8 tips for creating a successful CPA exam schedule

Planning, studying, and designing a workable timeline is key.

College accounting students may relish their graduation, but most know what soon lies ahead: the rigorous four-part CPA exam.

“We encourage students to sit for the exam sooner rather than later,” said Tony Fuller, director, diversity & inclusion/recruiting at Grant Thornton LLP in Chicago. If they wait, finding the time can be tough later on: They may be traveling or face greater job pressures and demands on their time. Or they may get married and have children. If they wait too long to take the exam, they also may lose out on career financial gains and promotions.

Preparing for the exam comes with challenges: scheduling, studying, figuring out what to study, and developing a timeline that works not only with one’s professional schedule, but one’s personal life as well. “The biggest challenge in preparing for the CPA exam today is procrastination,” said Justin Linscott, CPA, CGMA, principal at Holbrook & Manter, CPAs, and president and the lead course instructor of MDS CPA Review, both in Ohio.

So how does one develop a successful timeline for studying and taking the exam? Fuller and Linscott, along with Thomas Castelli, CPA, tax strategist for The Real Estate CPA and an exam coach in the Greater New York City region, offer the following tips:

Try to finish within 12 months.You will have 18 months to pass all four exam sections, but if you drag it out, you can lose your motivation or obstacles can arise. “The CPA exam needs to be one of the most important things you have going on,” Linscott said. “If you go beyond 12 months, the likelihood of you not finishing increases dramatically.”

Book your first exam promptly.Once you have the necessary credits to sit for the exam and determine the timing is right, personally and professionally, schedule and pay for the first test about six to eight weeks out. Setting this deadline will not only create a defined period to prepare, but also will motivate you to study, Castelli said.

Plan and prioritize.Next, plan your study times and block out those hours each week. Most importantly, Castelli said, “Commit and make studying a habit.” If you’re working, relay your exam and study schedules to your bosses and colleagues, and ask them to help keep you accountable, Linscott added. Distractions, like friends and fun, may surface. But studying for and passing the CPA exam needs to top your priority list. “Life will always get in the way,” he said. “To be successful, you have to overcome things that come into play.”

Get outside help if necessary. In addition to AICPA resources, such as the CPA Exam Blueprints and sample tests, you have the option of taking a CPA review course or hiring an exam coach. CPA review courses can be expensive, but employers often pick up the tab. These courses can help set your timeline, advise you where to focus, and reveal your weak spots. Most exam students take a review course “and need a review course,” Fuller said. CPA exam coaches can also help guide you through this difficult period, if necessary.

Set your own schedule, and take breaks. Students should take exams in the order that works best for them — and recognize that different people have different opinions on the subject and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Some may want to “take the easiest part of the exam first” to build up confidence, Fuller advised. But others may choose to schedule the hardest exams first, to get them out of the way and move on. Castelli, though, suggested taking the Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) and Auditing and Attestation (AUD) sections back-to-back as they have some overlapping concepts. Also, the FAR and Regulation (REG) sections are larger, so taking those exam sections consecutively may be intense, he noted. After finishing one exam, take a two-week breather before beginning to study for the next. Refresh and rejuvenate.

Use it; don't lose it. If you fail an exam section, retake that section again as soon as possible, versus taking the next exam on an entirely new topic. “You are essentially creating more work for yourself and will lose some of the stuff” you just learned, Castelli said.

Concentrate during crunch time. One week out from exam date, or even earlier, work on material you’re not as familiar with and address your areas of weakness. Do exam simulators, use flashcards, and review areas where you’ve struggled. By this time, “you should have done all of your videos and classes and homework,” Linscott said.

Relax. One day before exam day, “Take a breather for your brain,” Linscott noted. “Your brain needs to be at full capacity the day of the exam.” Don’t cram until the wee hours and enter the exam room exhausted. Also, said Castelli, “Make sure you have a good breakfast.”

By Cheryl Meyer

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

Please note: The AICPA does not publish examination review materials or endorse any specific review method or course. To obtain advice on whether to take a review course, which course to take, or which materials to buy, speak to faculty members or colleagues. Such recommendations are not available from the AICPA.

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