Tips and strategies to pass the CPA exam

March 23, 2021

Dan M. Vest

How to pass the CPA exam

You already know the benefits of becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA): more employment opportunities, more money, more prestige. Now, it’s time to earn those benefits by passing the notoriously difficult CPA exam

There is no denying it, the CPA exam is a monster. Passing the 4-part test can take anywhere from 4 months to 2 years, or more, and usually requires 400 or more hours of preparation. To minimize study time and maximize your chances of passing, a good strategy is essential. 

The most important thing you need to get through it is not good exam prep software, a good education, or even a solid plan. It’s good old fashioned grit.

When to take it and where to start  

The CPA Exam is an academic exam. That means that the content will align closely with what you learned in your accounting education. Your professional experience, on the other hand, will not necessarily count for much. Professional auditors routinely fail the Auditing and Attestation section and controllers fail Financial Accounting and Reporting. For this reason, it is important to take the exam as soon as possible after meeting the education requirements for your jurisdiction. The longer you have been out of school, the harder it will be to pass. 

Start with FAR. After passing one section of the exam, you have 18 months to pass the other 3 sections before you lose the credit you earned on the first. The all-too-common nightmare scenario is losing that credit and having to start over. So, if you’re going to fail a section – and most people will fail at least one – it is best to do so before the clock starts ticking. For that reason, you should start with the section with the lowest pass rate, and that’s financial accounting and reporting (FAR) at 45%-50%. An exception to this rule applies if you have just finished a course on tax or audit.  In that case, you should probably capitalize on that knowledge while it is fresh in your mind by taking the regulation or auditing and attestation section first.   

1. Establish a realistic study plan

Scheduling study time and sticking to the schedule can be one of the biggest challenges in preparing for the CPA Exam, but it is essential.  Because the time commitment needed to pass is so high, you will not be able to juggle work, studying, and family/social obligations – and don’t forget sleep! – without a good plan. Schedule your studying hours at the time of day when your mind is most active. For most people this is in the morning, but if you’re a night owl, don’t let anyone tell you that studying in the morning is necessarily better. Also, keep in mind that you can and should change the schedule if you find it doesn’t work for you, but always have a schedule. 

The hours 

Assume you will need to study about 100 hours per section – a little more for topics you are weaker in, a little less for topics you know relatively well. Likewise, if you know you are not a natural test-taker, consider bumping that number up to 120 hours. Schedule your study time so that you finish the 100 – or 120 – hours one week before the exam to leave room for that unexpected work trip, family crisis, or mental breakdown. 

Time is not your friend  

Don’t spread your studying out any more than you have to. If you start studying 4 months before the exam, you give yourself 4 months to forget the material you learned when you started. You should set a realistic schedule that gets to that 100 hours in the shortest time you can manage. If at all possible, try to get it all done within 2 months of the exam. If you need to spread it out more than 2 months, you will probably need to put in more than 100 hours. 

Yes, by all means, cram!  

They told you in school that information won’t really stick with you if you cram at the last minute. They were right. But who cares if it sticks long term? Your goal is just to pass the test! Of course, you cannot learn all or nearly all the content at the last minute, and you should plan to study steadily over weeks. However, in the last days before the exam, you should be cramming for all you’re worth. Well-meaning people will often advise that you just rest and relax the day or 2 before the exam. Just smile politely, nod, and ignore their advice.  

2. Train, don’t study 

It bears repeating: Your goal is to pass a test, not to master accounting theory. To that end, you should approach exam preparation as you would training for a sport. You don’t get better at basketball by reading books or watching videos about basketball. You get better by actively training one skill at a time until it becomes second nature. Most of the same principles you would use in training for a sport apply to preparing for the CPA exam. 

Be active, not passive  

Your exam prep company will likely provide a textbook. Do not read it! Likewise, do not waste your valuable study time watching the hours of video lectures they provide. If you are like most people, after 5 minutes of reading an accounting textbook or watching an accounting lecture, your eyes will glaze over. You may feel like you’re studying, but you’re not getting much out of it. That’s because reading and watching are passive activities. If you’re going to learn anything, your mind needs to stay active. Use the textbook only as a reference – as suggested below. You can watch the videos while cooking or working out, if that works for you, but not during study time. Study time is for practice questions. 

Thinking is learning  

When you are given a practice question on an unfamiliar topic, don’t just click through it to see the answer. Instead, stop and think about what makes sense to you in the given situation. What would be your way of doing it if you wrote the accounting/tax rules? Of course, you will probably get it wrong anyway, but that’s not the point. By thinking about the problem, you will have actively engaged with the question. That way, when you read the explanation and think about why your way of doing it was wrong and why the given answer makes more sense, the explanation is much more likely to stay with you.   

