort from you. While the topics found in Part 1 are balanced, clear, and uniform, they are still numerous. Therefore, preparing to pass CIA Part 1 on your first try may be one of the biggest challenges on your CIA exam journey.

CIA Exam Part 2

Part 2 has fewer MCQs and less total testing time than Part 1. It also has fewer content areas, but Part 2 requires candidates to be proficient in the highest number of topics. For this reason, I estimate that Part 2 necessitates a greater number of study hours than Part 1 for candidates who aren’t as familiar with the content.

Exam Part Minimum # of Study Hours Safe # of Study Hours
 Part 2  30-40 hours 60-70 hours

CIA Part 2 Content

As you can see from the included content areas, CIA exam Part 2 is really about the practical application of being an internal auditor. Therefore, it tests candidates’ knowledge and skills related to performing the function of internal auditing. Furthermore, the second CIA exam part adheres to the IPPF Performance Standards series 2000, 2200, 2300, 2400, 2500, and 2600. And with the highest number of topics tested at the Proficient level, this test is the most in-depth of the 3 CIA exam parts.

What’s more, my readers confirm that CIA exam Part 2 is similar to Part 1 in that experience in internal auditing equips candidates with an advantage over these CIA exam parts. Seasoned internal auditors usually use the exam content of Part 1 and Part 2 at work, so they already understand this information. And studying for Part 1 can also increase your readiness for Part 2.

But not every internal auditor is responsible for completing all of the steps of the internal audit process from their professional position on a regular basis. And even if you do apply most of the internal audit process consistently, you shouldn’t assume that you can ace the test without studying because Part 2 is still very comprehensive.

Furthermore, your company may not arrange the internal audit process in the same way that the IIA does in the CIA exam. Therefore, you can’t underestimate this exam part. Instead, you must commit plenty of time and effort to understanding the material as deeply as the IIA wants you to.

CIA Exam Part 3

Just like Part 2, Part 3 is shorter than Part 1. Part 3 has fewer MCQs, fewer content areas, and less total testing time than Part 1. Furthermore, Part 3 allows candidates to only reach the Basic cognitive level for the vast majority of its topics. However, Part 3’s content also strays the most from traditional internal auditing information. Instead, this exam part concentrates on business operations with an emphasis on IT. And the fact that its content can be quite foreign to internal auditors is the reason I estimate the most number of study hours for Part 3.

Exam Part Minimum # of Study Hours Safe # of Study Hours
 Part 3  40-50 hours 85-95 hours

CIA Part 3 Content

The third part of the CIA exam integrates the candidate’s internal auditing skills with core business skills.  Concerned with business practices essential to internal auditing careers, CIA Part 3 measures your understanding of business in general and your ability to work well within a business environment. Consequently, knowledge of standard business operations and procedures is key to passing this test.

Because many internal auditors don’t use the information tested in Part 3 on the job, this exam part can give candidates quite a bit of trouble. CIA candidates can’t use their experience to relate to this exam part, so they have to learn much of the material from scratch. But, because Part 3 usually only asks for a basic level of understanding, you can simply memorize much of the information.

Additionally, Part 3 questions tend to be more conceptual, so you can’t easily deduce the answers. These questions are also somewhat long, so you need some stamina to get through them without getting tripped up.

What Is the Easiest Part of the CIA Exam?

Knowing which part of the CIA exam is the easiest may help inform your CIA exam part order. For this reason, I’ll specify that most candidates find Part 1 to be the easiest CIA exam part. The fact that Part 1 covers the basics of internal auditing with which internal auditors and, therefore, most CIA candidates are already familiar explains its reputation as the easiest exam part.

What Is the Hardest Part of the CIA Exam?

Similarly, you may benefit from knowing which part of the CIA exam is the hardest. Again, I can tell you, based on the feedback of my readers, that most CIA candidates consider Part 3 to be the hardest CIA exam part. The content of CIA exam Part 3 revolves around business and information technology topics with which many CIA candidates are not very familiar. For this reason, many candidates find Part 3 to pose the biggest threat to their CIA exam success.

What Should Your CIA Exam Order Be?

As mentioned, the IIA does not mandate a particular CIA exam order. And you don’t even have to take any of the CIA exam parts on the same day. So, candidates have a great deal of freedom when taking the CIA exam.

But this freedom forces you to make some big decisions. Specifically, you must decide which order to take the CIA exam parts in. And the order you choose could affect your odds of passing because of how the content of the exam parts relates to each other.

Start CIA Exam with Part 1

To answer the question of which CIA exam to take first, I generally recommend taking the 3 exam parts in numerical order. So, start with Part 1, then take Part 2, and end with Part 3. Following this CIA exam order allows you to start with the basics and build on them. Therefore, I believe this order is the best for individuals who already work in internal auditing or who plan to work in internal auditing as soon as possible.

However, depending on your specific circumstances, arranging the CIA exam parts in another way may be better for you. For example, your experience may actually equip you for success with Part 3. So, in that case, you could start with Part 3 to get a fast pass in and develop your confidence with the exam format. Some candidates may have similar reasons to start with Part 2.

Therefore, to select the best CIA exam order for you, you should evaluate these reasons to start with one part over the others. But before you decide, you should also consider your past and current career status, your future career goals, and the amount of exposure you’ve had to the topics tested by each exam part.

Reasons to Start the CIA Exam with Part 1

Several reasons exist for starting with the first part of the CIA exam. So, this move is usually the best for CIA candidates.

1. You’ll get the longest part done first.

Though you’ve committed to the process of becoming a CIA, you’ll still find that passing the CIA exam demands that you jump through a number of psychological hurdles. So, slaying the biggest CIA exam giant first can be a great morale boost for you to take into the next 2 tests.

