Updated: Apr 21
This article is intended to get to the bottom of this, as our company offers tutoring services for both the CPA and CA programs so we are very familiar with both courses, the nuances, differences etc. To get to the bottom as to which whether CPA is tougher than CA, or if CA is tougher than CPA, we need to learn the differences between the two programs. We have set 5 criteria categories to identify which program is more difficult within each. We will then add up the scores for each program to determine objectively which is more difficult.
1. Exam structure - CA is tougher
CA Program has more difficult exams than CPA. This mostly comes down to the format of the exam. For CPA, the fact that the exam structure is almost entirely multiple choice questions (MCQ) can make the exam seem easier to some than CA, as with MCQ you can often guess the correct answer via deduction, whereas with CA you need to calculate the correct answer and there is no fall back.
CA requires short and extended responses, many of which require either journal entries, calculations (such as tax recs), audit assertions and various other practical measures. CPA on the other hand, generally does not require any substantial calculation and instead relies on heavy reading comprehension of the textbook.
2. Subject Structure - CPA is tougher
CPA has 6 subjects (4 compulsory, 2 electives), whereas CA has 5 subjects (all compulsory), however this is changing with CA's new program. Each subject takes roughly the same amount of time, but CPA has 1 more, meaning currently CPA has a bigger workload because of the additional subject, but this will change with time as CA introduces its new program.
3. Core Content Studied - CA is tougher
CPA Program is more focused on commercial issues (e.g. case studies, subject focus on changes in business, technology, industry). The study approach is more reading content heavy and involves less practical work like journals, calculation etc. It involves a lot more comprehension skills rather than analytical / mathematical. You can get through the course by having a really solid set of notes/index or just a strong common sense to deduct the correct answer in the MCQ exam.
CA Program on the other hand is more focused on fundamental accounting and tax skills (e.g. financial reporting, journals, students have to complete journals, calculations, short answers etc.). This is a lot more practical and suited for a professional services environment (i.e. Big 4). CA has much of the work relates to either financial reporting, tax, audit or management reporting. The type of content studies, whilst more relevant to professional services and a good learning foundation, is very comprehensive and in depth. It also requires you to have a deep understanding of each concept as you will be required to recreate it in the short and extended responses. This means you will need to have good templates (e.g. journal templates, tax rec file etc.), good notes but also a very good understanding of the content (so we strongly recommend exam prep courses for CA).
4. Passing Mark - Tie
The CA Program requires a 50% passing mark, in both the final exam as well as your total score. However the other component to your mark is only 3 small online quizzes, meaning it essentially all comes down to your performance in the final exam. Should you fail this, you will only have 1 other chance, being the supplementary exam, otherwise you will need to retake the whole subject all over again.
CPA Program's passing mark is not as clear as CA. The pass mark for the CPA Program exams is a scaled score of 540. As CPA Australia create multiple versions for their exams each semester, they use scaled scoring that equates exam results across different exam versions. There is no single correct answer for the passing mark, as it depends on the subject and year, but as a rough idea it is also about 50%, although it could theoretically be slightly higher/lower depending on several variables.
5. Reputation for recruiters / companies - Tie
Whilst this point does not directly relate to one course being harder than the other, it is relevant in the sense of how esteemed each course is in terms for recruiters. There are some articles that suggest CA is a more credible qualification, however generally speaking both are credible qualifications.
All of the Big 4 Accounting firms prefer Chartered Accountants and actually require their graduate students to undertake the CA program, not the CPA Program. This is reflective of the fact that the CA program is more hands-on (e.g. students have to complete journals, calculations, short answers etc.)
On the other hand, many FMCG/corporates (think Coca Cola, RB etc.) actually prefer CPA. This is reflective of the fact the CPA Program is more focused on commercial issues (e.g. case studies, subject focus on changes in business, technology, industry rather than just fundamental tax and accounting skills).
As a senior finance professional, which one actually matters more? It doesn't really matter at this point, both are deemed equally acceptable by recruiters. Most senior ads, e.g. at CFO level, will request candidates to have either a CA or CPA (see the example image below).
Based on the criteria above, the scores are as follows (higher number = more difficult)
CA - 4
CPA - 3
Based on the above criteria, the CA program is slightly more difficult, but CPA is not far behind. At the end of the day, both programs are highly regarded in the community and will provide you with a strong base to start out your finance career, so don't stress too much about picking one. A good rule of thumb is if you want to work in professional services, you might be better of choosing the CA program, whereas if you see yourself working in the corporate space, CPA program may be better. At the end of the day, you will be fine with either program, just make sure you have a good set of notes, templates, practice questions and exams as well as high quality exam prep courses!