How long to study for the CPA Exam? This is one of the most frequently asked questions from my readers. And I understand why: if you’re studying for the CPA Exam, you want to know what your time commitment will be.
However, how long you study for the CPA Exam largely depends on how disciplined you are and whether you have commitments outside of the exam that demand your attention. Plus, your CPA preparation time can be cut down with good CPA Exam review courses.
In this article, I’ll cover studying for the CPA Exam, how long it will take, and some tips for making the whole process a little easier. Because if you have a good understanding of what’s ahead, you’ll be better prepared to set aside time each day to study.
As a general rule, you’ll need 80-150 hours to study for each session of the exam, assuming you have basic accounting knowledge. Roughly speaking, you will need around 330-440 hours.
The CPA Exam is an aggressive exam with four parts:
Most candidates spend more time preparing for the FAR and REG parts of the exam, and less time on AUD and BEC. However, your individual study time will depend on your pre-existing knowledge in each subject area.
Based on your previous academic and work experiences, you will probably find some sections of the CPA Exam harder than others. And therefore, you’ll probably study for some sections more than others. But on average, here’s what most candidates say about the CPA Exam sections.
According to the AICPA, only 47.97% of people passed the AUD section in Q1 for 2020. That’s about tied with the pass rate for FAR. So based on the pass rates, most people find AUD and REG the hardest. However, some accountants think that AUD approaches auditing concepts as you might in a college course but not necessarily as you would in real life.
In the first quarter of 2020, 61.76% of test-takers passed BEC. Many candidates consider BEC to be easiest. However, the Written Communications are a type of simulation problem unique to BEC. So, be sure to review the format of these communications before you sit for the CPA Exam.
Only 46.37% of candidates passed FAR in the first quarter of 2020. Most people think FAR is the hardest because it covers the largest number of accounting topics.
The REG section is probably the second easiest section on the CPA Exam. Therefore, about 55% of candidates passed it in Q1 in 2020. REG involves a lot of memorization, so be prepared to study. However, experience does help with REG, especially if you’ve been working as a tax accountant.
If you have a busy life, it is best to find better ways to understand and keep track of how long it takes for the CPA journey. Here are my suggestions:
A CPA Exam study planner will help you break down all of the topics you need to review and gives you benchmarks so you cover all of your study materials before your exam. Review providers like Becker, Gleim, and Wiley CPAexcel have interactive online study planners that help you plan ahead. These systems calculate the time you need to complete each study unit, based on the average time required for students in their study courses.
These systems also keep track of your progress, based on the time you log on to the study sessions. So when you lag behind, they send you an email reminder and keep you on track.
Roger CPA Review uses an Excel sheet as an online study planner. Although it’s not as tech-savvy as systems used by Gleim and CPAexcel, many of their students prefer the flexibility of an Excel sheet.
If you don’t use a review provider that has a customizable study planner, you can create your own. Start by listing all of the topics you need to review for the CPA Exam. Then, based on the target date you want to sit for the exam, figure out your deadlines to study each topic. Then, you can keep track in an Excel sheet or mark important milestones in your calendar.
In the video above and in my book, I list typical studying scenarios. You can pick the one that fits your personal situation the most and follow accordingly.
The AICPA recommends that CPA candidates spend 300-400 hours studying for the CPA Exam. However, that timeframe can quickly increase if you’re not studying effectively. So if you think your study time isn’t getting you anywhere, consider the following:
The CPA Exam covers a lot of material. In fact, it covers so much that you need a study plan to help you prepare. If you think that you’ll be fine if you just review your old college textbooks and some updated accounting regulations, you’re wrong. You need a study plan that outlines exactly what concepts you need to review. Otherwise, you’re going to waste your time. CPA candidates who try to go it alone without a study plan usually end up spending too much time reviewing concepts they already know and not enough time reviewing what they don’t.
