5 Tips for Passing the CPA Exam

There are a lot of resources out there with tips for passing the CPA Exam. Here are some tips I have learned based on my first-hand experience passing both CMA and CPA exams in the past couple years. If you’re reading this you are either going through the exam process right now (in which case I hope you can find some inspiration, good ideas, and motivation to stick with it and keep on going), or you are considering starting the examination process soon (in which case I commend you for being proactive and seeking out guidance in the beginning of this process).

1. Make a Study Plan and Stick to It

Make a study plan, stick to it, and don’t fall behind schedule. Having a schedule does more than just help you budget your time and ensure you get through all the material before your exam date, it provides needed structure that can help stay you motivated. This is key for all exam-takers, but especially those who are relying only on self-study. A study plan helps you measure your progress toward your goal. It gives you a benchmark upon which you can evaluate your study progress before you reach two weeks before your exam date. Anyone who is familiar with the material for the CPA exam knows, you cannot cram. So periodically evaluate your progress against your plan and adjust your effort accordingly.

Everyone has a life (hopefully) outside their accounting and finance career goals and sometimes life is unpredictable. Have a plan that allows some cushion for life’s unexpected surprises. This gives you the security to know that just because something came up and disrupted your study schedule for a week, you still have the time to get through all the material before your exam date. Having a plan will also help you address those difficult subjects as you can specifically set aside time at the end of the schedule to circle back around and focus on your weak areas.

Completing a study plan from beginning to end will also give you a boost of self-confidence and achievement. It will increase your sense of preparedness as you reached your goal. Even if there are areas (as there will likely be) you have yet to master, you will have reviewed your weaknesses and have the self-confidence to attack exam questions like a practiced veteran.

Click here for How to Set Up a Study Plan.

2. Take Practice Exams and Analyze Your Results

There is enough content on the CPA exam that it is likely that you won’t need to know all of it to pass. After all, you only need a to score a 75. Making sure that your study time is spent well is key. After each section of study material, you should take a practice exam. Most testing software today offers really helpful analytics that indicate where your weakest and strongest areas are. Analyze your results. Focus to study on your weak areas and don’t base your judgement on questions you’ve seen before. It feels more encouraging to see more correct answers, but familiar questions are an unfair test of your knowledge.

Recognize that not all subject matters on the exam are tested at the same level of understanding. The exam requires only a conceptual understanding of some topics while requiring an in depth application of concepts in other areas. Know which areas require more comprehensive understanding and focus on them. Sometimes a passing score can be the difference in knowing one area of knowledge you glossed over while preparing. Discriminate and focus on the areas you need to know the most and the areas you know the least going into the exam.

Make sure that you have passing scores (like 80-85) on practice exams based on a weighted topical scoring method – not the overall average. This is especially important when your testing software has an equal number of questions in the test bank for all topics. Adjusting your end score to give more weight to the more important content will give you a better picture of how prepared you really are.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Spend a Little Money

When I took the CMA exams, my approach was to be as quick and as cheap as possible. I bought only books and test prep software and decided to do only self-study. This worked fine for me as my experience really helped me fly through the content. Unfortunately, the CPA wasn’t quite as easy – especially when it came to Audit and Regulation (tax/business law) two areas I have no experience in. I retook the CPA exams a couple times before passing and actually bought additional materials on my last retake of REG. In the end, I learned that additional study materials would have been worth it all along. Even though I spent more money on them, it would have saved me valuable time of retakes and the cost of exam fees.

For self study I usually recommend Gleim.

Something similar can be said for instructor led courses. Even though the cost can be significant ($2,000-3,000), having a set time commitment can give some with crazy schedules the structure they need and focused instruction time that self-study might not give them. Some learn best by lecture and some lecturers are really amazing. So don’t just rule these options out because you are cheap like me. I learned the investment can really pay off.

4. Stay Motivated and Keep Going

This almost goes without saying, but is by far easier said than done. If you are anything other than a complete accounting nerd, you can probably agree with me that not all of the content in the CPA Exam is exactly the most intriguing information. Granted, I know a lot of it is really relevant to my career and I found it interesting, but the exam content is so broad it’s just not possible to find 100% of it captivating. Motivation was really tough when I had to retake REG a third time, but I picked myself back up and kept going.

Develop a page (pictures, notes, etc) that gives you motivation. Outline the reasons WHY you’re taking the exam. Are they financial? Write down how much being a CPA is going to earn you. Are they intellectual, maybe status, etc? Write out your name and title at the top of the page with CPA behind your name just to get used to seeing it. Everything difficult in life comes down to motives. Why you do something is so much more powerful than what you do or how you do it. Search your soul and determine why you set this goal for yourself and keep those reasons at the forefront of your mind.

You can also gain motivation by making your goal public. Share it with friends and family, even work (of course this has other benefits like employee reimbursement and possible promotion upon completion). Sharing this goal will give you support from those around you and help inject some accountability to reaching your goal. Telling everyone you WILL pass sets the bar high and implies a level of dedication and pressure to succeed that can keep you going.

5. Don’t Look for Shortcuts, Just Learn the Material

You would think naturally your focus would be to do whatever it takes to pass the exam. I found that sometimes during my study time my focus was actually to end my study time. To get myself feeling like I really knew the content more than I did. Justify missed answers and review these areas without necessarily scrutinizing myself on the outcome. Taking shortcuts does not work. You have to learn the material.

For me this meant putting in the time. 100+ hours of studying on REG and AUD (my weak areas). This meant setting up a routine and getting out of the house (I get distracted at home). I went to Starbucks where I would stay until I completed a section. Remain flexible and be willing to experiment with the best ways that you can learn the content. I found that in the end one thing that helped me was that I created an entire bound, study booklet with all my notes. For some reason this booklet helped me remember the content, even though when I was making it I thought it would be a waste of time because it was time away from practice questions.

My creativity and flexibility to try new ideas helped me get there, but not without hard work. Everyone learns differently. Be prepared to develop your own strategy and implement it. Execute your ideas and be prepared to admit that your approach needs to be adjusted. Focus on learning the material, no matter how irrelevant and boring it seems. Remind yourself why you set this goal and what it means to achieve it… for you.

Good luck and keep at it. Everyone can pass, I know it. It just takes time and effort.