Get it "Write" on the CPA Exam

By: Stacy Ray, Becker Professional Education

If you think that accounting is just about the numbers, think again. Today, accountants must do more than master and apply generally accepted accounting principles. They must also demonstrate their knowledge and understanding through the letters, reports, emails, and memos they write for clients, co-workers, and superiors as well as in the descriptive footnotes that make up the bulk of the financial statements that CPAs prepare for publicly traded companies to file. 

In fact, many accountants spend almost as much time writing about numbers as they do analyzing them. While no one expects an accountant to write like a Pulitzer Prize winner, the accounting profession takes the communications skills of its members very seriously.

For proof of the importance placed on written communication skills, you only have to turn to the CPA Exam – on the Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) section, 15% of the score is based on your ability to communicate effectively in writing.

On the BEC section of the exam, you need to complete 3 written communications tasks, one of which is a pre-test question.  Each task requires you to read a situation and then write an appropriate “constructed response” relating to it. The exam instructions dictate what form the document should take— either a memo or letter, for example— and its focus.  To score well, you must be able to respond with correct information in a clear, complete, and professional manner.

The exam instructions as they appear on the CBT-e tutorial at, say, “Your response will be graded for both technical content and writing skills. Technical content will be evaluated for information that is helpful to the intended reader and clearly relevant to the issue. Writing skills will be evaluated for development, organization, and the appropriate expression of ideas.”

Maximize points on written communication tasks

Just like with multiple-choice and task-based simulation questions, doing well on the written communication tasks takes strategy and a clear understanding of how the communications will be graded.

  • Keep your response relevant and on topic. The examiners emphasize that only those writing samples generally responsive to the topic will be graded. If your response is off topic, you will not receive credit.

  • Your response should consist of an introduction or thesis statement that describes the purpose of the document, a main body that that supports your thesis statement, and a conclusion that summarizes your key points and restates the purpose.

  • Use correct spelling, grammar and punctuation.  The word processing software that you will use will have a spell check feature but you should also carefully proof read your response to ensure you correct grammatical and word choice errors.

  • Use key words from the question in your response.

  • Do not use bullets points or abbreviations.

  • Budget your time.  From my experience, one of the most difficult aspects of the written communication tasks is completing them in the allotted time.  Be sure to allow 60 to 75 minutes for writing and proofreading.  Approach each question logically by carefully reading the question and outlining your supporting points before you begin writing.   

To strengthen the skills needed to score well on the exam, the AICPA recommends consulting books specific to business writing. Some well-respected books include The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (Macmillan Paperbacks) and The Business Writing Handbook by William Paxson (Bantam Books). Also consider Effective Writing for Accountants, by Cos Ferrara. Many web-based resources of varying levels of sophistication and usefulness also exist.

Are you planning to sit for BEC soon—what are your strategies for tackling the written communication tasks?


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