How to Pass the CPA Exam

Many accountants want to pass the CPA Exam and become a Certified Public Accountant. The credential opens up new job opportunities and increases the respect from your peers. Plus, it will likely increase your pay, too. However, the CPA Exam pass rate hovers around 45-55%. But you can tackle this beast if you’re prepared.

How to Pass the CPA Exam

If you’ve been wondering, “Can I pass the CPA Exam,” the answer is a big YES! Even though the CPA Exam first time pass rate is fairly low, you can pass all four CPA sections with some preparation.

But you need to study hard and stay organized. I hope you’ll benefit from my personal experiences with the tips I’m sharing in this article. And if you’re using Becker and need specific guidance, you can also read studying for the CPA Exam with Becker.

1. Get Organized for the Long Haul

One of my best tips is to get organized and stay organized. It will help reduce your anxiety about the whole process. Yes, you need to study the accounting concepts tested on the exam. But you also need to be organized enough to study all of the content in time for your exam. Plus, you should understand the administrative hurdles that can halt your progress.

Here are some items for your CPA to-do list.

Pick Your Jurisdiction

This is an important decision because the requirements for the CPA license in each jurisdiction can vary. So, you’ll want to learn about the CPA requirements per state.

Gather Your Documents

Go ahead and gather your college transcripts or prepare to order them—you’ll need them. You’re also going to need two pieces of valid identification on exam day. On test day, you might not be allowed into the Prometric center if your ID name doesn’t match the name on your CPA registration.

Pick Your Exam Dates

Consider what other commitments you have and plan around them. Also, remember that the CPA Exam has 4 sections—AUD, BEC, FAR, and REG. You can take them in any order you choose, but you should decide early on. However, I recommend taking the sections in this order.

2. Purchase a Review Course

I consider the CPA Exam to be “academic.” That is, some of the questions ask about concepts that you don’t necessarily use often in your day-to-day work. I think the CPA Exam pass rates are so low because some candidates don’t study with a review course. For example, the CPA FAR exam pass rate was only 46.37% in the 1st quarter of 2020. And the CPA Exam Audit pass rate was only 47.97%, according to the AICPA. But with the right review course, you can beat the average pass rate on the CPA Exam.

I know that purchasing review material is a financial investment. But based on my personal experience, it’s worth it in the end. After all, you’ll probably need a lot less time to study. And you’ll have a much greater chance of getting a CPA Exam passing score.

If you’re on the fence about the CPA review course you should choose, I highly recommend checking out Becker CPA. Becker is also the course I used to pass the CPA Exam.

3. Create a Study Schedule and Study

Once you pick your exam dates, you’ll be able to figure out that you have “X” number of days to study. This will help you create a study schedule and pass the CPA Exam. You can either make one on your own with a calendar and a spreadsheet. Or, you can use the one that might be included in your CPA review course.

If you’re going to make your own, here are some things to consider.

  • Decide which days of the week will be your “study days” and stick to that plan.
  • On those study days, figure out how many hours you’ll have to study.
  • Incorporate breaks. This might seem counter-intuitive, but our brains need an occasional rest to be at their optimal level.
  • Be realistic and honest about the time you have to study. After all, there are only so many hours in a day.

Study All of the Modules in Your Review Course

Don’t even think about skipping some of the modules in your review course. Study all of them. Even the boring ones. The pass rate on the CPA Exam is already low enough. So, don’t take chances by skipping some of your study materials.

Take Active Notes

Many review providers use video lectures to teach their content. And while the videos might be highly informative, it can be hard to keep your focus after staring at a computer screen for too long. So take active notes—this will keep you awake. And we tend to remember content better when we write things down.

Make Your Flashcards

Some review courses include pre-made flashcards, either hard-copies or digital flashcards on a mobile app or an online platform. But again, you’ll learn the content faster if you make your own.

Carry Your Notes with You

Put your flashcards and/or a formula info sheet in your bag and take it with you everywhere. That way, you can turn every bit of downtime into study time. I’ve even been known to take my flashcards on my daily morning walk.

