Helpful Hints for the Aspiring CPA

When it comes to taking the CPA tests, let’s just say that I never thought that I would be writing to share a personal success story.  These days, my favorite thing to tell someone studying for the CPA exam is, “if I passed, you can too.”  Here’s how I did it in my first year out of college.

1. Get Going

After graduating with enough credits to meet state requirements, I started my journey with a little soul-searching.  I asked myself questions like, “Do I really want to be a public accountant? How badly? What could my future look like in this field? How would I feel if I had an accounting degree, but didn’t have a CPA license?  Do I know anyone who has their CPA license? If they were able to do it, why can’t I?” This exercise helped me resolve my doubts and visualize achieving my goal. It also helped me get past the initial intimidation factor and jump in.

Truly, the first hurdle for any aspiring CPA is to get going. Once you can say to yourself, definitively, “Yes, I want to do this; I believe I can do this; and, I’m starting today,” you’re on your way.

2. Make a Plan

To move forward from a personal resolution to an attainable goal, I needed an action plan.  I began by sitting down with a mentor who helped me map out my year of studying.  In doing so, we considered several factors such as, “When is my goal date to be done with my exams? When is my busy season?  How much time do I need to study? Which order should I take the tests in? How much time do I need between tests? When are the testing windows? Should I have a back-up plan in case if I fail an exam?”

In hindsight, all of the exams cover difficult material. In seeing that each of them have a passing rate of around 50%, I’m not convinced that any are harder or easier than the rest. With that being said, experts recommend a couple things: Don’t take BEC first because the material often builds on the other exams; Don’t take FAR and REG back-to-back because the Financial Accounting rules can easily be confused with Tax rules. Don’t wait more than a couple months after college to start on your exams – they will be incredibly more difficult to focus on once you have more responsibility at work and likely, a life.

To adequately prepare, they each require a minimum of eight - twelve weeks of study time to get through all the reading, videos, multiple choice questions, and simulation questions associated with each chapter.  (Keep in mind, I did this on evenings and weekends. My friends who took time off work to study full-time were able to do a test every six weeks or so.)  Also, due to testing windows, you are unable to schedule tests during closed months which are March, June, September, and December.

For me, it made sense to take what I considered to be the most intimidating one first since it had the most chapters and would require the most technical accounting. I reasoned that if I failed, at least my eighteen months wouldn’t start counting down. As it worked out, my timeline looked like this:

3. Commit

Having a plan helped me visualize a timeframe of studying and taking my tests.  Just as important as having the plan though, was getting online and actually registering for the date and time for testing.

From my experience, the best time to schedule the exam is the day that you start studying for it. Using Becker’s software, I was able to get a good idea of how long it would take to go through the study material and I added a week or two to have a little (but not too much!) time to prepare.

I liked taking them on Mondays so that I could have the whole weekend beforehand to study.  Since I always scheduled it far enough ahead of time, I never had a problem getting the timeslot I wanted, but I’ve heard that can be a problem if you wait to schedule until last minute.

4. Go for it

Everyone studies differently; I have friends who studied at home, at the library, at Panera, at the mall, at their desk at work before or after work hours, in their car, etc. As you can probably guess, some places are more effective than others.

I found that the biggest factor for me in my study-method was the actual material and types of questions being covered. For example, the majority of FAR questions require a calculator, so I needed a place that didn’t have a lot of distractions, where I could spread out, listen to the audio clearly, and go through multiple choice and simulation questions. In contrast, the Audit test was more conceptual and required memorization. Studying for Audit, I can remember standing in line at the grocery store going over my flashcards on my cell phone or listening to the audio on the app in the car.

One thing that I couldn’t have lived without was the Becker Mobile App. It gave me the ability to take Becker audio, multiple choice questions, and flash cards with me wherever I went.

This goes without saying, but… Yes – you really need to go through all of the chapters. No, you do not need to actually highlight everything they tell you to. Yes, you should try to go through every single multiple choice question at least once. For my most successful exam, I went through them all at least two or three times. No, you do not need to do the final exams. But they help.

