Failing the CIA Exam: Why CIA Exam Fails Happen and How to Avoid Them

When you begin the process of taking the CIA exam, you most likely plan to pass each exam part on your first try. And prioritizing passing efficiency is a great idea. But, because the unexpected can happen, learning what to do if you fail part of the CIA exam is also important. So, use this information about the CIA exam difficulty, the reasons people fail, your options after you fail, and study tips to avoid failing the CIA exam or to come back from failing a CIA exam part.

Will You Fail the CIA Exam? CIA Exam Difficulty

Whether you’ve failed the CIA exam yet or not, you should know that this exam presents a significant challenge to CIA candidates. Therefore, failing the CIA exam is a fairly common thing to do. An assessment of the CIA exam difficulty shows us why.

Pass Rates

First of all, the CIA exam pass rates are low. Specifically, the overall CIA exam pass rate is currently 43%.

CIA Exam Pass Rates

Year 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Pass Rate 42% 39% 30% 42% 43%

This pass rate is lower than the overall CPA Exam pass rates and the overall CMA exam pass rates. So, although the IIA doesn’t provide the pass rate for each exam part, we can still use this number to conclude that none of the CIA exam parts are easy.

Exam Format

Secondly, the CIA exam format prevents the exam from being a piece of cake. The CIA exam has 3 separate parts:

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

Furthermore, you must pass all 3 parts within 3 years while also meeting the other CIA requirements within this time. And all 3 of these exam parts have content, cognitive levels, question counts, and durations comparable to those of single-part exams like the GMAT and the LSAT. So, each CIA exam part is clearly hard enough on its own.

Exam Content

The third aspect of the CIA exam’s difficulty level is the content. The entire exam focuses solely on internal auditing. And each exam part takes a very in-depth approach. As the CIA exam syllabus reveals, each exam part addresses a number of content areas that cover more specific internal auditing topics. Part 1 has 6 content areas, while Parts 2 and 3 each have 4 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%)

The scope of the CIA exam is narrow, so you need to know more information about fewer topics, which can be tricky to do.

Cognitive Levels

What’s more, the CIA exam requires you to comprehend much of its content at a deep level. The exam assigns 1 of 2 cognitive levels to each topic encompassed within each exam part:

  • 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.

CIA Exam Cognitive Levels

Exam Part Basic Level Proficient Level
1 14 16
2 14 21
3 32 3
Total 60 40

As you can see, you need to know almost half of the CIA exam topics at a proficient level, which takes a good deal of effort.

Question Counts

Fifthly, the entire CIA exam contains only multiple-choice questions (MCQs). However, the number of MCQs each exam part presents is high.

CIA Exam Question Counts

Exam Part

Number of Questions






In total, the CIA exam contains more questions than the CPA Exam and the EA exam, so it is not just some little test.

Total Testing Time

Finally, the CIA exam doesn’t give you very much time to finish each exam part. But the IIA doesn’t penalize you for incorrect answers. So, you’ll want to answer every CIA exam question. And because of how little time you have to get through each part, you must practice time management to do so.

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

According to the testing time totals for each exam part, you should average no more than 1.2 minutes for each question to get through the test in time. And, because the CIA exam questions are mostly conceptual and, therefore, occasionally confusing, this is easier said than done.

So, certain details of the CIA exam make it indisputably hard. For this reason, you’re almost guaranteed to fail if you take the exam with little to no preparation. The exam trips up even very experienced internal auditors. But you don’t have to be among the candidates who fail if you discover the reasons people fail and take the steps to avoid them.

Why Do People Fail the CIA Exam? Reasons for CIA Exam Failure

By comparing numerous successful and not-so-successful stories of CPA, CMA, and CIA candidates over a period of many years, I have concluded that people using fail to pass professional accounting certification exams for 1 of 3 reasons.

1. Insufficient Preparation Time

Underestimating the amount of time exam preparations require is one of the biggest reasons why candidates fail the CIA exam.

Internal auditors who take the CIA exam often find that their work experience helps them in their comprehension of much of the CIA exam Part 1 and CIA Part 2 content. However, these exam parts cover the basics of internal auditing as they align with the Institute of Internal Auditors’ (IIA) International Professional Practices Framework (IPPF), the International Standards for the Professional Practice of Auditing, and the IIA’s approach to the entire audit process. And sometimes, even auditors who’ve been on the job for years are a bit rusty with some of this information.

Therefore, no matter how much you know about internal auditing, you should still budget enough time to complete an entire CIA review course so that you can guarantee that your internal auditing knowledge meets the CIA exam’s expectations.

