How to Set Up a CPA Exam Study Plan


For those of you in the midst of studying or starting to study for the CPA Exam (or any exam for that matter), you know that there are a number of challenges you must overcome. In passing both the CMA and CPA exams I have learned the hardest part about the process is not necessarily conquering the complexity of the content as much as it is absorbing the breadth of information one must memorize to pass. This memorization, at least for me, took time and forced me to be disciplined. That is why the key to passing the CPA exam is having a good study plan and sticking to it.

1. Choose an Exam Window. The first step to figuring out your study plan is to decide on the exam window that is going to work for you. If this is your first part, then you have more freedom as the 18-month time limit has not started for you. Otherwise, you know what the windows are: Jan-Feb, Apr-May, Jul-Aug, Oct-Nov. Try and figure out how many parts you want to take in each window and how many windows you think it will take you to pass all four parts. Be realistic and allow yourself the flexibility to accommodate at least one re-take.

2. Outline Your Week. Think about the typical week for you. List all seven days on a piece of paper. Think about how many hours you sleep, eat, commute, work, watch TV, exercise, etc. Try and figure out where your time usually is spent. Be honest. If you watch 3-5 hours of TV every night then document that. The better you estimate your schedule the easier it will be to stay disciplined to the time you set for studying.

3. Estimate Study Hours. Based on your typical week, think about how many weeks you have before think you will sit and budget around 60-100 hours of study time for each part. The amount of time will vary on how much experience you have with the subject matter, how good your memorization skills are, and how good of a test taker you are. I studied about 30 hours for BEC, but studied over 100 hours for REG. Some people are more comfortable with failing an exam and retaking it. Some feel that they must guarantee themselves a passing score each time they sit. This depends on your employer situation (how it will look if you fail), your overall timeline, your personal situation with studying (if you have kids or are working long hours), etc. Successful study time is a balance between studying as few hours as possible without having to retake exams too much. Again, most people only seek to pass, and a 75 is the same passing score as a 90.

4. Develop Your Study Budget. Once you have chosen an exam window, figured out how you spend your time, and estimated how many total hours you need, it’s time to develop your weekly study hours budget. Take the number of hours you need to study and divide it by the number of weeks you have until the month you plan to take your exam starts. If you plan to study 100 hours and you have 5 weeks to go, then you know you have to study 20 hours a week. My approach is to take this number and increase it by 20%. So in our example this gives us 24 hours a week. This helps you accommodate the inevitable disruption to the schedule and give you a little slack in your schedule to make up lost ground were you to get behind.

5. Incorporate into Your Weekly Schedule. Once you know how many hours a week you need to study on average, think about the time you might have available in your schedule based on step 2. Maybe you watch a lot of TV at night. This might prove good study time. Try and substitute out activities without disrupting your schedule too much. The closer your schedule is to normal the easier it will be to stay on track. Try not to sacrifice those things that you know will complement your new study schedule, like exercise or sleep if possible. Reducing time spent on these things can be self-defeating and can erode the benefits of your study time. Whenever you have a result that you feel is reasonable, make sure you get the final draft in writing.

6. Plan Out Your Study Units by Week. Almost every provider of study material will break down each exam’s content into smaller, more manageable study units. I used Gleimfor both my CMA and CPA, and I know that they break down all exams into 20 units. Think about how many units there are and outline which units you need to complete on each of the weeks you have to study. This will be your overall progress tracking tool. Make a place to track what unit(s) you actually complete each week so that you will be able to measure your progress against your goal. Because we determined your study budget based on getting 120 hours of study time in by the time the month you want to test starts, you will likely have an extra week or two for review and buffer in case you get behind. This is something you might want to adjust knowing how likely you are to force yourself to stay on schedule and how well you are likely to learn the material quickly. You may find that as you go through the material your practice exam scores indicate you still need review. These extra couple weeks at the end of the schedule will come in handy so that you can keep moving on your schedule getting through ALL the material first, then circle back around at the end to the places that need your attention the most.

7. Set an Exam Date. Based on your study schedule and your personal schedule, pick an exam date and register for the exam. Don’t wait. Schedule date and time as soon as you can. You need to do this for multiple reasons. First, you don’t want to plan on being able to take your exam late in the window only to find out that the Prometric center closest to you is filled up. Depending on where you live, these dates can go quickly. Second, and probably most important, you need a solid deadline to push you to stay on track. If you know you have already registered for the exam and have a date set, you will be more likely to feel the pressure you need to stay on schedule. If you wait to schedule until you “feel ready” you will find yourself postponing the date to the next window, sometimes even longer (especially if this is your first part).

Once your exam date is set and you have your schedule done, the only thing to do is follow your plan. Know that you have the competence and the ability to pass the exams if you just put in the time. You have the education and background. There are no easy short cuts. Plain old hard work and discipline will get the job done. If you find that you are falling behind, catch up as soon as possible. Make the sacrifices necessary to reach your goal and you will most certainly be glad you did at the end of the process. I know I am thankful for the fact I stayed on track and did not give up. In hind site it was totally worth it.