CPA Exam

What I Would Have Done Differently to Study for the CPA Exam

Posted by Bryce Welker, CPAExamGuy on November 15, 2018 9:26:54 AM CST

studying for CPAEarning your CPA license can give your career a jumpstart. You will gain a significant advantage over the other accountants who don’t possess this credential. According to the 2019 Robert Half Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance Professionals, the midpoint CPA salary for tax professionals with one to three years of experience is $57,500, with auditing experts making $52,000. As you climb the organizational ladder, you can expect to earn substantially more. At the level of Manager of Tax Services, you could be making $104,000 annually! At the upper end of the salary range, your yearly compensation could even be as much as $164,250.

But getting the CPA credential requires you to overcome the hurdle of the Uniform CPA exam; to say that this is difficult would be an understatement. I should know, since it took me quite a bit of time to achieve certification myself! Only about half the candidates manage to secure a passing score. Many individuals have had the misfortune of having to take the same section of the exam again and again due to multiple failed attempts.

Let’s understand why the CPA exam is so difficult.

Two reasons that make it hard to pass:

Reason #1

You need to score a minimum of 75 in each of the four sections; getting 74 or less won’t do. Consider two candidates who take the Auditing and Attestation (AUD) section of the exam. The first manages to obtain a passing score of 75. The other candidate gets 74.

Is it possible to conclude that the individual with 75 has a greater knowledge of Auditing and Attestation than the candidate who scored 74? In fact, it’s likely that both the candidates are equally proficient at the subject, but that one of them had the misfortune of scoring marginally less than the other.

However, that’s the way the CPA exam works. One small error could lead to a score that is less than 75. This could mean hundreds of hours of additional study in order to retake the exam. You would also have to wait for the next testing window which could result in an additional three months or more to pass.

Reason #2

Your successful exam result on a particular section is good for only 18 months. To put this another way, you must pass all four sections of the CPA exam in a “rolling” 18-month period. If you fail to meet this requirement, it could mean retaking one or more sections all over again.

It can be incredibly frustrating to have to prepare for the exam a second time around, especially when there is no guarantee that you will get a passing score again! Considering the difficulty of the exam and the fact that an inability to get a passing score can mean hundreds of additional hours of study, it’s imperative that you pass on your first try.

But how can you do that?

When you start preparing for the exam, don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Thousands of candidates have taken the exam before you. Use their experience to devise your strategy to prepare for the exam. Here are five steps that you can take to improve your chances of passing the uniform CPA exam on your first try.

I had to learn these the hard way. If I knew these tips back when I was taking the CPA exam, things would have gone much easier!

Find out which study method works best for you

When you are preparing for the CPA exam, there are several different approaches that you could take:

  • You could stick to the conventional method of studying from printed guides and review materials.
  • You could choose to attend traditional classes.
  • You could take advantage of online study materials with high-quality video lectures and audio recordings.
  • You could study on the go by listening to podcasts and audiobooks.

Which is the best method? You’ll have to find out for yourself!

However, it is likely that you will use a combination of two or more of the choices listed above.

Many candidates prefer to study from written material since they find the video lectures too time-consuming. However, that doesn’t mean that video lectures aren’t useful; a significant number of candidates turn to video content for difficult-to-understand topics.

Whichever method you choose, it’s crucial to remember that your objective should be to understand the subject matter, not just memorize it.

Decide on the number of sections to attempt

When you are preparing for the CPA exam, one of your most significant challenges is going to be to complete the entire study material in the time that you have available to you.

You will have to prepare your CPA Exam Study Schedule very carefully. The first issue that you have to tackle is to decide on the number of sections that you will attempt to pass in the same testing window.



Auditing and Attestation (AUD)

Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)

Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)

Regulation (REG)


You are permitted to take any section first. You are also allowed to take any number of sections in a single testing window. So, you could decide to take one, two, three, or even four sections within a two-month testing window.

However, there is one crucial condition that you must meet: you have to pass all four sections in an 18-month rolling period.

