The CPA exam is notoriously difficult. In fact, the pass rate is under 50%. So, how can you ensure that you are part of the few who pass the test and go on to become a licensed CPA? 

Before the Exam

1. Put in the hours!

The CPA exam is difficult, but not impossible. The most important thing to remember is to manage your time effectively and give yourself adequate weeks to prepare. Everyone will have a different experience preparing for the CPA exam. However, most educators recommend studying for your CPA exam for between 300-400 hours. Therefore, be realistic about scheduling in daily study time. If you are currently working, this also mean factoring in busy season. For instance, if you are working in a public accounting firm specializing in taxation, then you are looking at 60 hour+ work weeks and working on weekends, which will leave no time for studying.

2. Find a good study routine that works for you! 

This is a big time commitment, so find a routine that works best for you. You may decide to spread this out over a number of months or you could condense it into a more intensive study period. What works for someone else might not be the best approach for you. It all depends on your study methods and lifestyle. You should also take into consideration your familiarity with the course work. If you work in taxation or auditing, then you may not need to put in as many hours into preparing for the FAR or AUD, as you might have otherwise. Of course, the best way to tell is by doing a practice paper to test your knowledge and going from there.

3. Prioritize! 

The bottom line? You need to be dedicated to your studies if you want to pass. This may mean putting aside other responsibilities and free for a while. For a couple of months before each examination part, think of studying as your full-time job. If you are working, this means scheduling in at least 2 hours of study time per day, as well a giving up large chunks of your weekend to focus on preparing. Your lifestyle will need to change, so remind the people in your life how important this process is. All the hours of preparation will be worth it when you get your CPA.

4. Do practice papers

It is also a good idea to do practice papers, available on the AICPA website. On the same page you can also find tutorial videos and other helpful resources that will give you a better understanding of what to expect from the exam. Most CPAs also recommend pounding as many multiple choice questions (MCQs) as possible prior to each exam. They are a good way to test you knowledge, familiarize yourself with the type of questions that are likely to appear in the exam and a god way to check which sections you should focus on for review. In addition to paid courses, there are also many free MCQ sets available online such as through NINJA CPA Review. You could also try borrowing Wiley or Becker study guides from your local library.

5. Familiarize yourself with the CPA exam structure

If you know what to expect from the CPA examination, you are more likely to feel comfortable and relaxed on the day. The AICPA has some great resources available on their website which outline the exam structure. It may also be worthwhile to get an understanding of how the marks are calculated and familiarize yourself with the AICPA’S CPA exam software tutorials. 

Each of the 4 sections of the CPA examination contains 18 content areas, and within each area are about 600 tasks. Candidates sit for 1 section of the exam at a time and each exam session has a time limit of 4 hours. Although 4 hours might sound like a long time, you will have a lot of content to get through. In fact, running out of time is one of the main reasons that so many CPA candidates fail the examination. 

During the Exam

6. Don’t spend too much time on any one question… keep going!

You’ve studied so hard – you don’t want running out of time to be your downfall. If you find yourself struggling with a question for too long, don’t be afraid to skip it. Rather get through as much of the exam paper as you can – you can always come back to unanswered questions later. 

Additionally, you will need to work yourself up to spending about one minute on an MCQ, as that is about how much time you will have on the exam in order to get through all the MCQs and other content. The second MCQ testlet can be harder than the first, so you might need to use 2-3 minutes on each. Similarly, you should also try to dedicate an equal amount of time to each task based simulation (TBS) question. Most past exam takers recommend leaving at least two and a half for TBSs for FAR, BEC and REG. Also each written communication task of the BEC should be allocated about 25 minutes. As we’ve mentioned before, the best way to get this timing down is by working through practice papers as part of your preparation.

7. Take the exam in the order that suits you best.

Candidates can complete the exam sections in any order. The idea that there is one ‘best’ way to go about this is a myth. Some might want to do the ‘easiest’ exam section first, while others may want to get the ‘hardest’ section out of the way.

If you are straight out of college (or if you have just finished achieving the 30 extra credit hours), you may have recently completed a course that is relevant to one of the exams. For example, if you have just completed a financial course and are already in ‘study mode’, it may serve you to take Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) first, while the content is still fresh in your brain. Alternatively, you may have just completed tax. Then it might be best to begin with Regulation (REG).

Take the exam while it is fresh in your mind. The confidence that this will give you can springboard you into the remaining three examination sections. If you have been out of school for a while, you might want to start with a section of the CPA exam that covers less content, like BEC. This may give you a motivational boost to tackle the more comprehensive sections of the exam. 

After the Exam

8. If you pass…

Congratulations! Now give yourself some time to catch your breath before sitting for the next section of the examination. Burnout is very real and you deserve a break. Two weeks is generally enough time, as you do not want to get out of the habit of studying either.

9. If you fail… 

It is OK to fail! After all, the truth is that most CPA examinees don’t pass the first time around. In fact, when you are initially planning out you 18-month window for passing the exam, it is a good idea to factor in time for retaking exams incase it is needed. You deserve to be proud of yourself for trying. When you’re ready, reschedule the part of the exam that you had trouble with for the next window. 

10. Don’t leave it too long before rescheduling your exam!

Remember not to leave it too long before rescheduling – you don’t want to lose momentum. Also important to note is that once you have passed the first part of the exam, you have 18 months to complete the remaining three. If you don’t pass all four sections within an 18 month window, your first examination will have expired and you will be required to retake it. It’s easy to become frustrated if this happens to you, and you might decide to forget the whole thing. Don’t let this happen! You’ve come this far!