5 High Impact CPA Study Strategies

5 High Impact Study Strategies

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In this SuperfastCPA episode, we cover 5 high-impact CPA study strategies that most CPA candidates are not doing, but will make a massive difference in the effectiveness of your CPA study process.


Master your study process by attending one of our free study training workshops:

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Episode Timestamps

Episode Transcript


Nate: And that is why, really, really smart people have such a hard time with the CPA exams.

Nate: Welcome to another episode of the CPA exam experience podcast from SuperfastCPA. I’m Nate and in today’s episode We’re gonna go through five of the most high impact study strategies that I know for a fact most people, most CPA candidates are not doing.

So before we get into these, I just want to mention our free study training webinars. So that is where we cover the broad overview and then the key pillar strategies, and one of these, it’s like a big pillar or cornerstone strategy that really needs to be part of your process.

And then a few of these other ones are elements of these bigger strategies, and it’s these pieces that people are missing as to why maybe the bigger strategies aren’t really working for them.

But to understand the full picture and get an [00:01:00] in-depth overview of our study approach and how it’s so different and much more effective than the traditional study methods, you really need to attend one of our training webinars. This is one hour that will literally save you months and months of time and frustration from wasting a bunch of your own time, and also avoiding the whole, six month long process of trying to figure this stuff out on your own through trial and error.

So the link to those trainings will be down in the description of this episode, whether that’s the YouTube video or the audio version.

So with that out of the way, let’s get into the five strategies.

Strategy #1

Nate: Alright, so strategy number one is flashcards. You should be making your own flashcards in your own words as you work through the different topics. I could go on and on about all the benefits and all the different reasons why you should be making your own flashcards, but I’ll try to stick to just three key points.

So number one, it’s an efficiency thing. So as you go through each [00:02:00] lesson, and I think everyone agrees or understands that, for any given CPA exam, you’re going to cover dozens and dozens of topics.

And as you work through your study plan, each day, you’re covering a whole brand new topic, if not multiple topics, and so, again, even if your study process is effective, or you felt like, and even if you legitimately did, come to an effective understanding of yesterday’s lesson, well, today you’re covering, again, one or multiple new topics. You’re constantly recording over your short term memory, so to speak. So I think everyone understands or can acknowledge that even if in the moment, you did gain a solid understanding of this topic, well, 30 minutes later, you’re on a new topic, or let’s say tomorrow, you’re on a new topic.

So the act of making flashcards, for the key points, or like [00:03:00] the, the pillars of each topic, you are capturing the understanding. So I’ve been using that phrase for years to describe this. You want to capture that understanding. Because if you don’t, well, it’s a retention issue. Two or three or eight weeks later, when you get to your final review, you’re going to realize that you’ve forgotten, you know, 50 to 80 percent of all the previous topics, so your final review turns into this frantic attempt to relearn everything from the entire exam section, which of course doesn’t really work that well.

Now, at the same time, you don’t want to be essentially rewriting the entire lesson in flashcard format as you go through each lesson, but we don’t have time to cover our flashcard process. But you basically, you classify the material into like type one and type two information as you go through. So type one is stuff that falls into place, it makes sense logically, you just, you kind [00:04:00] of know that you’re going to remember it or that it makes sense. Maybe it’s based on stuff that you had classes on in college that you still remember. So there’s a lot of the stuff that you don’t need to make flashcards on. It’s really stuff that as you’re doing your sets of re-review questions, or your ongoing re-review, that you’re finding that you’re missing questions on it for the second or third time in a row.

But again, the details of that process is covered more in depth in our free study training webinars.

But the general idea is that, if you are going to invest, let’s say, two to three hours on any given topic, then it is well worth your time to take five to 10 minutes once you come to an understanding of the practice questions and simulations from that topic, and put stuff into your own words in a way that you understand it and capture it, you know, “capture it” on flashcards, and then ideally [00:05:00] you’re going to be spending a portion of your day re-reviewing your own flashcards that you’re making throughout the process, so that you’re committing the pillar information from each topic to memory as you re-review your own flashcards day to day throughout the whole process.

