Former Career Goal: Astronaut
Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I can't say that the answer was always to be a CPA - far from it actually. I wanted to be an astronaut! After a high school internship with a local accounting firm (and some soul searching), I decided that studying accounting was right for me. It fits my outgoing personality and takes advantage of my analytical skills and attention to detail. Plus it’s a profession that is always in demand, which means a great deal considering our current economic climate. I figured I would try it out, because, the way I see accounting, it’s a launching pad for other careers and sets a good foundation for any type of business-related field. I may have considered changing my major when I took intermediate accounting and individual taxation, but, once I tried it in the real-world, I knew it was the field for me!
I grew up in Westminster, Colorado, and went to college at the University of Denver where I received my Bachelors and Masters in Accounting. After graduation I decided to move to Washington, D.C., where I worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the tax practice's industry services group in their McLean, Virginia, office. I am now in the greater Philadelphia area working as a Tax Manager at Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP.
I found myself asking questions like: How do I qualify for the exam? What content is covered and when should I start studying? It can be intimidating to look down that road, but you're not on the journey alone; there are a number of resources available to answer all these questions and so many more. The community here is a great start! It can be tempting to take second-hand information from recent grads, but you want to make sure you have all your facts straight before getting started.
I was exposed to the structure and testing format of the CPA exam pretty early on in my educational career when I attended a presentation on the topic. I would recommend this option to anyone who has it available. You could check with your school of accountancy or even with nearby schools to see a calendar of events. At this presentation, I learned the requirements to apply for a Notice to Schedule (NTS), when exams are offered, what each of the four sections of the exam cover, how soon you can re-take a section, and answers to questions I probably would not have even thought of asking. If any of this sounds foreign to you, make sure you take advantage of resources available to you, such as the Exam & Licensure Timeline.
Although many degree programs are structured so that you are eligible to sit for the CPA exam upon graduation, it is important to research the specific state requirements where you are hoping to get licensed, specifically the hours and course requirements. It's never too early to get informed! I felt so much more comfortable after seeking out this information. It was almost like finding a roadmap that led me to become a CPA.
Planning for the Exam
With June graduation and a November start date for work, I found a six-month study schedule to be right for me. I figured I could take all of the sections before I started work and retake any parts I needed to after busy-season. I selected the Becker CPA review course self-study option. I knew I would be travelling and preferred to study at my own pace, emphasizing some sections and skimming over others to make the most efficient use of my time. I decided to take FAR first since it has the most content, it seemed the most time consuming to study for, and I would have hated to take it after starting full-time. I wanted to give myself two testing windows to take it in before starting work in the event that I did not pass the first attempt (particularly because much of the material was not anything I would be exposed to in the field of tax). I decided to schedule REG as my last exam, since my training and experience at work could supplement the tax-related concepts in this section, and, if necessary, it could be pushed back. I also thought AUD would be a greater challenge then BEC so I scheduled AUD second, followed by BEC, and finally REG.
As great as it was to have all of this scheduled on my personal calendar, it is only as feasible as NASBA allows by issuing a Notice to Schedule (NTS). In many states, you apply for this directly - this is not the case in Virginia, news to me! After completing the Virginia CPA Initial Online Application, the Virginia Board verifies CPA Exam Candidate's educational eligibility prior to sending the Authorization to Test (ATT) to NASBA, who will issue the NTS within three months after the ATT is sent. This would have been helpful information three months ago, right? Lesson learned! Make sure you check your state requirements early to make sure it will work with your plan.
So my plans were set-back a little, but I received the NTS in time to schedule FAR for the end of August, AUD for the start of October (taking advantage of September, the off-testing month to study), BEC at the end of October, and REG in late November. Three tests were a lot to cram into one testing window and with better planning that could have been avoided.
Once you become eligible to sit, I recommend you take the exams as soon as possible, this is the one piece of advice you can never hear too many times!
Laying the Groundwork
I used my exam schedule as a guide when determining my final year of coursework. I was very fortunate to have an academic adviser who organized my schedule to prepare me to take the exam nearest to when I had taken specific classes, which assisted in my preparation for the sections. In the months prior to taking FAR, I had completed courses on not-for-profit and governmental accounting, consolidations, and a financial cases class covering many of the topics on the exam. Related to AUD, I had recently completed a course in advanced auditing and another in forensic auditing. I was also very lucky to have elective options relevant to these sections. I truly believe that this strong foundation in the topics covered on the exam is what contributed the most to effective preparation since I could focus on concepts I was unfamiliar with. If you plan accordingly, there may be opportunities to take relevant classes and develop a strong foundation even before beginning to study specifically for the CPA exam.
