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We all want to pass the CPA exam on our first attempt. How can we study and get prepared in the most efficient and effective way? Here are my CPA exam tips for you.
The more efficient you are, the less time required to complete the preparation.
You’ve got to know the enemy before the attack.
The CPA exam isn’t exactly your enemy, but it’s a challenge that you need to face, and potentially an obstacle if you fail to pass. Therefore, we should understand what the examiners are trying to test us, how many questions there are, and the time limit.
Examiner expectation: candidates should know not only the definition of accounting terms but also how the concepts can be applied in real business situations.
Exam format: it’s around 50% multiple-choice questions and 50% task-based simulation questions (sims) for FAR, AUD and REG. For BEC, it is 50% multiple-choice, 35% TBSs, and 15% written communications. In case you aren’t familiar with sims, they are in-depth, scenario type questions — the ones that test your ability to apply the concepts.
2. Pick the Right Tools
We need a learning tool that can associate your real-life experience with theoretical concepts tested in the exam. This means a review course that can combine concepts and practice questions in one seamless package.
I list my top 5 review course providers on this page. Most have free trials and I encourage you to give them a try.
3. Start with a Workable Study Plan
Creating a study plan takes time, effort, and is against human nature — most candidates understand the importance of getting organized but few actually implement it.
Given the wide variety of subjects in this exam, and how candidates have to cover all syllabus in order to pass, a well-organized and realistic plan is a must and is one of the most important parts of your exam preparation.
You can try mapping it out on the wall calendar or excel sheet. If you are looking for something handy, Gleim, Surgent and Wiley CPAexcel have personalized study planners that do the trick in a few clicks.
4. Space it Out; Don’t Cram
A lot of research supports the idea of spacing out your study time. For example, if you are going to spend 60 hours on AUD, it is better to study for 3 hours in 20 sessions, rather than 15 hours for 4 consecutive days.
People have their own favorite time for studying, and if you have work and family commitments, you may have no choice but to study late at night. In general, however, early morning is the most productive time. I have a few suggestions on how to get up early in tip #9.
5. Stress-Test Yourself before the Exam
The CPA Exam is computerized. So to do well on the test, you should get familiar with the interface and navigation in advance. Thankfully, the major CPA review course providers present their practice questions in a testing environment that replicates the real exam.
You should also study in a place that feels like the testing center. It could be an undisturbed room at home, your office after office hours, or the library. If you need absolute silence, you might want to try earplugs and make sure they are comfortable.
“Effective” is different from “efficient” — an efficient candidate learns more and perform better with the same resources (time and review materials).
6. Remove Distraction
Working on a clean vs messy desk makes a huge difference in your mood and productivity. It feels as if your mind has also been cleaned up, and ready to start afresh. Give it a try!
7. Check Emails and Social Media after Your Study, as a Reward
We can’t avoid emails, but you can certainly refrain from checking them every minute. Set aside a time for emails and social media, and you can save a lot of time and energy in studying.
8. Prioritize Based on Long-Term Goals of Your Life
There are many temptations besides emails, Twitter and Facebook. Some readers don’t have sufficient time to study because they absolutely have to watch a TV show, or they are dying to go out with friends.
The frustration of not doing anything fun is understandable. However, if you look in a longer term, would missing that TV episode or friends’ gathering have any effect 10 years down the road?
How about missing the CPA exam, would it affect your career 10 years down the road? I am sure you know the answer.
9. Say No to Sleep-In
I don’t recommend cutting your sleeping time, but you should develop the habit of getting up right after you are awake. People have creative ideas in making themselves awake. My personal favorite is putting the alarm clock at the opposite corner of the room. The other one is to place my favorite snack on the bedside table 🙂
10. Minimize Idle Time
Whether it’s the commute or pick up time for the kids, you want to find a way to better utilize this down time. Audio review is wonderful if it fits your learning style. Otherwise, flash cards work great too. Mobile device apps for CPA exam can also be great learning tools.
11. Let Them Help You
I heard encouraging stories from readers whose spouses take on more housework as a way to support them. Take the offer, but remember to be thankful. If your parents offer help, take them too!
If you have older children, it is also the perfect time to give them more responsibilities and let them help each other in the family.
Nannies and hired assistance can be a solution for the few months if you can’t delegate to family members. I’ve got a few single mom candidates who needed that to pass the exams.
12. Combine Family and Studying Time
Be creative! Teach your little one to shower himself so you can review the book while keeping an eye on him in the bathroom. Take your older child to the library so you two can read / study together.
You will likely see questions in a variety of styles. It is important that you know how to answer questions no matter whether they are subjective or objective, or theoretical or computational.