Though Part 2 and Part 3 are shorter, they can be as challenging if not more so than Part 1. So, you may appreciate having an extra bit of confidence from passing Part 1 on your side as you approach the other 2 parts. You’ll feel especially good about your chances with the other parts if you pass CIA Part 1 on your first try.

2. You’ll expose yourself to more diverse material right away.

The questions in CIA exam Part 1 encompass the broadest range of topics. As we learned, Part 1 features 6 content areas as opposed to 4. So, when you begin your exam journey with Part 1, you can use this assessment to analyze your performance with a greater number of subjects.

Consequently, you can simultaneously prepare for the other exam parts that will go further in-depth into some of these areas.

3. You’ll encounter a more equal number of Basic and Proficient Level topics.

Of the 3 CIA exam parts, Part 1 has the most equal ratio of Basic and Proficient level topics. In contrast, Part 2 has a higher number of Proficient level topics, while Part 3 has more Basic level topics.

So, when you start with Part 1, you can see what the tougher questions look like before you face an influx of them in Part 2. Similarly, you can benefit from an advanced introduction to the Basic level questions before you take Part 3 because Part 3’s questions don’t deal as much with internal auditing.

For these reasons, seeing a similar number of questions about both the Basic and Proficient level topics right away better positions you for success with the subsequent exam parts.

4. You’ll focus on internal auditing fundamentals.

If you’ve worked as an internal auditor for any length of time, then you should be most familiar with the fundamentals of internal auditing. Therefore, Part 1 is most likely to be your CIA exam sweet spot. Some internal auditors are also quite familiar with the internal audit process, but this information is more likely to diverge from the IIA’s standards.

So, you’ll probably find the most common ground between your knowledge and the IIA’s expectations if you start with the CIA exam Part 1. And by building a solid exam pass on that common ground, you can lay a foundation for CIA exam success.

5. You’ll start with less intense content.

Again, Part 1 involves the most basic principles of internal auditing. What’s more, the breadth of knowledge required is about equal to the depth of knowledge required. For these reasons, many candidates consider Part 1 to be the easiest part of the CIA exam, even though it’s the longest. Therefore, opening with the easiest part will help you ease into the CIA exam process.

A Reason to Start the CIA Exam with Part 2

One reason you may want to begin the CIA exam with Part 2 is if your analysis of the Part 2 syllabus convinces you that you’re already very familiar with this content.

For some people, the hands-on, process-dictated parts of internal auditing are the most interesting. Consequently, these individuals will probably do well on CIA exam Part 2, as its material draws heavily from an internal auditor’s day-t0-day work. You could also feel confident in your performance on Part 2 if you have experience working in an IA department.

A Reason to Start the CIA Exam with Part 3

If you’re a CIA candidate who hasn’t worked in internal auditing yet and is, therefore, approaching the profession from another career field, you may want to initiate your CIA exam journey with Part 3.

People preparing for the CIA exam who come from professions in IT, cybersecurity, and other ancillary business operations may find Part 3 to be the easiest because it deals with internal auditing the least. Furthermore, the preponderance of Part 3 questions requires only Basic level knowledge. Therefore, you don’t need more than a few years of experience in these other vocations to do well in Part 3.

Reasons to Adjust Your CIA Exam Part Order

With an average pass rate of 48%, the CIA exam is fairly difficult. Therefore, many candidates will endure a failed CIA exam part at some point in the testing process. A failed part is not an excuse to give up on your CIA certification dreams. However, it may be sufficient cause to alter your CIA exam part order. If you find yourself in either of these 2 circumstances, you should consider changing your course toward CIA exam success.

1. You failed Part 1 by a narrow margin.

If you just barely failed Part 1, and you performed strongly on the portions of the test that deal with the internal auditing process, then you may want to consider moving on to Part 2 before retaking Part 1 again.

Due to a CIA exam date restriction imposed by the IIA, you actually have to wait 90 days before you can retake Part 1 anyway. However, you can take another CIA exam part during this time.

What’s more, if you study for and pass Part 2 during your Part 1 waiting period, you can increase the depth of knowledge you need to pass Part 1.

So, by staying in study mode and conquering a different exam part, you’ll give yourself a better chance of returning to and passing Part 1 with minimal problems.

2. You failed Part 1 and Part 2, and your 4-year deadline is looming.

Because you have 4 years to pass the entire CIA exam, the odds of you finding yourself in this scenario should be small. But nonetheless, if you have, unfortunately, failed both Parts 1 and 1 and have less than a year before your program eligibility period is up, then trying your hand at Part 3 while you wait to retake the other exam parts can’t hurt.

Again, because Part 3 involves more internal-auditing adjacent topics, you may find it to be the hardest part of the CIA exam. Consequently, you’ll have to study longer for Part 3.

But if you learn from your testing experiences with Part 1 and Part 2, optimize your studies by applying the best CIA exam preparation tips you’ve found, and make sure that you’re using the right CIA review course for you, then you can beat the odds and pass Part 3 on your first try.

Then, you can ride the momentum of mastering the CIA exam preparation process to pass Part 1 and Part 2 as quickly as possible.

Which Order to Take the CIA Exam Parts In

So, for the majority of candidates, we recommend starting with CIA Part 1. CIA candidates working as internal auditors should relate well to the generalized subject matter. They should also be able to use their studies for this exam part to bolster their preparations for the other exam parts.

The order in which you arrange the CIA exam parts is important to your success, but equally important is the CIA review course you use to prepare for the exam parts. When you use the right CIA review course for you to study for the CIA exam, you have everything you need to pass each part on the first try. You can find the best CIA review course for your learning style and study needs by reading my review course comparisons. Then, you can use my CIA discounts to save on your preferred exam prep.

Finally, you can get even more information about how to pass each exam part the first time in my free CIA e-course. Learn more or sign up below!

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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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