All right, so the second element of flashcards, this is where we need to compare it to traditional notes. So we hear this constantly or I hear this constantly in emails or with our coaching clients, and people say some version of, well, I have my own note taking system that worked for me in college. Here’s the big thing, and again, this is just another key thing to understand and just understanding this will help you throughout how you approach every part of the study process.

You just need to understand that on test day, it is about forced recall. So what does that mean? Forced recall is just that you get into the testing center, you obviously can’t take notes or a textbook in there with you. It is [00:06:00] strictly what you can pull out of your own brain, your own memory, right? That’s what forced recall is.

So the difference between traditional notes and flashcards, is that flashcards have that forced recall element. You know, a flashcard is obviously, on the front is the little prompt or however you set it up, and that’s kind of a side note that your flashcards should be very personal to you.

Whereas if, uh, if someone else got ahold of your decks of flashcards, it would almost be unintelligible. You know, it almost wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. When you’re getting really good at flashcards, that’s how it should be. It’s like, you know, what’s the thing that I always forget about weighted average cost of capital calculations, you know, stuff like that.

Anyways, so the front is the little prompt, it’s what you’re trying to remember. And then the back is the answer to that. So as you review your own flashcards, you are practicing this stuff that [00:07:00] you’ve captured, in a way that involves forced recall, which replicates what you’re gonna have to do on test day.

So compare that to traditional notes. So, okay, you’ve done a great job, you’ve put in all this elaborate time, taking tedious notes on every little detail of every topic. But when you, you know, review your own notes, which basically just means you’re re-reading your notes that you’ve already taken. It’s all just laid out for you.

And it’s not, there’s not any element of forced recall. You’re not forcing your memory to work on anything. That is why flashcards are so much more effective, is because they involve forced recall, which again, replicates what you need to be able to do on test day.

Okay, and so the third element of flashcards and what makes them so effective, is if you look at the big picture, as you go through the different topics and once you get our [00:08:00] system down about classifying things into like type one and type two information, essentially what’s happening over the longterm is, you are capturing your, your weakest areas or even your, uh, your weakest parts of a certain topic, you know, piece by piece or topic by topic.

So your flashcards, as long as you do this diligently, your flashcards by the time you get to your final review is a compilation or let’s say, it’s like your “greatest hits” of the things that you struggled to understand the most. But again, if you’ve been one, capturing the understanding in a way that you personally understand it, and that will come up in the second strategy we’re going to talk about, but you’ve taken these things that you struggled to understand initially, and you’ve put them in your own words on a flashcard, and then you’re reviewing your own flashcards daily.

So there’s all the stuff that just kind of [00:09:00] rings true from the first time you see it, it makes sense, it falls into place on its own. And then there’s everything else. So it’s this everything else or this type two information, that you’ve captured your understanding of on flashcards.

And then you’re also reviewing your own flashcards each day. You’re dedicating a portion of your study time to reviewing or re-reviewing your flashcards, which again, contains the stuff that you’ve struggled to understand the most. So, as you get closer to test day, or even your final review, you know, you have the stuff that falls into place on its own, that’s bucket number one, and bucket number two is everything else, but you’ve made sense of it, you’ve captured it in your own words on flashcards, and you’ve now committed it to memory. So there’s type one and type two information. And if you’re doing this correctly, by the time you get to test day, it becomes all the same thing. So you are highly [00:10:00] competent, you’re highly proficient at every part of each topic. As you’ve gone through all the topics, that is the power of flashcards when you do it correctly.

Strategy #2

Nate: Okay. So moving on to strategy number two, and this ties back into strategy number one, the flashcards. So this strategy is being able to put things in your own words. Okay. So let’s just take a concrete example where, you’ve just gone through a question on a topic. Let’s say the topic, you find it difficult, you know, whatever, you missed the question, and now you’re looking at the solution. And most people read the solution, and they think, okay, that makes sense. But if you all of a sudden took that solution away, and in our PRO course, this is a huge part of our study strategies is teaching people how to do this.