4. Register for the CPA Exam

Why is this step so important? Well, registering will force you to pick an exam date if you didn’t take my advice from step #1. And once you have that date, you can calculate how many weeks you have to study and how much ground you’ll need to cover each week.

Here’s a Tip

Your CPA Exam date should not be more than 6-8 weeks past the day when you start to study for that section of the 4-part exam. And really, 4 weeks is ideal. The trick is to give yourself enough time to study. But, you don’t want to take so long that you start to forget the material you’ve already reviewed.

5. Do a Final Review

Your CPA Exam review course should come with a final review or timed mock exams. So once you think you’ve studied enough, test yourself with a mock exam. Some review providers even give you analyzed feedback on your practice exams. This feedback helps you determine what content areas you still need to study.

6. Go to Prometric and Pass the CPA Exam!

To ensure success on your exam, you should know what to expect when you get to your Prometric site where you will take the exam. Remember to bring your two forms of valid ID and your Notice to Schedule. You can’t take your cell phone, notes, books, or a calculator into the exam room. To learn more about exam day, discover information about the Prometric CPA sites.

How Long to Pass the CPA Exam from Start to Finish

A lot of my readers ask me questions about average attempts to pass the CPA Exam and how many hours a day they should study. Honestly, many factors go into how long it takes to study. Each accountant has different work experiences, different college courses, and different levels of ability. So it’s possible that you might only need 80-120 hours per section to study. Or you might need a lot more.

However, some CPA Exam review providers, like Gleim Exam Prep, keep track of their students’ average time to pass the CPA Exam. The Gleim products are great for candidates who prefer self-study, so I trust their estimates. According to Gleim CPA, to get a CPA Exam passing rate, their students studied for this long:

  • AUD = 145 hours
  • BEC = 165 hours
  • FAR = 155 hours
  • REG = 145 hours
  • Total study time for all four sections = 610 hours

Of course, keep in mind that these are just averages. It could take you more or less time to get a CPA Exam passing score. But let’s use the number of 610 hours of study time in the discussion below.

How to Pass the CPA Exam in 6 Months

Once you pass your first CPA Exam section, you have 18 months to pass the rest. However, some candidates like to get the CPA Exam passed in 6 months. So, how many hours a day of study to pass the CPA in 6 months (or roughly 24 weeks)?

Well, if it might take 610 hours to study for all four sections, and you have 24 weeks to study, that breaks down to just over 25 hours per week. That equals studying just over 3 ½ hours per day to pass the CPA Exam all 4 sections within 6 months.

So can you pass all CPA Exams in 6 months? With some planning and diligent weekly study, yes.

How to Pass the CPA Exam in 3 Months

I’m not going to lie: passing the CPA Exam in 3 months (or 12 weeks) is hard. If we use 610 hours as a baseline again, passing the CPA Exam in 3 months means you need to study about 50 hours per week. If you don’t other full-time commitments, that might be something you could accomplish.

However, you could also utilize a CPA course like Surgent CPA which allows studiers to significantly cut back the number of study hours required. This is an excellent option especially if you don’t need the concepts taught to you again.

pass the cpa exam fast with surgent cpa review

How to pass 2 exams in 3 months for the CPA

If you only need to pass 2 CPA Exam sections in 3 months instead of all 4, your life will be a lot less hectic. In fact, you might only need to study 25 hours or less per week.

How to Pass the CPA Exam in 20 Days

Honestly, I won’t recommend trying to pass the CPA Exam in 20 days. Even if you just graduated from college, you might be too stressed to pass in that amount of time. However, some candidates have done it, so you could, too.

If this is your only option, I suggest practicing with as many sample questions and mock exams as you can.

How to Pass the CPA Exam While Working

Can you pass all CPA exams in 6 months while working? Yes—absolutely. Here’s my advice.