Questions you get wrong  

When you get a question wrong, be happy – it means you are about to do some serious learning! Read the explanation and make sure you understand it. If you don’t, then go immediately to that section of the textbook and go over it until you do understand. Then work the question again immediately, without looking at the explanation. Then do it again. And again. Keep doing it until the steps you go through to get the answer come automatically. Then, mark the question in your software or write down the question number. At least once a week, redo all questions you’ve gotten wrong in the past. As you master them, you can start to strike them off your list. Think of this as developing muscle memory, like you would in training for a sport. Few students actually go through these steps, but those who do have a huge advantage. Do it! 

Questions you get right  

If you get a practice question right and you’re confident that you know the content tested, go on to the next one without reading the explanation. Yes, it might be helpful to read over the explanation to help cement the content in your mind, but your time is better spent going on to the next question. Of course, if you were unsure about an answer or if you just got lucky, then treat the question exactly as if you had gotten it wrong. 

The number of practice questions  

You may see people online talking about the monumental number of multiple-choice questions they did to prepare – 1,500, 2,000 3,000. Ignore them. It’s far more important to master the questions you do than to maximize the number of questions you attempt. If you can master 600-800 questions covering all major topics in any one section, you should be good to go. 

Narrow focus  

You can’t learn everything at once. So, when doing practice questions, do them in sets focusing on the smallest content area the software allows. Do not do sets of questions that cover multiple subjects. 

Focus on weaknesses  

When you learn something new, improvement comes faster at the beginning. Since you can’t – and shouldn’t try to – master all the material covered by the exam, it’s best to focus your time on those areas that will deliver the most bang for your buck. So, you should put most of your work into content areas you know the least about, particularly the fundamentals. 

Fundamentals  

Around half the questions included in your exam prep software come from the AICPA, meaning they are questions used on previous versions of the exam. So, if you find that there are many questions on a particular narrow topic, it is important! Of course, the CPA exam will also test relatively obscure little corners of accounting, but you shouldn’t worry too much about them. You don’t want to get every question right. You just want to pass. Remember that 99 is the highest score you can get on any section of the exam, but 75 is the perfect score. Every point above 75 represents study time you could have spent doing something else. Drill the fundamentals deep. 

Question bank, not practice tests  

Your exam prep provider will likely include at least a few practice tests. These are useful for getting a sense of your timing – to know whether you need to get through questions more quickly or to slow down and read more carefully. They are useless, however, for learning the content. By the time you are given the answers at the end of a practice test, you won’t remember what you were thinking when you got a particular question wrong, so you can’t learn from it. Instant feedback is essential for improvement, so you should not take more than 2 or 3 practice tests per section. 

Multiple choice, not simulations 

The task-based simulations can be a struggle. Since they make up half your score, many people think they should devote half their time to simulations. This is a mistake for several reasons. Because simulations are lengthy and multi-part, they do not provide the crucial instant feedback that multiple-choice questions do. Moreover, when doing a simulation, you spend a lot of time looking for and reading through the exhibits. That time is not helping you learn the content. Finally, while the multiple-choice questions in your exam prep software’s question bank will closely resemble those on the exam, the same is generally not true of the simulations. Spend no more than 20% of your time on task-based simulations. 

Reading the questions 

Start with the last line to see what’s being asked before reading the fact pattern. Then think about what information you need to answer that question. Then, read the fact pattern. This will help you stay focused as you read and help you ignore the irrelevant information that is always there to distract you.  

Take breaks 

When you find yourself losing focus, take a short break to clear your mind. Note that looking at social media probably won’t clear your mind. Instead, do something that stimulates positive feelings and provides some energy. Go for a walk, have a chat with a loved one, or listen to a song you love.  

3. On test day 

Know the rules 

What you can and can’t take with you, the ID and paperwork you will need to bring, and other testing center policies can be found here.  Note, however, that the rules can and do change, so make sure you follow the guidance given to you by Prometric and NASBA. 

Don’t second guess 

Generally, when you finish a testlet, it is best to just submit it and go on to the next one. If you finished your practice tests early and you’re sure you have plenty of time, it would be a good idea to quickly go back and review your answers. However, when doing so, keep in mind that the goal is not to rework problems or second guess yourself. Instead, just look for places where you may have been careless. Pay particular attention to questions that contain negative words like “not” or “except.” Those words will be bolded on the exam, so it will be easy to find them quickly. Negative question stems are easy to misread for even the best students, so make sure you interpreted them correctly. 

These tips should help you get through the test in the easiest way possible; but, let’s face it, there is no easy way to pass the CPA Exam. The most important thing you need to get through it is not good exam prep software, a good education, or even a solid plan. It’s good old fashioned grit! Expect to fail at least 1 or 2 sections at least once. It is just part of the process. The important thing is to roll with the punches and stay in the fight. If you keep at it, you can do it.    

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