Studying for the CPA Exam

As some of you know, one of the goals on my Dream List is to complete my CPA.  I already have my CMA (Certified Management Accountant) but feel that even though I’m not working in public accounting, I still could benefit by having a CPA.  Many of you in the accounting field already realize how much having a CPA can boost your knowledge in the field and recognition in the job market.  I firmly believe that so much of financial analysis (especially when analyzing external financial statements) is dependent upon understanding the underlying accounting methods used within a company.  Without understanding what goes into the numbers, it’s very hard to provide robust analysis of the business.  That is partly why I focused my education on accounting, but also why I continue to see the CPA relevant to my advancement even though most of the material within the exam I find rather dry.

My Progress

  • BEC (Business Environment and Concepts)
  • FAR (Financial Accounting and Reporting)
  • AUD (Audit and Attestation)
  • REG (Regulation)

So far I have taken two of the four parts to the CPA Exam.  I am doing all self-study using Gleim’s materials (I did the same thing for the CMA and passed all four parts on the first time).   Passing BEC actually was pretty easy for me.  I hardly studied at all and got a 79.  This process, however, did not work as well for FAR.  I got a 74 – and needed a 75 to pass.  Missing by one point showed me that the remaining three parts will not come as easily as the first.  Not only are they longer and harder, but they are expansions of my current knowledge base.  In a way I knew this, but my nature is to study the bare minimum necessary to pass – a bad, but very time efficient habit.  To ensure I pass all the remaining parts and complete the process, I need to change my mentality.  I need to set out a good number of hours to study and hold myself to that plan.  Over studying in this case might use extra time not needed to pass, but at least I will know the material that much better.  The main challenge is having the self-discipline to study.  Balancing 50-hour work weeks and a family is hard enough, not to mention finding the time to study 15 or 20 hours a week.

My Plan

1. Monthly Schedule

The best way I have found to meet the challenge of other competing time consumers in my life is to come up with a study plan with high level goals and incremental goals.  Setting out my expectation for all exam parts in the beginning is key.  Not only can I plan the best order to take the exams, but also ensure I have enough time to study and pass them all during their exam windows.  You can see in my schedule I’m not planning on taking any exams in the October/November window.  This is because work is substantially more demanding during this time (I prepare our annual budgets).  Planning around this time is important because it helps me see a more realistic time horizon for finishing.  In addition, you’ll notice I have three different schedules for different paces of completion.  Right now I focus on the most aggressive schedule, but based on the exam windows I can see where, if needed, and in what order, I would be able to delay taking a future test and what impact that would have on my finish date.

Having incremental goals along the way is also important.  I’m a natural procrastinator and as such I have the tendency to study more when I feel the stress of a upcoming exam weighing on my mind.  That approach does not necessarily help for tests that encompass large amounts of material.  To combat this habit, I have created a weekly study schedule.

2. Weekly Schedule

Now let me be the first to admit, that I can always come up with a schedule or a budget, but I almost always deviate from it.  The key here is to budget total quantity of time I want to commit to each exam.  After I do that, I can plan out which weeks I can commit more hours to ultimately reach that amount of total study time.  Based on how feasible it is to commit the hours on a weekly basis and the numbers of weeks I have to reach my total goal, I might consider either lowering my total study hours for each exam, or if I’m not comfortable with that, pushing future exams further into the future.  You can see that in my weekly study schedule I only plan a total number of hours each week.  I thought about planning a range of hours, say 6 to 8 instead of 7, but having ranges was just too complicated.  With a static number I know I’m either on track or not.

One important part of this process is thinking through the number of hours I plan to study in future weeks.  You can see that my weekly study schedule is progressive, increasing in study time each week leading up to an exam.  It’s easy to plan like this forgetting just what exactly 18 hours of studying translates to in reality.  To help illustrate that I have a third schedule that helps me break down a week’s studying into days.

3. Daily Schedule

This helps me relate what a realistic daily plan would look like for a specific weekly study goal.  I can plan the days and amounts each day I could find time to study a total of 6 hours for the week up to my maximum which is 18 hours per week.  Seeing it this way helps me internalize just what 18 hours of studying will be like for my personal schedule.  It helps me think about how many days of rest I’ll have during the week – just like the weekly schedule helps me think about how many weeks of rest I will have (if any).   For me, this part is important.  If the schedule is not realistic and doesn’t plan some rest, I will fail to adhere to it and ultimately revert to procrastination and scrambling to cram just before the exam.

Ultimately no amount of planning can replace an absense of hard work and self-discipline.  A plan, however, does help combat the lies my mind tells me, that “I have plenty of time to study later”, because seeing the numbers on paper help eliminate procratination.  You are either on schedule or you’re not.