You want to literally cover up the solution. So A, you attempted the question and you [00:11:00] got it wrong, right. So step B is now you’re looking at the solution, and what happens with most people is they’ll read the solution, and when the solution is in front of them, they’ll think, “okay I get that, that makes sense,” and then they’ll move on. So the real test is step C or step 3 if you covered up that solution, could you then articulate that back to yourself in a way that makes sense? And that’s the real test. Because of course, for any given topic, any type of question within a topic, you are going to see that on test day presented differently, it might be trickier than anything you’ve seen in your review course. You just, you don’t really know is the point. So your only real advantage or your only avenue to getting that question right on any given topic, is to have such a good fundamental understanding of it that even if you see it presented differently [00:12:00] on a question or a simulation on test day, you understand the what and the why behind that to the point where you can make sense of it, put the pieces in place or walk through the steps, and get to the right answer.

And again, you know, your success on test day always comes back to the effectiveness of your daily process, and so in your daily process, it’s not just, if you get a question wrong, look at the solution. It’s not just two steps. It’s three steps. You get the question wrong, then you look at the solution, when you think that the solution makes sense, and whether that involves reading it, thinking about it, or even re-performing the steps if it’s calculation based, once you think that it makes sense, now prove that it makes sense, or that you actually understand it, by literally covering up the solution and seeing if you can explain that back to yourself.

And I mean by literally talking out [00:13:00] loud. You know, when you’re studying, you should be doing this a lot. Sitting there like a crazy person, you explaining this back to yourself out loud. And if you can’t do that, if you can’t do step number three, then of course, you don’t fully understand what you thought that you just understood from the solution.

So if you cover up the solution, and I mean, you can literally use a sticky note, like stick it on your computer screen. The easier way is to just like pull off a blank tab from your browser and resize it to perfectly cover up the solution on your screen on your review course, and then see if you can actually re-explain it back to yourself and get it, you know, get it correct or, uh, answer it correctly or explain it correctly.

So that is number two. Can you actually re-explain something back to yourself with the solution covered up that you thought you just understood. So again, it’s a answer the question. If you got it right, great. [00:14:00] And a side note, did you actually get it correct because you actually knew how to do it?

Or did you, you know, for a multiple choice, you always have a 25 percent chance of getting it right by guessing. Did you actually get it correct from your own merits? If not, you do this whole exercise. If you got it incorrect, then you read the solution.

That’s step two. Step three is cover up the solution and see if you can actually articulate it back to yourself by explaining it out loud. And and that it’s actually correct and that it makes sense to you personally.

So that strategy ties back into strategy number one. So if you take a concept or a problem type that was initially pretty confusing to you, but now you’re able to complete those three steps, you missed the question. Okay. Make sense of the solution, all right, step three, if you cover up the solution, can you actually walk yourself through the steps and be able [00:15:00] to explain the what and the why?

Okay, you can do that, you take that explanation and that is what you make your flashcards on. All right. So that’s step one and two flashcards, and then explaining things back to yourself or being able to explain something back to yourself with the solution covered up.

Strategy #3

Nate: All right, so moving on to strategy number three, and this is a close relative or even a sibling of step number two, and that is, when you are looking at a calculation based question, you re-perform the solution but with the solution covered up. So there’s not a whole lot to cover. It’s exactly what I just, you know, spent three to four minutes explaining on step number two when it’s calculation based, again, when you just read through the solution, so many people just, I don’t know, tell themselves or it’s kind of like the easy way out. You look at the solution, the steps are laid out and you just [00:16:00] think, Okay, yep, I get that, I understand it, so I’m going to move on to the next question. Again, you need to get clear on the what and the why.

You should memorize that phrase. Do I understand the what and the why? So can you re-perform the steps correctly? And again, with the solution covered up, can you get back to the correct answer numerically, you know, calculation based, one step further than that, can you actually articulate the why behind each step back to yourself?