Furthermore, internal auditors are usually not very familiar with the CIA exam Part 3 content. This exam part focuses on topics such as business acumen, financial management, and information technology. Consequently, most internal auditors don’t interact with these topics on a daily basis.

What’s more, Part 3 also includes theoretical questions that you can only prepare for by reading textbooks and listening to video lectures. For these reasons, candidates must also allot a considerable amount of study time to Part 3 (in fact, more than any other exam part, in my opinion).

So, as you can see, the nature of the CIA exam leaves you with no reason to rush through your studies or cut them short. You won’t pass any of the exam parts if you don’t study long enough.

2. Insufficient Effort

You also won’t pass if you don’t study well enough. Remember: the CIA exam is a professional accounting certification exam that intends to prove whether you are worthy of the Certified Internal Auditor designation. As passing this exam is part of earning such a prestigious title, the task requires acquiring a great deal of knowledge and skill. For this reason, CIA exam success is not something you can hope to achieve on a wing and a prayer.

Therefore, you must give each and every study session your all. You can’t slack off and let your mind wander during the time that you’ve committed to concentrating on the exam content. If you don’t invest in the process of learning 100% of the time, then you’re just wasting your time, as you won’t be getting any closer to passing the exam.

And, of course, if you’re not passing the exam parts you take, you’re failing them. And unfortunately, failing doesn’t just cost you more time, but it also costs you more money. You must pay additional CIA exam fees each time you have to retake an exam part. So, not putting enough effort into your studies is an expensive mistake.

3. Lack of Understanding of the Concepts

Even if you do put enough time and effort into your studies, you may still not understand the concepts of the exam content well enough to pass. Your grasp of the information may not be as deep as the CIA exam desires unless you use the right study materials to address your learning style and solidify your knowledge.

So, if you are a linguistic learner, you need to make sure you read all of the lessons in the textbooks. You may be tempted to just watch the video lectures to make your studies more entertaining and less mentally demanding. But, if your mind needs to see the information spelled out in front of you in order to get the picture, then you can’t ignore the books.

Furthermore, if you’re a kinesthetic learner, you may need to augment your CIA study materials by taking notes in the textbook margins or highlighting the explanations of critical concepts. Additionally, you may even need to make your own flashcards so that you can keep your hands engaged in the learning process in multiple ways. In the event that your course comes with flashcards, you don’t necessarily have to make your own, but you definitely need to review with them so that you can make the motions that trigger your mind to learn and remember.

Utilizing the best study materials for your learning style ensures that you’re making the most of your study sessions. Furthermore, addressing your learning style specifically actually allows you to expend less mental effort and avoid getting burnt out too quickly, as the right study materials will make it easier for your mind to fulfill the task at hand.

4. Lack of Time Management

Another issue that can keep you from CIA exam success is time management. As we learned, you don’t have a lot of time to spare during the CIA exam. In fact, you’ve got to limit your time with each question to a little more than 1 minute. And 60 seconds goes by pretty quickly when you’re under a time restriction.

So, to prepare for the pressure, you’ll want to develop a deep understanding of the exam content, as knowing the content as well as you can is essential for moving through the exam quickly. However, you’ll also want to create and perfect your time management strategy.

Practicing the process of answering questions within a certain amount of time should also become a constant component of your CIA studies. Only by training with your time management system can you have the best instincts in place for exam day. So, you should apply time management every time you answer a practice question or complete a practice question.

Additionally, working with a course that replicates the look and feel of the CIA exam also helps you become more familiar with the exam environment in advance. And the better you know what to expect on exam day, the less time you’ll waste reacting to surprises. When nothing has thrown you off, and you’ve addressed every CIA exam question, you know that you’ve maximized your CIA exam score.

5. Unsuitable Review Course for Your Learning Style

One slightly less common but still substantial reason why candidates fail the CIA exam is that their CIA review course failed them.

Now, I don’t recommend pointing the finger at your review course right away after failing a CIA exam part. Instead, you should consider all of the other possibilities first. For example, you should ask yourself the following questions to rule out the chance that you’ve developed some bad study habits:

  1. Did I study for a sufficient number of hours?
  2. Was I always concentrating as hard as possible during all of my study sessions?
  3. Did I answer as many practice questions as I could before my exam day?
  4. After answering practice questions, did I read the explanations for both the right and wrong answers?
  5. Was I committed to strengthening my weak areas?

