Ace the Exam: Study Like It's Your Job
Senior Manager, Revenue Recognition Accounting
I got my CPA license in 2009, and I’m loving being a CPA. After nearly 10 years in public accounting, I made the transition into industry and absolutely love it. T-Mobile has been the perfect place to accelerate my career and take the information I learned in public accounting and apply it to a work product that is my own. I got to implement ASC 606 for a +$40B company, and I have learned a ton.
Over the years, I have helped countless people prepare for the CPA exam. The common denominator in all the success stories has been blocking out the time needed to learn the material. If you are eligible for the CPA exam, you have already achieved so much in your academic career, and the CPA exam is very academic. It boils down to just being much more vast in terms of the amount of material that you are required to know at one time. Accordingly, you just need to make sure that you put in the time to really have the information dialed.
In my personal life, I am married to the most wonderful woman on the planet (Dani) and we have two beautiful daughters (Molly 6; Emmy 3). We live in the Ballard neighborhood in Seattle Washington and love hanging out together.
Planning for the Exam
Between graduating college in June, finishing up my last few credits to take the CPA exam in June/July, and a wedding at the beginning of November, I knew I only had a short amount of time to finish the exam. And since the testing window closes every third month, I was left with the months of August and October to take all four sections of the exam.
I tried to obtain my Notice to Schedule (NTS) as soon as possible because I heard that certain testing dates can sometimes be hard to schedule (like the last week before a testing window closes). I scheduled FAR first (mid-August), followed by AUD (last day of August), then REG (first day of October) and ended with BEC (mid-October).
As you can see, I took the approach of buckling down to get the exam completed as soon as possible. I cleared my schedule as much as I could and prepared to study for the exam as if it were a job.
My Exam Strategy
The key to my exam strategy was based on one core principle: with a sufficient amount of study time, I would be able to pass the exam. I obtained the Becker self-study materials and worked my way through all of the lectures and the vast majority of the multiple choice testing. I would try to start studying by 8 or 9 a.m. and study until about 5 p.m. on a daily basis, taking plenty of small breaks to make sure that I didn’t get burned out. I also studied in various places such as my room, the library, and outside for a change of scenery.
In hindsight, I learned that the test was very academic and, in that sense, it was similar to all those accounting tests I took in college. The CPA exam just had a much larger volume of materials to cover. So, it is important to note that you don’t have to change anything about your successful college study habits, you just need to make sure that you have enough time to cover all of the material. Therefore, I highly recommend taking the test just after you finish college, before you start working full-time, if this is possible given your situation.
How I Studied
I knew that FAR and REG were the sections that I needed to spend the most time on. I spent a little less than 4 weeks (approximately 8 hours a day) studying for each of these sections. Looking back, 3 weeks would have been sufficient; I feel like I may have over-studied for these two sections. For the AUD and BEC sections, I allowed 2 weeks of study time each, which turned out to be about the right amount of time for me.
To prepare for each exam, I would listen to the lecture, read and re-read the section, answer the multiple choice questions, and then move on to the next section. After every few chapters, I would go back and re-read the chapters to make sure that the information was sticking.
A study tool that I used and would highly recommend is practice exams. I took those exams and treated them like actual tests. Time yourself and try to figure out if you are finishing the test in the allotted amount of time.
One great thing that I realized when I was studying for the exam was that a lot of the information in my study materials was information that I had already studied in my college courses. Clearly some of the material was more in depth and some of it was new, but you shouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t the first time you have seen a lot of the material.
The First Section
The first section has the unique challenge of not knowing what to expect. What will the testing center look like? Will I get lost on my way there? Will they actually ask me questions on topics that I studied? Because I took the test in Washington, I also needed a piece of paper with launch codes in order to sit for the exam. I must have printed out five or more copies of that piece of paper and put them everywhere that I could think of so that I wouldn’t forget it on the day of the test.
As I arrived to take my exam, I was nervous. Then, the proctor asked me “So which test are you going to be passing today?” That seemed to change my mindset from worrying about failing to focusing on passing.
As I was going through the multiple choice portion of the test, I would organize questions into several categories (1) those I knew for sure, (2) those I was fifty/fifty on, and (3) those that I was going to need to take an educated guess on. This helped me stay on schedule and not spend too much time in any one area. For the simulations, I made sure that I answered all the parts of the question before going back and revising my answers. I figured this would help me maximize points in case I ran out of time.
As I left the test, I had the strange feeling of not having any clue if I passed or not. Later, I realized that it is common to walk out of those tests thinking you did worse than you actually did.
Taking the Rest
You start to get into a routine when you take the other portions of the exam. I would wake up early, put on my most comfortable outfit, eat a good breakfast, answer a few easy multiple choice questions to get my confidence up, and then show up for the exam early.
I took FAR, AUD and REG without any idea on how I had done on previous exams, so I continued to use the same approach that I described above - studying for the exam like a job. Just after I took my third section (REG) my results for AUD and FAR came in with scores of 99 and a 98, respectively.
At this point I knew I could cut myself some slack and, having only one test to go (BEC), I reduced the level of studying to 4-6 hours a day (so I guess I didn’t cut myself all that much slack). The goal of the CPA exam is to successfully pass and at this point I knew that I would be able to achieve that goal. I ending up getting a 93 on BEC and was plenty happy with that score.
The best advice that I can offer you is to put plenty of time into studying. If you do, you will likely succeed on the CPA exam. Most of the individuals that I’ve talked to that didn’t pass the exam failed because they had too many things on their plate to focus wholly on studying for the exam.
Also, it is important to remember to break the exam down into manageable portions. It can be easy to become overwhelmed if you focus on the amount of time that it is going to take to pass all four sections of the exam. Remember that the exam is more like a marathon than a sprint. Give yourself plenty of time, study the next applicable chapter, and build upon your knowledge daily. Preparing will include rigorous studying, but when you’re done you can look back with the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve conquered a once in a lifetime challenge.
On another note, although the schedule that I used won’t be the right schedule for everyone, my younger brother Mike thought that he would try it out in 2010. He passed all four parts no problem and actually ended up surpassing my score by one point. I like to joke that the exam must be easier these days, but the truth is that he worked very hard for his accomplishments and I’m really proud of him.