Along the same lines as the point above, you absolutely need to set a study schedule. At this point in your career, passing the CPA Exam is just as important as everything else on your “To Do” list. So make it a priority. Figure out when you will study every day, add it to your daily schedule, and keep those study promises you make to yourself. If you study at a set time every day, you get in the routine and studying doesn’t seem like such a burden on your daily life.
The right CPA exam prep materials can be the key to your success. Today’s review providers have created courses that make studying for the CPA Exam go much smoother and much faster than doing it on your own. The best CPA study materials are designed to cover all of the topics that appear on the CPA Exam as outlined in the AICPA’s Uniform CPA Examination Blueprints. They often include questions that appeared on previous exams, so you can get a good feeling for the exam’s level of difficulty. Many review courses include online webinars or taped video lectures, but some allow you to sign up for a CPA class in limited locations.
Every CPA candidate learns differently. So pick the CPA Exam review course that comes with learning tools suited to your needs. For example, if you learn best by watching videos, pick a course with outstanding video content. If you like to highlight textbooks, be sure to use a course that provides hard copies of their materials. Conversely, if you’re someone who doesn’t benefit from using flashcards, don’t waste your time with them.
Of course, it’s important that you master the content that’s going to be on the CPA Exam. However, it’s just as important that you master how to take the exam. People who have already passed the exam swear by the following method: keep drilling your sample questions over and over and over again until you pass 80-85% of them on your mock exams. So, it’s critical to review with a good test bank of sample questions.
How to study for the CPA Exam is just as important as how long to study. Yes, you have to sit down and put in the study time. But you’ll squander your precious free time if you study without focus.
Keep in mind that this exam is academic in nature. That is, some of the questions “go by the book” and don’t necessarily only emphasize the daily skills you’ll use as a CPA. So even if you’ve been working as a professional accountant for many years, you should still use study material for the CPA Exam.
CPA Exam study guides will concentrate your efforts and prevent you from going off track. Here’s a few ideas to consider:
A good CPA Exam review course will include all of the materials you’ll need to pass the exam on your first attempt. There are several good exam prep providers on the market, and I have a review of the best review courses in this article. Most courses come with textbooks, lectures (video and/or audio), mock exams, and test question banks. Many courses are now using adaptive e-learning platforms that access your progress and create personalized study plans that help you maintain your focus. Some even include personalized support and face-to-face classroom-style instruction. If you find a review course that fits your learning style and stick to your study plan, you will probably spend less time studying and end up with a higher exam score.
In addition to purchasing a CPA Exam review course, I also recommend that you take advantage of the free study materials that are available online. I definitely wouldn’t solely rely on these materials for your exam prep, but they can supplement a good review course. Here’s some ideas:
In the past, candidates could only sit for the CPA Exam during certain testing windows each quarter. However, as of July 1, 2020, you can take the exam at any time. To schedule your exam, visit NASBA’s CPA Exam page.
If you have a good review course and create a study schedule (and stick to it!), you can take all 4 parts at once. I took all four exam sections over 2 days and passed with solid scores, so it’s certainly possible. But should you? Well, that really depends on the amount of time you’ll be able to dedicate to studying. Check out this full-length article to learn about my experience.
Candidates must take the CPA Exam at a Prometric test center. However, if you might be applying in one state and taking the exam in another, click here for some advice.
Each part of the CPA Exam lasts 4 hours for a total exam time of 16 hours.
My “more experienced” readers who have been out of college for a while often ask me about their chances of passing the CPA Exam. It’s commonly recognized that the exam is an “academic” one. Therefore, if you’ve recently graduated from college, you might need to spend less time studying. For example, if you just took a governmental accounting class, you might find those questions a little easier. But still, experience does help, especially on the taxation questions. If you’ve been working as a tax accountant, you might not think the tax questions in REG are tough. So while being fresh out of college can cut down on your study time, experience helps, too.
Without knowing the size of the task ahead, it’s too easy for life’s daily distractions to derail your studying. Therefore, it’s critical that you understand the breadth of the CPA Exam before you get started. But at the end of the day, what’s important is how well you’ve mastered the material, not how many hours a day you log studying.
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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!