If the answer to all of these questions truly is yes, then you can let yourself off the hook and pass the buck on to your review course. Your review course probably let you down by either not fitting your learning style or not being a high-quality learning tool. And in either case, you should purchase either a supplemental course or a new course altogether so that you can get the study materials you need to pass.

What Can You Do After You Fail a CIA Exam Part? CIA Exam Options

If you do fail a CIA part, what options do you have for your next step? Well, as is the case with most failures, you have 2 options. First, you can apply what you’ve learned from this experience and continue on with your CIA journey. This step would involve taking the failed part again and any remaining exam parts. Or, second, you can throw in the towel and cease your pursuit of the CIA.

What are the benefits of quitting? Well, you don’t have to take the exam again. So, you get your free time back. You also don’t have to spend any more money on the CIA process. But that’s about it.

But what reason do you have to get back up and go at the CIA exam again? Plenty! The incentives to press on include:

  1. You’ve already completed the CIA application and received approval to enter the program.
  2. You now have experience with the exam.
  3. You’ve already paid the CIA exam fees once.
  4. You still have a CIA review course.
  5. You’ve put a great deal of time, effort, and money into the CIA process already.
  6. You can avoid the feeling of regret that may haunt you indefinitely if you quit.
  7. You’re on your way to enjoying all of the advantages of the CIA certification.

Therefore, even though you’ve failed part of the CIA exam, you still have more to lose by quitting than by trying again. Staying the course is clearly the best choice, so don’t give up!

Retaking a CIA Exam Part

To stick with your dream of earning the CIA, you need to retake the CIA exam section you failed. How can you do that?

First, you must re-register for that part, which you can do as soon as your scores appear in the Certification Candidate Management System (CCMS). When you complete the CIA exam registration process again to retake the failed exam part, you will have to pay the exam fee for that part again as well. Then, once you receive another authorization to test from the IIA, you can return to the Pearson VUE website to schedule a new testing appointment for that exam part. The IIA does not limit the number of times you can retake an exam part.

However, the IIA does impose a 90-day waiting period on exam part retakes. And after you register to retake the failed exam part, you still have to schedule and sit for the exam within 180 days. Therefore, if you register to take the failed exam part again immediately after you receive your official exam results, then the earliest appointment date you will be able to schedule will be 90 days from the date you took the exam part that you failed. Then, you will be left with just 90 days to sit for the exam before your exam eligibility expires.

So, if you want more time to retake your failed exam section, you should wait to register for the failed exam part again until 90 days after the date you failed. At that point, you could schedule your exam appointment for any time within your 180-day exam eligibility window.

Sticking with Your CIA Exam Schedule

Because you have to wait 90 days to retake the part you failed, you may want to consider taking another CIA exam part during that time. Remember: you must pass all 3 exam parts and fulfill the other CIA requirements within 3 years of entering the program. And if you study for 10 hours a week, you can prepare for another CIA exam part in about 7-12 weeks.

If you stop studying for a few weeks during your 90-day waiting period, you’ll lose your study momentum, which will consequently make passing next time even harder. And the content of Part 1 and Part 2 build off each other enough, so studying for one exam can aid you in preparing for the other.

So, for these reasons, you should definitely stay the course of your CIA exam studies even if you fail an exam part.

What If the End of Your 4-Year Eligibility Period Is Approaching?

If you’re coming to the end of the 4-year period, and you still have to take or retake an exam part, you may wonder whether you should continue to press on or let the CIA certification close its doors on you.

To help you make this decision, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the CIA certification important to my career?

For some internal auditors, the only way to advance any higher on the corporate ladder is to further distinguish themselves from their peers, and the CIA certification enables them to do that. If you’re sure to get a promotion and even a raise once you earn the CIA, then it is definitely worthwhile. However, if this certification is more of a nice-to-have but won’t really affect your career prospects, then a lack of motivation to stay in the program for another few years is understandable.

  1. Would you regret giving up on the CIA?

Are you the kind of person who would struggle to forgive yourself for backing out of such a significant venture? Would the fact that you came close but didn’t finish eat away at you for years to come? You may need to do some soul-searching to answer these questions, but getting this information about yourself is valuable.

I’ve seen people resume their CIA journeys after giving up years ago because the feeling of failure lingered within them. They can’t shake the remorse, and they see passing the exam as the only way to avoid wasting all the hard work they put into the process in the past.

The older you are when you go after the CIA, the more mentally and physically taxing the testing process can be. So, if you know you’ll be disappointed in yourself for bailing out now, then don’t do it.