Every Minute Counts
Time to open the heavy Becker box that had been collecting dust while I waited for my NTS. I think it is important to note that each individual has study methods that work best for them. Personally, I found the lectures, questions throughout the lectures, and note cards most helpful in retaining new information. After the first few sets of practice questions, I noticed how discouraged I would get because I was only about 50-60% correct. I slowly adjusted my expectations and focused in on that 40-50% that needed special attention and pretty soon that percentage was getting much smaller. There is no substitute for completing practice problems, and this is where progress can be made in learning the intricacies of how exam questions can be phrased or presented.
My strategy while studying was actually to just enjoy the time I wasn't studying to the fullest. It can be difficult to not dwell on the studying you may think you should be doing when you are with family or out with friends, but let it go and just enjoy it. Personally, I really enjoy baking, so I would give myself (and my roommate) a little reward for a day worth of productive studying.
It was also important for me to take mini-breaks every 45 minutes or so. Often times, I found myself on Facebook (nothing that would happen to you, I'm sure) during these little breaks. I even found a way to turn that into a study tool. I would update my status explaining a concept I was particularly struggling with. This was a huge hit among fellow candidates for the exam. I even got some helpful tips, and some friends would quiz me with questions on my wall. You never know what will get you that prized score of 75, so I took every opportunity I could to get a little more studying in!
The First Section
Easily the fastest four-hours of my lifetime. Since I was on a much shorter timeline, I did not have a week to review as I originally would have hoped. To get some help, I did the self-study final review through Becker. This is a two-day condensed and comprehensive review immediately prior to sitting for the exam, with a special attention to working through simulations. By the day of the exam, my stack of note cards with concepts I wanted to retouch on prior to testing was much smaller. I went through these and some multiple choice questions, trying not to do too much and stress myself out with questions I was still getting wrong. This became a delicate balance between studying enough and not studying too much. I had to remind myself that it’s not the end of the world if I have to retake it, and just visualize already being done with it and celebrating with friends.
The actual exam flew by - there wasn’t time to stress or panic. There were points throughout the exam where I felt overwhelmed after a streak of questions that I knew for sure I missed, but that is when it’s so important to keep your head up and do your best, because sometimes you will surprise yourself with how well you did. Remember that the exam is curved and that there are experimental questions that will not be counted towards your score. When I left the exam room, I was relieved it was over but was certain there was no chance I’d passed. It isn’t my modesty saying that I didn’t think I passed, I truly believed that there was no way I responded to 75% of those questions correctly. The fact of the matter is, I probably didn’t, but between the experimental questions and the curve, something worked out in my favor and I was beyond thrilled to find out I passed with a score of 89!
Taking the Rest
In my experience, it only gets better. After passing FAR, I had regained a great deal of motivation to study for AUD, but I was also getting caught up in a mind-set where I knew I could study a little bit less to pass. At this point, I relied on my support system of family and friends to set me straight and not allow me to get a false sense of confidence, which often leads to poor study habits and even failing. With a cross-country move in October, I didn’t have much room for flexibility in my study schedule. But I did what I had to do and sat for AUD and BEC in October.
In my experience and the experience of my colleagues, it is much easier to keep the momentum going and continuing to attempt passing all the sections than to take a long break and return to it a year later. I’ve also seen people get caught losing credit for a passed exam after 18 months. Although it seems like sufficient time, there are constantly interruptions in life, so sacrifice some free time while you have it. I promise it will be worth it when it’s all over!
After starting work November 1, when my schedule was still fairly slow I studied for REG, making sure to take a couple days off prior to the exam for final review and sat for this section at the end of the month. December was a great month when I found out I passed the last three parts!
With a one year general experience in accounting requirement in Virginia I am not eligible to apply for my license just yet, but look forward to joining the ranks of many of my mentors as an official CPA in November.
Bonus Tips for Colleagues
Although I have shared my insights and tips for taking the CPA exam there are a variety of approaches. Here are tips from many of my colleagues:
• Leave yourself 3 weeks to 1 month to study for each exam.
• Watch the lectures and highlight things that you don't know very well (if the instructors say they are important for the exam). Do not highlight things you know well or it will make your review that much more difficult.
• Read a chapter through twice before doing the questions.
• Do all the multiple choice questions after each chapter. When you get questions wrong, do them again until you understand them and can get them right.
• Complete the practice tests in the week leading up to the exam. This is a good overall review and helps you get the timing of the exam down. Go through the practice test answers (both correct and incorrect) and make sure you understand the right answers for each one.
• Go through the book and write your own study guide a day or two before the exam. Only include items that you don't know well or a brief description of important things that you do know well. Use this study guide on the day of the exam rather than bringing your entire book.
• Quit making excuses that there is too much information to memorize. People do it every day.
• Aim to take all four exams in a 6 month time frame. You will have a better chance of following through with the entire exam if you stay in study mode for 6 months rather than scheduling one every few months.