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How Hard Is the Enrolled Agent Exam? Exploring Enrolled Agent Exam Difficulty

how hard is the enrolled agent exam

How hard is the Enrolled Agent exam?

For EA exam candidates with major commitments to work and family, knowing the difficulty level of the EA exam (officially known as the IRS Special Enrollment Exam or SEE) is very important.

Truthfully, this is a rather subjective question. However, I have taken specific steps so I can provide an objective analysis. As a result, I can help you effectively prepare for the EA exam.

Enrolled Agent Exam Difficulty: How Long to Study for the Enrolled Agent Exam?

How hard is it to become an enrolled agent? Many EA candidates are asking this question. And many of them are accounting and tax professionals. Therefore, in this analysis, I will mainly compare the EA exam to the U.S. CPA Exam and the CMA exam.

CPA Exam

The U.S. CPA Exam has four parts covering a wide variety of subjects, including financial accounting, audit, taxation, business law, ethics, strategic planning, corporate finance, IT, and economics. This exam tests these subjects at the introductory level. However, given the breadth of coverage, preparing for and passing all four parts takes a lot of time.

Roughly speaking, the average candidate spends 300-400 hours studying for the CPA Exam.

CMA Exam

The U.S. CMA exam has two parts. The exam covers costing accounting, audit, corporate finance, and financial management at a deeper level than the CPA Exam. Having said that, the coverage is otherwise much narrower given its management accounting niche. Therefore, studying for the CMA exam takes less time than studying for the CPA Exam.

The IMA suggests candidates study for at least 150 hours for each exam part. Consequently, the total study time for the entire CMA exam comes to around 300 hours.

EA Exam

The CPA exam is a mile wide and an inch deep. The EA exam is only a quarter mile wide but a lot deeper.

The EA exam focuses on the niche of federal taxation. It delves very deeply into this subject matter by touching upon individual and business tax along with matters of representation.

Given that the tax code is essentially a list of rules, you can pass the EA exam by doing the following:

  • Memorizing the tax code
  • Applying the tax code to various tax filings
  • Using the tax code to make specific tax interpretations

And, unlike the CPA Exam, you don’t need extensive knowledge of business and accounting to pass the EA exam.

Because the EA exam only has three parts instead of four like the CPA Exam, you shouldn’t need to study for the EA exam as long in total as you would for the CPA Exam. You also don’t need to study quite as long for each exam part.

While many candidates study somewhere between 100-170 hours for each CPA Exam section, most EA candidates don’t need to put in more than 80-100 study hours for each of the EA exam parts. So, the duration of your EA exam studies simply depends on how well you know the material beforehand and how many hours you can study each week.

Number of EA Exam Study Weeks

Exam Part # of Study Hours 10 Hours/Week 15 Hours/Week
1 80-100 8-10 weeks 6-7 weeks
2 80-100 8-10 weeks 6-7 weeks
3 60-80 hours 6-8 weeks 4-6 weeks
Total 220-280 hours 22-28 weeks 16-20 weeks

We also cover how much time you will likely need to pass the EA exam.

Enrolled Agent Exam Pass Rate: How Hard Is the Enrolled Agent Exam?

As the average Enrolled Agent exam pass rate is 71%, many people find the EA exam to be easier than the CPA Exam or CMA exam.

EA Exam Pass Rates

Part 2015-2016 2016-2017 2017-2018 2018-2019 2019-2020 2020-2021
Part 1 72% 61% 61% 62% 61% 66%
Part 2 57% 64% 65% 69% 70% 74%
Part 3 88% 82% 86% 86% 81% 83%

*Note: The 2022 EA exam pass rates aren’t available yet. 

The overall U.S. CPA Exam pass rate is around 50%. The CMA exam pass rate is lower, at 35% for Part 1 and 50% for Part 2.

Many factors influence the pass rates of professional accounting certification exams. For example, if the state boards of accountancy didn’t require all CPA Exam candidates to have an accounting degree or equivalent, the CPA Exam pass rates could be lower. They could also drop if the state boards did away with mandatory courses in audit and tax.

However, what we learn from the EA exam pass rates is that candidates who prepare properly have the best chance at EA exam success.

Enrolled Agent Feedback: How Hard Is It to Become an Enrolled Agent?

Conveniently, I have a few readers who are both CPAs and enrolled agents.

When these readers compared the CPA REG exam section to the EA exam, most of them agreed that the EA exam went deeper into the material. But they also found that the EA exam questions were more straightforward. REG, on the other hand, has trickier multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and the dreaded task-based simulations (TBSs), which are case study-like questions.

On the EA exam, candidates have 3.5 hours to answer 100 MCQs. In contrast, the REG exam requires candidates to complete 76 MCQs and 8 TBSs within 4 hours.

The 3 exams in total may be as difficult as REG without the business law content. ~ M123 (registered Enrolled Agent)

The EA exam dedicates a bit more attention to limits, phase-outs, and income brackets. Therefore, the EA exam is not extremely difficult. Rather, it is just different than the CPA Exam.

If you think of tax law as a lot of rules, exceptions to the rules, and exceptions to the exceptions, then you can expect a lot of the EA exam to focus on exceptions. For this reason, the EA exam doesn’t really have trick questions per se. Rather, it simply demands that you know the content thoroughly.

Enrolled Agent Exam Difficulty: Which EA Exam Part Is Hardest?

Some of you may wonder which part of the EA exam is the most difficult. To make this determination, you could combine feedback from others with your own familiarity with the content of each exam part. Additionally, you could consult the enrolled agent exam pass rates to infer which EA exam part is the hardest.

Until very recently, Part 2 had the lowest EA exam pass rates. However, in 2016-2017, the EA exam Part 1 pass rates officially dipped below those of Part 2. Part 1’s pass rates have stayed at the bottom of the pack for the last few years, but it’s probably too soon to assume the switch is set in stone. What does seem to be a sure thing, as has been the case for 10 years now, is that EA exam Part 3 has the highest pass rates.

My Conclusion: How Hard Is the EA Exam?

So, we’ve learned the following about the difficulty of the EA exam:

  • Preparing for the EA exam takes less time than preparing for the CPA and CMA exams.
  • Though the exam content goes deep, it is pretty much confined to the tax code.
  • All three sections of the EA exam have pass rates higher than 50%, which is above average for accounting certification exams.

While this is all good news, none of it suggests that you should take the EA exam lightly. Your goal is not just to pass the exam eventually, but to pass it effectively (i.e., on your first try). So, now that you know about the enrolled agent pass rate, you can begin to strategize to become an EA. Next, it’s time to start thinking about your enrolled agent exam prep.

To help you manage the enrolled agent exam difficulty and increase your chance of EA exam success, I’ve created my free EA e-course. Sign up today to learn more about how hard the exam is and how easily you can pass it.

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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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