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How to study effectively

Block out time, ask for help, and turn off your phone.

Today's college accounting students are preparing for a coveted career as a CPA, and the payoffs of studying are great. But they must work hard: They not only have to prepare for numerous courses, but they also have to study for the rigorous CPA Exam once they graduate. And they are doing this amid countless distractions: friends, social media, text messages, sometimes jobs or sports. The terrain of studying has changed radically from years past, and it can be tough to concentrate.

"When students have difficulty focusing on their studies, it has a domino effect on the preparation for the CPA Exam and on obtaining the best positions in the CPA firms," said Bobby Waldrup, CPA, Ph.D., associate dean at Sellinger School of Business and Management at Loyola University in Baltimore.

In other words, how you study is all-important if you want to succeed in school, on the CPA Exam, and at your first job once you've graduated.

We tapped Waldrup and two other education experts for advice on how to study effectively. Here are their tips:

Team up. The first mistake students make, Waldrup noted, is to study alone. "At Loyola we say that studying should be a team sport," he said. So, find a study buddy and pair up. "You are three times as likely to remember material" when you teach it to others, versus learning it on your own, he added.

Don't just memorize and cram. Rote memorization is no longer enough. In school, peruse your material before class so you can be prepared with questions. Also, keep up with the material throughout the course rather than cramming right before a session or exam. "Don't skip class, and don't skip chapters," advised Jamie O'Brien, J.D., accounting professor and assistant chairman for the Department of Accountancy at the University of Notre Dame, in Notre Dame, Ind.

Be methodical. Newly licensed CPAs are expected to grasp concepts, analyze content, and identify errors, among other more advanced tasks. Because of constant change in business and the ongoing development of technology, CPAs are now required to contribute to more complex projects earlier in their careers. So, "slow down" when studying for the exam, said Judy Bickel, former college accounting tutor and now editor, proofreader, and tutor at MDS CPA Review in Columbus, Ohio. "Read it. Write it. Practice it."

Don't underestimate study time. Devote two hours outside of class for every hour you spend in class, Waldrup advised. If you have a three-hour class, devote six hours of studying before the next one. And "expect to spend a solid 120 hours for each of the four parts of the [CPA] Exam," he added.

Allow for setbacks. Consider that you could fail one portion of the CPA Exam, so study sections of the exam that are the most difficult for you first so you can properly schedule any additional attempts you may need — just in case you trip up. "Statistics show that almost everyone will fail one portion [of the exam] and many will fail many times before they pass," Bickel said. "Build that into your plan of attack."

Seek help. If you are struggling with your studies, request assistance early. Students often "wait until they are failing to reach out," Bickel noted. "We need to honestly evaluate our strengths and weaknesses and be willing to ask for help."

Use a CPA Exam review course. If possible, utilize a review course when studying for the exam. These courses stay current on tax law changes, help refresh your memory on subjects you had as a freshman or sophomore, and offer practice questions and simulations to help you prepare. "Most major CPA firms will pay for the review course if you have a bona fide offer," Waldrup said. In addition, the AICPA encourages candidates to review the AICPA Blueprints, which were developed by the same team that writes the exam and provide an overview of how skills and content knowledge will be tested. The AICPA also recommends CPA candidates take the AICPA sample test, which can familiarize them with the format and functionality of the exam.

Don't get tripped up. When studying simulations for the CPA Exam, be aware that too many details can throw you off course. If the question asks about accounts receivable, then answer that question and don't lose focus on unrelated points, Bickel noted. Also, be aware of words like "not," "except," and "only", which can also make you stumble. "Be observant," she said. " Read the whole question and look for these key words."

Stay focused. Block out a time and location for coursework, and focus solely on your studies. "Don't plan to study watching the USC game, as you won't get much done," O'Brien advised. Also, be disciplined and shut off your phone, so you can study distraction-free. "There are no questions from Twitter that are on the CPA Exam," Waldrup said.

By Cheryl Meyer, a California-based freelance writer

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director–content development.

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