Passing the CPA exam is one of the fastest ways that accountants can negotiate their way into a dream job.
The CPA exam not only makes you more valuable to employers but also gives you the freedom to choose what accounting path you want to take and how specialized you wish to become.
Unfortunately, the AICPA makes you earn this right to call yourself a Certified Public Accountant, which makes it crucial to understand exactly what you need to do to pass the CPA exam on your first shot.
Let’s cover 10 smart tips you can follow to increase your odds of passing.
1. Find The Right CPA Review Course
The first step to passing the CPA exam is to find the right CPA Review Course. With several different options available it’s crucial to find the study software that most closely mirrors your learning style.
The CPA exam is broad and you don’t have time to waste on study tools that aren’t helping you learn as efficiently as possible.
For example, if you lose focus after a few minutes of watching a lecture, but can spend hours digging into a textbook without losing focus, then you want to find a course with an excellent textbook and not focus on finding the best video instructors and vice versa.
Unfortunately, most of these courses are quite expensive and you will be tempted to go with a more affordable course if you are paying out of pocket. My advice is to look at the CPA exam as an investment in yourself that will pay dividends for the rest of your life and again give you freedom in your career.
You are also putting yourself at risk of failure if you invest in a more affordable course that lacks the functionality you need to optimize your learning speed.
To make the right choice, it is recommended that you sign up for the free trials of each course and spend time trying to study with the demo content.
The course that feels like it is teaching you the most efficiently is likely the course you should invest in.
2. Understand the CPA Exam Application Process
There are six primary steps you will need to follow to sign up for the CPA exam.
The first step is to submit your application and pay your application fees.
You should only apply to your state board of accountancy once you have qualified for the Education, Residency, and Age requirements of your state.
You can find all of the specific requirements for your state here — State & Territory Requirements.
The next step is that you will receive an Authorization To Test (ATT) from your state.
Next, once you have paid for your first section, you will receive a Notice To Schedule (NTS).
With your NTS, you are then able to schedule your first exam at a Prometric testing centre and the fun begins!
The next step is to sit for each exam and then finally, you will receive your scores from NASBA or your state board of Accountancy.
3. Mentally Prepare
Taking the CPA exam is not a walk in the park for most accountants. It will require hundreds of hours and your complete focus. If you are working full time and have a family it will challenge your time management even more.
You need to work smarter, not harder.
To mentally prepare for the CPA exam, you need to understand that failing the CPA exam is by design. If it were an easy exam with a 90%+ pass rate than the value of the license wouldn’t come with the respect and prestige that it holds today.
By making the exam very time consuming and very mentally draining, the AICPA is creating a similar experience of what a CPA is going to experience during a busy season. It will also filter out the accountants not willing to put everything they have into passing the exam.
It is Darwin’s survival of the fittest at its best.
A risk for CPA candidates is that when they begin the CPA exam process that they will isolate themselves while studying.
This can create friction at work and home with the people around you. This is why communication is one of the most crucial pieces of passing the CPA exam.
You need everyone in your life to understand WHY you must become a CPA and get them involved in the process. If you don’t, then you risk alienating yourself and harming your relationships, both personal and professional.
You also need to be aware that your absence will take a toll on your loved ones. This is why you must silo your study time and your social time.
Meaning that when you are studying, you are 100% focused on studying and when you are socializing that you are 100% focused on being present and not distracted about your exam.
5. Set Smart Expectations for Yourself
As a CPA candidate, you need to be aware of your schedule, your energy levels, and your tipping point.
When you are being pulled in multiple directions between personal, professional and studying, it’s crucial to learn how to say no to activities as possible that aren’t helping you achieve your goal of passing the CPA exam.
You also need to set smart study goals for yourself. This doesn’t mean setting a strict number of hours per week you need to study, it means creating quantifiable study goals that you can track.
When you can quantify how much studying you have completed it makes it much easier to feel accomplished for the week and take some time away from studying to reset.
This also makes it much simpler to be present when you are socializing with friends and family because when you have completed your weekly study goal you can shut your study brain off for a few hours or even a full day.
6. Always Be Reviewing or Study Looping
Each section of the CPA exam covers as much as a full semester of material, if not more.