Do you understand, okay, step number one is this, I get this number, okay, why? Why do I use that number? And then, you know, the next number in the calculation, even if it’s still part of step one, you need to be able to understand, okay, here’s this second number, so, first number minus this number, but why? Why is that?

And you work through the whole problem until you [00:17:00] can re-perform the whole solution with the original solution covered up. You can re-perform it, you can get yourself back to the correct answer, and you understand why each step is what it is. The what and the why, memorize that phrase. For every solution, every question, or, you know, one piece of a simulation, do you understand the what and the why clearly to where you can re-perform it and articulate or explain back to yourself the why behind it?

Strategy #4

Nate: Alright, so moving on to strategy number four. And again, this directly ties back into strategies number one, two, and three. Strategy number four is don’t try to read calculation based solutions.

The way that I realized this is we have, you know, one-on-one coaching clients and, uh, after a few months of doing that, we realized that, [00:18:00] okay, what we really need to see is this client actually working through a set of problems on a topic. So now what we do is we have, a client screen record themselves working through a set of problems, and then we can watch, okay, what’s your process?

How do you actually approach this? So we can see what’s going wrong or, you know, what’s not happening. And a lot of times it’s exactly what we’ve already talked about, steps one, two, and three.

And the thing that we kept hearing from clients is that, okay, it’s taking me like 10 to 20 minutes to get through one problem and try to make sense of it. And so, you know, if it’s taking 20 minutes, well, in an hour, you’re only getting through three questions, and then a lot of times the, that whole what and why thing wasn’t translating.

We could tell they still weren’t really getting it. So once we started watching these screen recordings of clients actually going through, uh, practice problems, we would [00:19:00] realize that they would spend all this time, they would miss a question and then pull up the solution, and then it would, it would seriously be just like 10 to 15 minutes of them with the solution on the screen.

And clearly they’re just trying to read it like it’s a normal paragraph. So when you have a calculation heavy explanation in front of you, again, this is just, this is like everyone’s default. They just try to read it like it’s a normal paragraph, you know, like a paragraph from a novel where each word sequentially makes sense. But that doesn’t work when it’s like this calculation heavy, like, okay, yes, it’s a paragraph or it’s a few paragraphs, but there’s all these calculations embedded within these paragraphs. So that is not a normal, uh, paragraph like you’d read in a novel, where it’s just words, right? But that, we saw this time and time again with our coaching clients.

You can’t just sit there and try to read it like it’s a, like it’s a [00:20:00] normal paragraph. It will never make sense. And that’s why we found that people were sitting there staring at the screen for 10 to 15 to 20 minutes at a time on one problem, is because they’re trying to read it like it’s a normal paragraph.

So when you are working on a topic that is calculation based, and then you look at the solution to try to figure out how this question works, you can’t just read a calculation heavy solution like it’s a normal paragraph. So the way that you do it correctly is you just, again, you start with the first number.

So it’s like, okay, so this taxpayer had, you know, this deduction or whatever it is, whatever the topic is, with the first number, that’s mentioned in the solution, on your spreadsheet or your scratch paper, you figure out, okay, that’s the first number, why? Like, where is this coming from? Where, what information in the problem or the simulation are they pulling this from?

And then why? [00:21:00] And once you get clear on that first number, You write that down and then again, you go to the next step or the next number. So they had this amount of income and then they had these deductions or, you know, they had interest income.

So even if you don’t fully understand what’s going on initially, you write out each step on your own, and you try to consider, okay, this number, where did they get it, and then why? And you rewrite the steps out on your own, and, uh, this goes back to my favorite example, teaching a kid how to ride a bike. You could show a kid a hundred, 500 videos on how to ride a bike and they get the perfect understanding conceptually about, all right, so you get on the bike, sit on the seat, and then you do the pedals with your feet, right? That’s a technically correct explanation of how to ride a bike.

