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How to Pass the CPA Exam

Charlie Hake
Tue, Mar 8, 2016

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Did you know a Certified Public Accountant can earn between 5% and 15% more than their non-credentialed colleagues? This can work out to an additional $1 million or more of lifetime earnings!

Aside from the financial benefits, CPAs are always in demand, experience accelerated career development and can rely on job security.

Like any other esteemed designation, the CPA exam is, unfortunately, not easy.  The exam has a reputation for being one of the hardest professional exams that exist.  In fact, here are the 2015 pass rates per section:

  • Auditing and Attestation – 47.28%
  • Business Environment and Concepts – 56.48%
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting – 46.75%
  • Regulation – 49.43%

Don’t let these statistics discourage you! While every person prepares for exams differently, there is no official ‘roadmap’ to passing the exam, but here are some of the best practices that helped me pass.

Pick a Review Package

  • You might be thinking you can pass without a review course and just rely on your knowledge from school… in the words of Doctor Evil – “How ‘bout no!” Chances are you’ll need some guidance and structure from a third party review course. 
  • The review course I chose was Becker CPA Review.  This mention of Becker shouldn’t be taken as a sales pitch to buy Becker, but it worked great for me and was very user-friendly.
  • Do yourself a favor and read online reviews for all of the review course options.

Study One Section at a Time

  • Some review courses offer an in-class lecture ‘fast-pass’ option where you study for all four sections of the exam within an 8 or 9-week period.  In retrospect I wish I hadn’t selected this option because by the time we finished week 9, a good portion of the information presented in week 1 had vacated my brain.
  • If I could go back in time, I would rely on the video lectures and focus on one section at a time and I wouldn’t move on to another section until I had taken the actual test.

Do the Practice Questions (2 or 3 times each)

  • The most important piece of advice I have for you is this:  Do all of the practice questions that come with your review package twice… at the very least. The review questions are similar to the questions you will see on the exam.  For the questions that really stump you, revisit those a third or fourth time
  • Don’t be discouraged if you’re getting questions wrong. I remember a few moments of desk pounding after a string of a few wrong answers, but you’re studying for a reason and that’s because you’re not an expertyet. 

Avoid Busy Season Studying

  • Studying for the exam is like a full-time job itself.  You really need to make sure you’re giving it the time it deserves or you won’t be in the best position to pass the exam.
  • Busy season and studying for the exam are both stressful independent of one another, so mixing the two is not a great recipe for success. It seems like it might be a good story to tell, but you’ll look back and ask yourself - “what the heck was I thinking?” 

Plan to Take Breaks 

  • It’s easy to overdo it when preparing.  Set aside time to take breaks… a good number of breaks. If you don’t take time away from the books and practice questions, there is more potential for stress which will make it harder to retain information.
  • Reward yourself for making progress. Go out to a nice dinner with friends, have a few drinks when you pass a section, or have a cookie when a you reach a moment of clarity and finally understand “put and call options” on forward and futures contracts. You get the idea… I’m actually rewarding myself with a full sleeve of girl scout cookies for writing this blog.

Relax

  • Now it’s time to enter the exam room.  Make sure you dress comfortably and relax as much as possible while taking the exam.
  • Don’t sweat one question. If you don’t know the answer to a question, there is no reason to freak out.  You can always skip the question and come back to it before moving on to the next section.

Just remember that by now you have either completed your degree or have enough school under your belt to know your own studying style – go with what works best for you!  The information above will help you focus your time in the right areas and give you insight, from my experience, on how to pass the CPA exam, but remember that there is no 100% right or wrong way to study. 

Developing good habits and devoting the appropriate amount of time to studying will put you in a great position to pass the CPA exam. 

Good luck!

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