Check out the AICPA Blueprints here to understand exactly what you need to know to pass the CPA Exam.
Because of the amount of material you are expected to understand, it becomes crucial to always be reviewing while also moving forward and learning new material.
If you don’t review while in the learning phase then what you learn in Chapter 1 will become stale by the time you reach the final chapter and you will find yourself scrambling to re-teach yourself everything as you approach exam day.
This process of learning, but also simultaneously reviewing is called Study Looping.
7. Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best
As you know, the pass rates for each section of the CPA exam hover around 48-60% per section.
While no one goes into the exam, wanting to be one of those statistics, most accountants don’t prepare for failure.
This creates a problem. When you don’t prepare for failure and it happens to you, it can completely derail your mental mindset about the entire exam and sabotage your future sections.
This is why it’s crucial to set the expectations early that there is always a chance that you could fail and then have a step by step plan of attack for what you will do if the worst does happen.
If you do find yourself in a situation where you fail a section, then it’s recommended that you sign up for a retake of that section as soon as possible.
The reason being that you need to maximize your short term memory of all that information you were just tested on.
The longer you wait to retake a section, the more time it will take to re-learn it.
8. Do the Best You Can
No matter how much you study, it’s nearly impossible to feel fully prepared for a section of the CPA exam.
This is why you need to control your inner perfectionist and just accept the fact that there will be topics and questions that you just physically don’t have time to cover.
This is okay and normal. What you need to focus on instead is reminding yourself that you did the best you could with the time you had available and go into the exam with a positive mindset.
Having a positive mindset will keep your test anxiety at bay during your exam and keep your confidence high.
9. Don’t Let Score Results Ruin Your Next Section
The CPA exam isn’t one long marathon, it’s four sprints that are back to back to back to back.
As a CPA candidate, the worst thing you can do is let one of your sprints (sections) interfere with your next sprint. Keep each race separate and remember that they are isolated events, each with their own set of difficulties and obstacles to overcome.
You may have bad performance on one sprint but it doesn’t mean all your future sprints will be the same.
This is easier said than done, but when you sit for an exam and are still waiting for your score to be released, it’s a best practice to not check that score until after you have sat for your next exam.
10. Find a CPA Exam Mentor
A recent resource to make its way to the CPA exam industry is finding a CPA exam mentor.
A CPA exam mentor is someone who has experience with using your CPA review course, has passed the CPA exam and is willing to give you feedback and advice on your specific situation.
There are three primary types of CPA exam mentors:
A. The First Is a Public CPA Exam Forum
These forums are full of anonymous people taking the CPA exam and, if you are lucky, you can glean some valuable information from the groups.
The problem is that you have no idea who is giving you the advice, if it’s trustworthy and if it isn’t outdated.
Forums are the least helpful version of a CPA exam mentor.
B. The Next Type of CPA Exam Mentor Is a Bit More Difficult to Find
They are the people you work with who have passed the CPA exam or people you know who have passed.
These types of mentors are invaluable. They know you personally and understand your situation very well.
The downside is that they are just as busy as you. If you pester them too much then they may become annoyed and it could damage your relationship if you aren’t careful.
C. The Third Type of Mentor Is Both Effective and Easy to Find.
It’s a digital CPA exam mentor.
These are CPA exam mentors who have created premium online communities and online courses where you can learn the exact steps to passing the CPA exam.
Companies such as Ultimate CPA Exam Guide even tailor the advice they give you based on your specific situation, which is exactly what you want when figuring out this entire process.
These types of CPA exam mentors are the best because it allows you direct access to a community of vetted CPA candidates, study tactics that are proven to be working and getting results in real-time and you also get access to expert CPAs that you can pester all day long without risking embarrassment or annoyance with a co-worker or acquaintance.
When you plan every aspect of the CPA exam process, it will ease much of the overwhelm that you will experience on your journey to passing the CPA exam.
You also don’t want to tackle this exam alone. Get as many people in your life involved as possible to not only hold you accountable but also to keep you focused and motivated.
It is possible to pass the CPA exam when you take it one day at a time and prepare for the worst and hope for the best.