  • Be an efficient studier and use an adaptive review course with an e-learning platform (this will eliminate excessive study hours).
  • Plan to minimize your distractions by turning off social media and studying in a quiet place.
  • Study over your lunch hour. And if you bring your flashcards with you, you can squeeze in some study time wherever you are.
  • Ask for help from your friends and family for chores and errands.
  • Make small study goals. Research says that studying in small increments yields faster content retention.

FAQs

I’ve collected reader questions about passing the CPA Exam. If you don’t find an answer to your question here, contact me.

Can you pass the CPA Exam if you think you did bad?

Sometimes I’ll leave an exam and think, “Wow, I blew it.” But then when I get my scores, I’m pleasantly surprised that I passed! So if you think you did bad after taking the CPA Exam, there’s no need to worry until you get your scores. If you fail, plan accordingly to study more and re-take that section.

Is it possible to pass the CPA Exam when you didn’t do well on the SIMs?

Almost half of the questions on the CPA Exam are task-based simulations, often referred to as TBSs or SIMs. If you answer all of the simulations incorrectly, you won’t pass the CPA Exam. But these questions can be tricky. So, it’s important to practice them with a good CPA review course. For instance, if you’re looking for a course with a lot of sample simulations, check out Gleim CPA Review. After all, Gleim’s courses have more practice TBSs than any other course right now.

How long does it take to pass the CPA Exam?

The length of time to study and pass the CPA Exam really depends on the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. Plus, remember how many months are allowed to pass all four parts of the CPA Exam. If you’re adequately prepared, you can pass all parts within the 18-month rolling window.

What if you don’t pass 1 section on the CPA Exam within 18 months?

If you fail a section, don’t fret. Simply go back to your review course, identify your weak content areas, and keep trying. If you fail a section, remember that you’ll need to pass it AND the other three within 18 months. If that rolling 18-month window has passed, you’ll have to re-take sections until you pass all 4 within that time frame.

Can you pass all CPA Exams in 6 months while working?

Yes. If you create a realistic study plan and be diligent about your studies, you could be passing the CPA Exam in 6 months. However, keep in mind that you’ll probably need to set aside up to 25 hours per week to study.

What percentage pass all four parts of the CPA Exam the first time?

That information usually isn’t released with the CPA Exam pass rate reports. However, NASBA estimates that only 10-20% of candidates pass the CPA Exam all 4 sections on their first attempt.

Can you retake a CPA Exam in two weeks and pass?

If you failed a section by just a few points, I think it’s reasonable to review your weak areas, retake the exam, and pass.

However, if you failed by a big margin, you should probably hit the books for a few more weeks before re-taking that section.

Plus, remember that you have to wait and re-schedule a section after you get your scores. Your scores won’t be released until a couple of weeks after you take an exam.

Can I get a job by passing the CPA Exam but not a license?

It’s difficult to answer this question because each accountant has different skill sets. And the job market and demand for accountants vary between regions. However, I can say that getting your license will lead to many benefits. So once you pass the CPA Exam, your career will benefit the most from getting the license.

Does a CPA Exam expire after you pass it?

Your CPA Exam scores technically don’t expire. However, if you don’t pass all 4 sections within 18 months, you’ll have to start re-taking the sections you’ve passed.

Has anyone passed the CPA Exam without studying?

In theory, I guess there are CPAs who didn’t study for the exam, but I don’t know any.

How long do you have to pass all 4 parts of the CPA Exam?

Once you pass your first section exam, you have 18 months to pass the other three sections.

What if you pass the CPA Exam but are not licensed?

Once you pass the CPA Exam, you still can’t refer to yourself as a “CPA” until you apply for a license from your jurisdiction. Although some state boards do offer “active” versus “inactive” licenses, you still must apply.

Free CPA Course

I’ve created two free mini-courses to help you pass the CPA Exam. In this e-course, I’ll share even more information and tips on passing the CPA Exam on the first time. Click on the link that best describes your status to get started.

Further Reading

About the Author Stephanie Ng

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!

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