Advice to Test-Takers: Don't freak out
Sr. Director - Accounting & Finance Operations
Salt Lake City, UT
I work at Venafi in Salt Lake City, Utah as head of our Accounting team (overseeing the Controllership, Financial Reporting, and Revenue teams). I obtained a bachelor’s degree from Weber State University in Accounting and Spanish and a Masters of Accountancy at Utah State University. I was able to get good grades during my college education, but I wouldn’t call myself the brightest student by any means. I attribute this success to hard work, discipline, sacrifice, and a myriad of great professors. Also, I must confess that I get “test stress,” so I usually over-study for exams. You will see how all of this plays into my CPA exam experience as you continue reading.
Planning for the Exam
I graduated in the spring and was scheduled to begin working in August of the same year. My original plan (which I would still suggest to anyone and everyone) was to get through as many sections of the exam as possible during that summer. However, I got married in June, went on a honeymoon, and moved into our first apartment together. All of this made for a busy spring and summer, so I wasn’t able to really start studying for the exam until about mid-July. That actually turned out to be fairly good timing because I received my Notice to Schedule (NTS) from NASBA in early August. I strongly suggest that candidates apply for their NTS immediately upon graduation (or as soon as they are eligible) because it can take up to eight weeks or more to process, as was the case for me. I ordered CPA exam review materials in June, and all materials were shipped to me within a few weeks.
My Exam Strategy
I decided to take the exam sections in the following order: Audit, Financial, Regulation, and BEC. The game plan is different for each candidate, but I took the Audit section first because I wanted a refresher of that material before I started as an auditor and because I felt most comfortable with that topic (I did an internship in audit at EY while I was in school). I took Financial next because that section covers the most material and I knew I'd have some time off during the holidays to study for it. It was also good to get a refresher of the material in the Financial section just before busy season. I took Regulation shortly after busy season, and it was a good review as I was preparing my own tax return. I saved BEC for last because it had the least material, no simulation (although I’ve heard the format of the test is now changing), and I figured I’d be a little burned out from studying by then.
How I Studied
I began studying for my first section, Audit, in late July. For each chapter of my review course text, I would read the chapter, take notes on note cards, watch the lectures on CD, and then do at least half of the practice questions and simulations available in the review course software. There were about nine chapters in the book, and this process took about 12 hours per chapter. My goal was to get through one chapter each week, although it didn’t always work out that way. I studied about an hour or two each night during the week (missing a few days here and there of course), and the rest of my study time was on the weekend. I was able to study during the day on the weekends, and that meant I didn’t have to forego my weekend evening plans.
The First Section
he morning of my first exam, I spent about 30 minutes going over my note cards and a few key pages in the textbook. I limited myself to only a half hour (I knew a five hour exam would be grueling enough). I planned out before the exam how much time I could spend on each section of the multiple choice questions and the simulation, and the first thing I did at the beginning of the exam was to write this time allocation on the scratch paper to make sure I would pace myself accordingly. This really helped me to have a feel for how much time I was spending on each question and whether I needed to speed up or slow down. I wanted to maximize the entire allotted time to make sure I gave the exam my best effort.
I was pretty nervous at the start of the test, but I just focused on pacing myself and doing my best. In the back of my mind, I told myself it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I had to retake a section or two.
I finished the exam with about five minutes to spare. I was exhausted, but it was a relief to get it done and realize that I actually can make it through and survive the test. I felt like I had prepared pretty well, but I wasn’t so sure about some of the answers I had given.
I monitored the NASBA website pretty closely for my score to post. I really didn’t want to have to retake the test. It took about six weeks for my score to post, and when it did I was relieved to see that I had passed—and by a good margin. This eased my “test stress” and made me realize that I could adjust my study approach to a more reasonable level.
Taking the Rest
After the first section, I realized that I could ease the amount of studying that I did and still have a good shot at passing. I took a few weeks off to relax and spend more time with my wife. Then I focused on the next section. My new study regime consisted of watching all of the lectures first (the presenter usually did a good job of highlighting the areas of each chapter that a candidate should focus on), then reading each chapter with a focus on the highlighted areas, making note cards, and doing as many multiple choice questions as I could fit in. I didn’t do any more practice simulations because I was familiar with the format of how they worked. This new approach took about six hours per chapter, which cut my study time in half. This was helpful as I was also trying to balance work and married life.
As I took the remaining sections, I followed the same process of pacing myself during the test, and that seemed to work well for me. With each test, I tried to use the entire testing time available so that I gave myself the best chance of passing.
In retrospect, it was the exam sections that I felt like I had done the worst on that I ended up getting the best scores. Some of the multiple choice questions are just being evaluated by the examiners and don’t actually factor into your score. So don’t get discouraged if you feel like there are a few really tough questions that you had no idea how to answer. The exams are graded on a curve, so if you struggle through an obscure topic, it’s likely that many other candidates will as well and it won’t affect your score too much. Since the likelihood of passing the exam increases with every hour spent on studying, the real key to passing the CPA exam is setting up a weekly routine that allows you to study as much as possible (within reason, of course).
For each section of the exam, I also took the day before the exam off from work for last-minute cramming. I would skim over each chapter, go over all of my note cards, and select a few practice questions. During college I found that intense review the day before an exam went a long way for me.
I also tried to exercise regularly while I was studying. If I was dragging on a Saturday morning trying to get through a chapter, I found that I was able to accomplish a lot more if I stopped studying, went for a run or to the gym, did a few errands, and then came back to study a few more hours.