  1. Are you willing to give yourself just a little more time?

In all honesty, earning the CIA designation may not be something you’re cut out for. And that is completely fine. Putting so much time and money into one exam can definitely be exhausting. But you should be absolutely sure before you undo everything you’ve done up until this point. To give yourself the assurance you need that leaving the CIA journey behind is the right move, you should give yourself an ultimatum.

Take up the mantle of studying once again and prepare for this next exam part as best you can. Arm yourself with the right tools and the right attitude, so you have no excuses. Then, take the exam again. And if you still end up failing, then consider this occurrence the closure you need. You did your best, but certification just isn’t for you. When you know you’ve given it your all, you don’t have to worry about the results. You can simply move on with your life because this failure isn’t the end of the world.

How Can You Avoid Failing the CIA Exam? Steps for CIA Exam Success

1. Get the best CIA review course for you

Your CIA review course should be your last suspect for a CIA exam fail because it should be your first priority when you start your studies. The CIA exam is too difficult and too important for me to ever recommend preparing for it without the help of a CIA review course.

Elements of CIA Review Courses

A CIA review course is a set of study resources that will prepare you for the CIA exam by covering and explaining the exam content, enabling you to develop your knowledge and skill, and providing a support system for your studies. CIA review courses usually contain the following materials:

  • Digital or physical books
  • A bank of practice questions
  • A study planner
  • Video lectures
  • Audio lectures
  • Customer service access
  • Performance tracking software
  • Limited time access

Essentials of CIA Review Courses

To find the best CIA review course for you, you should evaluate your options based on the following criteria:

  • How well the course components fit your learning style
  • Who authored the materials
  • How often the provider updates the course for the current exam version
  • What level of customer service you’ll receive
  • The adaptive nature of the course platform
  • The kinds of customer reviews the course has garnered
  • Who leads the lectures
  • The value of the course based on the price
  • The guarantees and course access period you’ll have
  • How long the provider has been active in the industry
  • The opportunity to demo or interact with the course before you buy it
  • The ability of the course to recreate the exam experience
  • The number of practice questions included

The course you choose should satisfy your needs in the majority of these areas. So, learn everything you can about the most popular CIA review courses on the market. And don’t settle for anything less than the best one for you. Only then will you have everything you need to achieve CIA exam success.

And when you’re ready to purchase your preferred CIA exam prep, don’t forget to use one of these great CIA review discounts!

2. Complete your entire CIA course

Once you’ve bought a CIA review course, you must give it enough time to do its job. Your course comes with the number of study units, practice questions, and practice exams the provider feels is necessary to adequately train candidates in the exam’s internal auditing subject matter. Furthermore, some CIA courses include adaptive technology that gauges your exam readiness. So, for these reasons, you should follow your course layout as closely as you can to ensure that you receive all of the knowledge and information it intends to impart to you.

You can be sure that you’ve given yourself enough time to complete your CIA review course when you budget the following CIA exam study hours for each exam part.

CIA Exam Study Hours

Exam Part

Minimum Number Safe Number

Part 1

30-40 hours 55-65 hours

Part 2

30-40 hours

60-70 hours

Part 3

40-50 hours

85-95 hours

If you’re already very familiar with the content for a certain exam part, you can probably expect to study for just the minimum number of hours in this table. However, if you’re new to the material and need to learn the basics, you should plan to study for the safe number of hours.

If you don’t get through your entire course, or at least wait until your course confirms that you’re scoring well on practice quizzes and exams, then your chances of passing will be lower than necessary. Therefore, you should trust the experts who created your course to know what passing the exam takes. Then, give yourself enough time to meet their standards by completing the course.

3. Use the best study materials for your learning style

How well a CIA review course addresses your learning style should be one of the main factors in determining which course you purchase. Therefore, you need to know your learning style to get the right course for you.

To determine your learning style, assess your processes to see if you learn best when

  • Someone explains something to you. If so, you’re an auditory learner.
  • You’re constantly moving. If so, you’re a kinesthetic learner.
  • Watching a video or looking at images. If so, you’re a visual learner.
  • Reading books and taking notes. If so, you’re a linguistic learner.
  • Discovering the reasoning behind an idea. If so, you’re a logical learner.
  • Investigating new information on your own. If so, you’re a solitary learner.
  • Interacting with a group of people. If so, you’re a social learner.

If you take a different approach to learning based on the subject you’re trying to comprehend, then you probably have more than one learning style, which is common.