You may think that taking one section at a time is the best strategy to adopt. This would give you adequate time for preparation, and you would be able to complete all four sections within the 18-month time frame. But this course of action does not give you enough of a buffer. What if you fail one section? You may find yourself in a position where you lose an exam credit that you already have.

What should you do? Remember that you need to strike a delicate balance between allocating adequate time for yourself to study for each section and passing all four sections within the 18-month deadline. For most candidates, this means taking two sections per testing window.

Allocate your time

How many hours of study should you devote to each section?

This depends on several factors:

  • How quickly can you understand and memorize the study material?
  • How much prior knowledge do you have on a particular topic?
  • How many times do you plan on revising the study material?

Some candidates may find that it is possible to prepare for a particular section by studying for a total of 100 hours. Others may require significantly more time than this. What should you do? It’s advisable to be over-prepared. Allocate at least 150 hours of study per section, preferably more. If you do this, your level of confidence will rise, and your chances of getting a score that is well above the magic number of 75 will increase.

Why should you study for more time than is necessary to get the minimum passing score? There are two reasons:

  • It’s impossible to know the amount of time that needs to be put in to get a score of 75. Aiming higher gives you a margin of safety.
  • Devoting an extra 25 hours or 50 hours at the initial stages is better than failing the exam and having to study for it again.

Eliminate your distractions

While it is essential to devote the required number of hours, it is equally important to focus on the subject that you are studying. Find a place that is quiet and which allows you to work without any distractions. Of course, a peaceful environment isn’t enough. You also have to manage the distractions that you carry with you. How many times a day do you check your smartphone?

In a recent interview, Larry Rosen, psychology professor and the author of The Distracted Mind, said that a majority of Americans look at their phone every 15 minutes or less. If you are in the habit of doing this, it's advisable to put your smartphone on airplane mode when you are studying. If you find it hard to concentrate, try the Pomodoro technique. It was invented by Francesco Cirillo, an entrepreneur. He says that instead of working for a long uninterrupted stretch of time, it is better to focus intensely on the task at hand for a short period. If you take frequent breaks, it will help you to concentrate and retain more of the material that you have studied.

Why is it called the Pomodoro technique? The timer that Francesco Cirillo used to break down his work into 25-minute periods was shaped like a Pomodoro. That’s the Italian word for a tomato!

Try out the technique for yourself. Study single-mindedly for 25 minutes and then take a break of five minutes. Then start studying again. After two hours, take a longer 15-minute break. If a longer interval works for you, take a break after 30 or 45 minutes.

The crucial element in this technique is to give your undivided attention to the task that you are working at.

Allocate time for reviewing what you’ve studied

Merely reading the study material isn’t enough. You have to be able to remember what you have read and use the knowledge that you have gained when you are answering the questions in the exam.

How can you commit what you have read to memory? Although it is difficult, there are several techniques that you can use:

  • For every hour that you study, set aside at least ten minutes for review. If you make this a habit, your retention power can rise dramatically.
  • Consider summarizing each section or paragraph that you read in the margin. Just a few words will do. After the second or third revision, you won’t need to read the entire paragraph; referring to your summary will be sufficient.
  • For particularly important topics, you could make your own notes. Don’t make the mistake of copying down whole pages of the study material. Write a summary of what you have learned and then check if what you have written is accurate.

The bottom line

The Uniform CPA exam is one of the most difficult professional exams. To pass, it requires hard work and dedication. Of course, you must also study intelligently and try and understand the study material instead of just memorizing it. But gaining the CPA credential is worth the sacrifices that you will have to make. Believe me, I know! Once you get your license, it's yours forever.

Your career will get an immediate boost, and it is likely that you will also be the “first among equals” when your organization announces the promotions for the year. So just keep these tips in mind and you’ll have a much easier time than I did. Good luck!

About the Author

Bryce Welker is a CPA and an internet entrepreneur, helping students pass the CPA exam. He owns a network of websites like CPAExamGuy, which helps students get the best deals on test prep courses.