Short-term sacrifice, long-term payoff
Associate Director of Growth Strategy & Operations
I am from Rockville, MD and went to the University of Maryland. I decided to pursue accounting because I knew every business needed accountants and I would become a resource for any organization. In December 2010, I graduated with a degree in Accounting and started studying for the CPA exam while working part-time for Giant Foods as a Supply Chain Analyst. I passed the CPA exam in the summer after graduation and started with PwC in September 2011. Currently, I work as Associate Director of Growth Strategy & Operations at Privia Health.
Planning for the Exam
In planning my exam, I talked to everyone I could about the exam and asked questions about the process to apply (keep in mind it varies significantly state to state). I called my State Board of Accountancy early in the semester of graduation to get them the information they needed so I could get my Notice to Schedule ("NTS") as early as possible. Nothing can be a worse momentum killer than discovering you have to wait another few weeks to take the exam than you originally planned because something got lost in the mail. Before I received my NTS, I ordered my CPA exam materials and stayed in touch with my State Board to make sure all of the necessary items were en route for approval.
To learn how to prepare for the CPA exam, I reached out to my peers for the strategies they used to successfully to make it through all four parts of the exam. I asked questions like: When it comes to my review course, do I watch the videos, read the books, or both? How did you study for the exam? Where did you study? I knew that what works for someone else would not necessarily have worked for me but by talking to several people, I was able to pick and choose from their experiences and develop a plan that fit my style. I also found a CPA exam mentor, someone who could walk me through the exam and check in along the way. My CPA mentor was someone who recently passed the exam, understood the challenges and willingly acted as my guide. I called him regularly so I could share my strategy, check my progress, and use him as a cheerleader throughout what can be a lonely process. And that made all the difference.
I tried to give myself a month and a half between each exam. I had the luxury of having 9 months to finish before starting work so I was able to space it out. Realistically, I would say anywhere between a month to a month and a half is critical for each part. Some exam takers like to start with the hardest and work their way to the easiest sections. Since I thought FAR and REG would be my most challenging sections, I wanted to take them last. The exam material for REG and FAR was nearly double that of the material for BEC and AUD so I took a little more time to study for them. I took BEC followed by AUD, REG, and then FAR.
How I Studied
The key to the whole process is setting a realistic study schedule and sticking to it. I refused to study 12 hours a day and if I had been working full-time, 6 hours a day would be a stretch too. Instead, I set a realistic schedule for the week making sure to build in times when I could get away and clear my head (running was effective for me). I tried to get through one section of my Becker review course material a week (each exam had between 5-9 sections of information to learn). To study, I watched all of the videos and completed all of the practice problems. I know I am an auditory and kinesthetic learner so reading the books wouldn’t be the most efficient use of my time. I also made sure that I would complete all of the material for each exam with a week to go before I had to sit for it. That last week I spent quickly reviewing all of the material, stopping to concentrate on my weaker areas. That way everything was fresh by the time the exam came around.
The First Section
The day of my exam I got up early, threw on a pair of sweatpants (comfort is key), and got to the testing site an hour early. That way, I knew I’d be there on time and could relax and grab a bagel (breakfast is important too) before the test. I always tried to take my exams in the morning so I did not spend the whole day worrying about them, or worse, trying to do last minute studying.
During the exam, if I read through the question and decided it would take some time to work through, I’d flag it and proceed on to the next one. Doing so helped me determine how much time I had to spend on the difficult questions based on how long I had allotted to that particular section. I made sure to leave plenty of time for the simulations at the end because the authoritative literature (provided for the research segment of the simulation section) can be very helpful if you have the time to go through it. While it is difficult to navigate, since I typically had time at the end of each exam, I could weed through the material and find guidance to help me through the questions I was struggling with.
Taking the Rest
Once I passed the first exam, I was good from there. It was just about finding the right study plan for me and keeping up with it. The momentum coming out of the first exam pushed me through the following three. I also made sure to reward myself when I was doing well along the way. The CPA exam is a difficult process, but it is very doable with the right planning and support.
I always tried to make it so the last week before the exam I had already gotten through all of the sections of my CPA review course material. That way I could use the last week to fly through the sections a second time and more importantly concentrate on the areas that had room for improvement.
Learn about CPA exam basics and what you’ll need to do to get licensed.