4 "Big Picture" CPA Study Mistakes

cpa study mistakes

A lot of CPA candidates make the study process a lot harder than it needs to be by making some of these "big picture" mistakes...


When Albert Einstein was 16 years old, he applied to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic school in Zurich, Switzerland. He did well on the math and physics portion, but he failed the general part of the exam. Knowing the hard stuff wasn’t enough to get him into college- that’s very much how the CPA exam is.

But, Einstein went on to apply a second time a year later, and he got in.

This little story about our favorite genius reminds me of the first time I took FAR. I spent most of my study time mastering the hardest FAR topics, because I assumed the test would be full of calculation-heavy questions on things like pensions, stock compensation, and dollar value LIFO.

Alas, on test day, I found out that while there were SOME of these hard questions, it was much more important to have a general understanding of all FAR topics… not just the hard stuff.

The CPA exams are hard... really hard

Don’t get me wrong…. learning enough about each topic to actually pass FAR or REG is still incredibly tough. The amount of information you’re supposed to know is massive.

Even BEC and AUD are still very tough exams compared to any test you took in college.

And there’s so much of it that you can study for two months, learn a shipload of new concepts, and then take a practice test and find out that you’ve forgotten everything you studied in the first month.

I’ve personally seen at least 10 people start in public accounting with the idea of making it a career, only to leave 2 years later because they can’t pass the CPA exams.

I also know people who have been trying to pass them for years. YEARS…. that is a terrible thought.

Now, after that first failed attempt and learning what I had done wrong, I went on to pass all four sections within 3 months of each other. 3 months total.

I’m not trying to brag- I just kind of stumbled onto a better way of studying, out of necessity. By then I was working full-time and had very little time for dedicated study each day.

From my own experience and now from helping thousands of other CPA candidates through the process, I’ve identified 4 major mistakes that almost everyone makes while studying for the CPA exams:

Mistake #1: Taking too much time in between exams

This is a little counter-intuitive. The dedicated student in you wants to make sure that you give yourself plenty of time to really “learn the material”.

And… while you do need to learn the material, being able to pull it all out of your brain on test day requires more of sprint-type-studying instead of marathon-type-studying.

Giving yourself four months to study for FAR is a recipe for disaster.

Another big problem you have is by taking 3-4 months per section, that 18-month time limit creeps up on you pretty fast… way faster than you think.

I know several people who started when I did that have now had multiple sections lapse. If you think failing a section is bad, try passing a few and then having to take them over just because they lapsed.

Remember how you could magically pull a 10 page research paper out of your hat in one night during college? That's because putting pressure on yourself works.

I think the best study windows for the sections are 5-6 weeks for FAR and REG, and 4-5 weeks for BEC and AUD.

If that sounds like a crazy timeline, it is very doable - no magic tricks involved. Just attend a session of our free study training to see our study approach in detail.

Mistake #2: Spending most of your "study" time watching video lectures or reading chapters

This one is the cause of many, many wasted hours… all while the innocent candidate thinks they’ve been studying.

You sit down, open up your CPA review course, and you turn on a lecture. Nice… you’re now studying… "Start the timer mom, I’m studying!"

Except you’re not really studying are you? Your mind starts to wander after a minute, and then the video lecture ends you realize you didn’t learn a thing.

Also, even if you do pay attention to the whole lecture, what do you do with the info dump you just received?

It’s hard to take that much information at one time and remember any specific part enough to be able to answer questions about it.

That’s what reading the chapter is for right?

Wrong.

“Reading the chapter” will basically give you the same result as “watching the lecture”, but almost every single CPA candidate approaches studying this way.

There are much more efficient study methods that you can use.

Again, we cover what these efficient study methods are in detail on this free training...

Now, video lectures and chapter text obviously have their place, but when you're crunched for time - like everyone is - devouring every minute of every video lecture before you even attempt practice questions is not the best approach.

Mistake #3: Not using study supplements

This was absolutely huge for me. I had some review notes I purchased, and then some audio notes. I would read the review notes on my phone every chance I got: eating breakfast, eating lunch, walking between buildings, and even for a few minutes every hour at work. Then I would listen to my audio notes during my daily commute, and any other time I was doing something else.

All this extra time studying everyday added up and paid huge dividends on test day. If you don’t have any study supplements in addition to your main review course, you should get some.

Since this post was originally written, we have developed study supplements designed with this idea of "mini study sessions" in mind.

What I didn't really like about the supplements I used, was that:

  1. The notes were just a summary of everything, where as I wanted something that went deeper but into the most-likely-to-be-tested areas
  2. The audios were 30 hours for FAR alone. I wanted high-impact but shorter audios that I could listen to from start to finish, over and over... because that's how you really memorize it

The SuperfastCPA notes and audios are written based on exam questions - so you know you're reviewing the most likely stuff you'll see on the exams

Use the coupon code "ARTICLE" to save 40% on any SuperfastCPA bundle for a limited time

Mistake #4: Doing a big "final review"

This is another score killer that seems like it should be a good idea.

You spend months studying, you stick with your plan and finish your lessons with two weeks left to go. Now you just have your “final review” left.

Awesome.

Except it’s really a terrible approach. Think about it… the amount of information that you’ve put into your head has taken you months to get in there(except you've forgotten most of it), and now you’re going to essentially re-learn it within two weeks?

It doesn’t work like that…. and it doesn’t… if you’re tried this yourself.

All a “final review” does is remind you of how fragile your understanding of the concepts are, and then you go in to the test with very low confidence. And for good reason.

Again, there is a much better approach than leaving your review for the final two weeks.

Instead of just going through each lesson, and then never thinking about it again until your final review, you should be dedicating a portion of each day to "re-review", so that you are continually re-reviewing everything you've studied.

Ideally, as time goes on, you actually get better at each topic if you're re-reviewing like a pro.

Again, study supplements that you use all throughout your day help you accomplish this. You can also finish each study session with a set of 30 cumulative questions.

Also, all through your study process you should be making your own flashcards, and if you re-review and make your own flashcards along the way, the only "final review" you should need is going through your own flashcards the last few days before an exam. Because at that point they will contain your own personal weak areas.

If some or all of these ideas make sense to you, then I've got a lot more where that came from. All in a step-by-step approach.

When I failed FAR the first time I took it, it quintupled my desire to pass the exams once and for all... to the point where I got my study process down to a science, and I was studying less each day than my buddies from the MAcc.

If you want the key strategies that will usually make the difference between passing and failing, then join a free session of this training... you will find it well worth your time.

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What you'll learn on the free "study hacks" training

  • Why the CPA exams are so much different than exams you took in college, and how to prepare differently
  • The "accelerated" study methods that will allow you to literally cut your main session in half (for example, 2 hours instead of 4 hours)
  • The study "hack" to figure out which parts of each chapter actually matter, so that you don't waste time trying to learn everything
  • The best way to prepare for the SIMs, which is NOT just doing endless practice SIMs
  • The exact time benchmarks to shoot for on exam day, so that you don't screw the pooch on the SIMs
  • The trick to averaging one MCQ (multiple choice question) per minute
  • You'll come away from this training with a crystal-clear study plan... that works
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