How you practice using the test prep software can make a difference in passing or failing the exam. I suggest you following these steps to make the best use of this studying tool:
(a) Take each question seriously
There are thousands of questions available in the test prep database. Because of this, some candidates take them for granted and don’t pay attention in how you can learn from these questions.
There is always a concept behind each question. Because of this, you can see each question as an example that explains the rule. Better yet, some questions cover more than one concepts and by doing many practice you can see how the concepts come together.
(b) Read all the explanation to the answer, including those that are wrong
This is a critical step. If you get an answer correctly, you will most likely get it right the next time.Theoretically, if you get 60% of the questions correctly, and assuming these questions appear again in the real exam, you will most likely get these 60% with no problem.
Therefore, your focus should be on the remaining 40% of the questions — those you did wrong previously. If you manage to get half of the wrong questions right the next time around, you will be hitting 80%.
Because of this, even if you have the time, do not go through all the practice questions. Instead, focus on those you did wrong. For me, I redo all of them twice to make sure I got it right for the right reason.
This is especially important for retakers. This strategy can easily give you 10-30 points. For most candidates this is enough to pass the exam in their next attempt.
(c) if you feel 2 or more choices are the same, it means you are not ready, go study harder
Questions could be tricky, but the more you are familiar with the core concepts, the easier for you to find the subtle difference.
I am taking the CPA Exam Tomorrow. Any last minute CPA exam tips?”
My advice to you is: relax, and tell yourself you are ready. Confidence is an important element of your passing success. I’ll also go through some practical tips you can use on the exam day.
One thing you should know about the CPA exam is that the computerized format does not allow you to jump around the testlets and simulations.
This means that time management is the most important CPA exam tips to pass the CPA exam.
Many candidates struggle to finish FAR on time so this is very important. I generally recommend allocating no more than 45 minutes for each testlet and simulation. Since there are 3 testlets and 2 simulations, this will take you 45 minutes x 5 = 3 hours and 45 minutes, with 15 minutes as your buffer.
I strongly recommend a buffer, but you prefer not to have any, you can allocate a slightly longer time for sims (i.e. 50 minutes each, with 5 minutes to spare).
Click here for general study tactics for the CPA FAR exam.
I don’t think you need the entire 4 hours to complete AUD – I finished off an hour early. If the same happens to you, don’t worry it’s quite normal.
Time management is less of an issue for AUD, but you should still stick with a schedule. Similar to FAR you can allocate 45 minutes for each testlet and each simulation.
Click here for general study tactics for the CPA AUD exam.
Most readers told me the given 3 hours is just right for BEC. In case you are a slow test taker, please time your exam. Similar to FAR and AUD you can allocate 45 minutes for each testlet, 60 minutes for the written communication part, and 15 minutes to spare.
Click here for general study tactics for the CPA BEC exam.
Many candidates barely finish REG. The time management strategy is similar to the other sections, but since REG is shorter with 3 hours, you can allocate 35 minutes for each multiple choice testlet, and 30 minutes for each simulations. This will give you 15 minutes as buffer.
Click here for general study tactics for the CPA REG exam.
The multiple choice sections for FAR, AUD and REG are adaptive. If you do well in your first testlet, you will likely face a more difficult second testlet and you’ll need more time to complete it. As a result, candidates can easily fall into the trap of taking too much timing in finishing off the multiple choice questions.
I don’t want to put extra pressure on you, but given the test is adaptive, if you find the second testlet of multiple choice questions very easy, it could mean that you didn’t do well in the first testlet because you get stuck in the “easier” testlet. If this happens to you, be very careful in reading your questions and answers in the second and third testlet. Hopefully you will do well enough to compensate the possible low-scoring in the first testlet.
Although you are allowed to go back and change your answer within the testlet, don’t do it – because it is a waste of valuable time, and you probably won’t know the answer the second time you try it anyway.
Just face the question as it you have once one chance to answer.
This is almost a cliché, but very important. Read the questions AND answers very carefully. Audit questions in particular may have more than one correct answer and you have to pick the best one.
The simulations are quite difficult, but you can use the research tool to find out all sorts of information. The tactics is to save lots of time for your simulations so you can use the research tool to find out virtually anything you are having problems with.
Another tip: use the research tool to help preparing for the written communication part in BEC.
I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley), and I also passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam on my first try. Additionally, I have led webinars, such as for the Institute of Management Accountants, authored featured articles on websites like Going Concern and AccountingWeb, and I'm also the CFO for the charity New Sight. Finally, I have created other accounting certification websites to help mentor non-CPA candidates. I have already mentored thousands of CPA, CMA, CIA, EA, and CFA candidates, and I can help you too!