Once you know your learning style, you must make sure that your study materials suit it. So, for example, if you’re a visual learner, you most likely need to use the video lectures in your review course. If you’re a kinesthetic learner, you should work with your course’s flashcards or make your own. Logical learners should read all of the answer explanations for the practice questions they answer. And, social learners should reach out to the professors and accounting experts they have access to or chat with fellow CIA candidates in the course forums or message boards.

Hopefully, your course already comes with the resources you need to learn the way that is most effective for you. And if it doesn’t, then purchase the supplemental materials you need to complete your collection of study aids.

4. Focus on your weak areas

You will fail the CIA exam if you have enough weak areas or if your weak areas are especially significant. Therefore, the best way to ensure that you can do your best on the exam is to focus on your weak areas and strengthen them as much as possible.

When you use a CIA review course with adaptive technology, the course will analyze your performance on diagnostic quizzes to identify your weak areas. Then, the course will direct you to book chapters or video lectures that explain the content you’re struggling with.

After that, the course will serve you practice questions that ask about your troublesome topics. To know that you’re making progress, your performance with these questions should steadily improve.

If you don’t have an adaptive review course, you can address your weak areas on your own by following similar steps. You can still use practice quizzes to discover the topics you don’t know as well, and you can dig deeper into the descriptions of these topics yourself.

Reading the answer explanations for the right and wrong answers to practice questions you complete is another highly effective way of deepening your comprehension and mastering the material.

5. Make the most of scheduled and non-scheduled study time

In order to ensure that you’re committing a sufficient amount of mental effort to each study session, you need to concentrate on the task of learning 100% of the time. And staying completely focused will require you to eliminate any kind of distraction, such as your TV, your phone, and contact with your friends and family (for the time being).

If you give yourself 2 hours to study and spend 45 minutes scrolling through social media, then you’re either extending your exam preparations or reducing your level of readiness on exam day. Therefore, you must demonstrate self-control and some mental fortitude to be productive each time you study.

And, to help you get plenty of review time in before your testing appointment, you can also study outside of your scheduled study sessions. The easiest way to do this is to maximize your idle time.

For example, when you’re driving to work, you can listen to audio lectures. Or, you can flip through flashcards when you’re sitting in a waiting room. You can even take a practice quiz on your phone while riding the bus or the subway.

Taking advantage of these opportunities to study on the go is a great way to guarantee that you’ll reach your study time goals.

6. Study under the best conditions

Not only can your CIA review course help you increase your knowledge and skill with the exam content, but it can also help you develop your confidence in the exam environment. The best CIA review courses on the market recreate the Pearson VUE testing environment by imitating the format and functionality of the exam as much as possible. They do so by designing the screens to match the exam screens, even down to the details like button colors and font types.

The benefit of working with such a course is that you’re adjusting to the look and feel of the exam as you prepare for the exam questions. Doing so minimizes the number of surprises you’ll face during your testing appointment. And when nothing surprises you, nothing can stop you from doing your best.

In other words, the less that’s unfamiliar to you on exam day, the better you’ll perform. So, you should seek to study with a review course that’s committed to CIA exam emulation.

You can take the imitation of the exam environment even further by studying in a quiet, isolated workspace. At certain times of the day, your home office, your work office, or a library meet these requirements. So, don’t try to study at the kitchen table or in a coffee shop. Instead, seek out a place that operates more like Pearson VUE.

7. Stay calm and don’t cram

Based on my recommended study times, your CIA exam preparations should last a few weeks. But they shouldn’t last right up until the hour of your testing appointment. Instead, you should stop studying the day before you sit for the exam.

If you try to stuff as much into your mind as possible during the final hours and minutes, you’ll wear yourself down preemptively and be too burnt out to concentrate during the exam. So, sadly, cramming could negate everything else you’ve done prior to your testing appointment.

Therefore, rather than keep the review train running, you should put the books down and close the internet window to your course at least 24 hours before your appointment. And during this time, you should take the steps necessary to clear your mind and relax.

You may want to rest up by taking a nap or watching a movie. Or, you may decide to stay active by going out with friends, shopping, or exercising. Just do whatever will put your mind at ease and keep you from stressing. Anything that’s not studying works. By giving your mind a break before your exam, you can ensure that you have the stamina and mental stability you need to pass.

Where Can You Get More Help for Avoiding a CIA Exam Fail?

Failing the CIA exam is so frustrating that you should feel motivated to take every possible step to avoid it. And one more step you can take is to sign up for my free CIA e-course. This course covers the entire process of becoming a CIA and tells you how to pass each exam part on your first attempt! So, 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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