5. Don’t Reschedule (Unless you really need to)

Inevitably, stuff comes up and normal life delays good intentions. The tests always seemed to come for me before I was 100% ready.  I had several friends who dealt with this by paying up to reschedule their exams.  As it turns out, even when you reschedule, you still don’t feel 100% ready.

My advice – don’t reschedule. Instead, during the full week or so prior to the tests, I made sure my schedule was clear and I went through a speed chapter each night, to hit high points.  Then during the weekend beforehand, I dived headfirst into the really difficult topics to make sure I would do well when the time came.

6. Show Up

Get enough sleep the night beforehand. Drink water. Eat breakfast. Bring your ID. Bring the correct Notice to Schedule. Don’t bring your cell phone. Don’t attempt bringing notes in your pocket. Duh.

True story though – my friend brought the wrong NTS paperwork to his exam.  (By the way, this paperwork is really important because it is the only record of the code which you absolutely MUST have to get into your exam.)  As a result, he was unable to take his test and had to pay the $200 or so to retake it the next week.  Hence, bring the correct NTS.

Another friend brought his cell phone into the building and, as per the rules, left it in a locker. The phone’s alarm started going off during his test. He knows this because an administrator interrupted his test to come get him to turn it off. Fortunately, the alarm stopped going off before they could specifically identify him as the culprit. Had they been able to do so, he too, would have been kicked out of his exam. Just leave your cell phone in the car.

I learned after my first test to bring ear plugs. It helped me focus my attention away from the fifteen other people taking high-stress tests right next to me.

I also learned after my first test that I had bad habits that I needed to correct for next time.

Here’s some bad habits to avoid: Don’t re-read each question five times before reading the potential answer choices.  Don’t wear shoes or jewelry that can easily come off or on.  Don’t wear clothes that are too warm.  Save as much time as possible so that you actually have time to answer everything.

Do I know this from experience? Yes.  In my first exam, I ran out of time and I actually left a simulation blank = Bad. As it turns out, you can still pass if you did everything else. It also turns out that it is definitely possible to get exactly a 75 and pass. If I were you, I would set my sights just a little higher for the sake of your own sanity and comfort level.  This should also go without saying, but if you get higher than a 90, you may have studied a little more than needed.

7. Stick to the Plan

From going through this with coworkers and friends, I have seen many people who have wasted weeks and months of their early career in public accounting by simply not scheduling their exams after they take the first one. As a result, they have too much idle time that is burdened by guilt and worry related to the procrastination and delays.  Seriously, don’t delay in scheduling and starting to study for your next exam.

Keep going and you will be glad you did.

8. Don’t Give Up

For me, the longest I had to wait after taking each exam was about three weeks and, by the grace of God, I managed to pass each one the first time.  For my friends who weren’t so lucky, they were faced with a difficult choice – do I retake the test I just failed? Or do I move on to another one?

To answer that, is to return to the beginning and soul-search: “How far off the mark was I? What could I have done differently in my study schedule? Do I have time right now to try again?”

Without a doubt, this is the most difficult part of the journey for many, many aspiring CPAs and often leads to even more difficult questions like “Is this really for me? Can I still achieve my goal career without passing this test? What does that mean for my future?”

9. Stay Humble

Ultimately, my story was one of having a plan, sticking to it, and miraculously passing all four exams the first time.  But for many, this isn’t the case.  Sometimes I wonder how my story would have been different if I had failed an exam.

Failing an exam would have given me the reality of feeling the full disappointment of failure; the opportunity to resolve again to make a plan and persevere by recommitting my time and energy toward my goal; and the occasion to feel the full satisfaction, relief and pride of having passed after an initial struggle.

From this perspective, the test is not just about having the knowledge to tell people how to file their taxes or enter journal entries into their accounting software. Rather, it is the kind of test which offers an opportunity to work on character and resolve for excellence. This is a test which provides an opportunity to rise to the occasion and will have a lasting impact on career aspirations and future endeavors. Who knows what future doors may be opened by the present reality?  There’s only one way to find out.



Katie Koval

Kate Koval, CPA Staff Accountant | 574.289.4011
Kate is experienced in audit and tax services with a focus on not-for-profit engagements including preparation of Form 990s.  She provides staff level accounting services to clients, including: Audits, reviews, and compilations, Corporate tax preparation, and Individual tax preparation.

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