But anyone who knows how to ride a bike knows that there’s a lot of [00:22:00] stuff that you can’t really put into words, the person that’s trying to learn how to ride a bike has to actually sit on the bike, just see how the balance thing feels, tip over a few times probably, but then once it clicks, it’s like simple and easy to just do it the same way over and over again.

So, you are listing out the steps and reworking the problem with the solution covered up until it clicks, and then you get it. And once that happens, you kind of unlock the understanding for the entire topic. Now, there can be nuances or little wrinkles in the different question types, but for the most part, once a topic clicks and kind of the crux of a question type or the, you know, the three or four pillars that you need to know for any given topic, once that clicks in your head, then you gain that practical understanding that will allow you or enable you to answer the questions you’re going to see on test day for that topic.

And the [00:23:00] only way of doing that is, again, going back to step 3, where once you think a solution makes sense, prove it to yourself by covering up the solution and then re-performing it until you can do it correctly, which is the “what”, and you can understand or articulate back to yourself the why. Why is step one, step one?

Okay. And then step two, I know how to do it, but do I understand why? And that’s critical when it comes to simulations. With the simulations on test day, you need to have a functional understanding because it’s going to be presented differently. The simulations are dynamic, no matter how many practice sims you did for this topic, something you see on test day might be completely different, and you just have to sit there and make sense of what it’s even asking, and once you understand what it’s asking, if you have this deep level, highly functional understanding of how that whole topic works, and what the steps are, and [00:24:00] why, you will be able to figure out the simulation.

Strategy #5

Nate: Okay, moving on to step five. That is spend 80 to 90 percent of your time on test day context. So everything that we’ve already talked about, steps one, two, three, and four, that all revolves around or involves working on practice questions and simulations. So many CPA candidates, they don’t realize this, but when you start with the video lecture and then the chapter, whether you read the whole chapter or think that you’re highlighting the key parts of each chapter, you’re spending 80 to 90 percent of your time on what I call textbook context. So textbook context is you know, just the way that things are presented in a textbook.

It’s line by line, you know, conceptually, it explains everything. All the background information, just start to finish, it’s a huge amount of information. But then if you go to the [00:25:00] practice questions for that topic, you’ll see that it really funnels down into three to five key things from that whole, you know, textbook chapter or the video lecture.

And the way that it’s presented in questions, is just the context is very different. So there’s textbook context, and then there is test day context. And test day context just means how things appear in MCQs and simulations.

Another idea that ties into this is when you spend 80 to 90 percent of your time on test day context, again meaning MCQs and simulations, you just get really, really good at deciphering and making sense of questions and simulations, meaning MCQs and simulations.

But again, what most CPA candidates, without realizing it, what they spend 80 to 90 percent of their time on is textbook context. And [00:26:00] even if they really do get to a really solid understanding of how things are presented in the video lecture and the textbook, it just, it’s not the same thing. It doesn’t translate to being able to answer the questions and the simulations that you’ll see on test day.

And that is why, really, really smart people have such a hard time with the CPA exams. Really, really smart people, some of the sharpest people in your master’s degree, because this is what happened with me. Some of the smartest people, and I knew for a fact, just the way that they would talk and, you know, answer questions in classes in the master’s program.

The smartest people, once we got into our first year in public accounting, had the hardest time with the CPA exams and they kept failing. And they were like exasperated because they knew that they were smarter than some of us that were passing our exams. And it’s because they were so focused on thinking they needed to understand and memorize every single little detail [00:27:00] from the video lecture and the textbook.

But it just, it doesn’t translate. It’s two very different contexts or types of information. So there’s textbook context, and there is test day context. And you want to spend 80 to 90 percent of your time getting really, really good at test day context. Because the only thing that matters is, test day.

Going in, again, being able to, from your own brain, your own memory, answering the MCQs and the SIMs that you’re going to see. And the only way to do that It’s to spend most of your time doing that exact thing.

So steps one through four, were kind of the how to, and then strategy number five is just understanding that you should be spending the majority of your study time on test day context, which again, it just means the MCQs and the simulations.

So those are the five very high impact strategies that most CPA candidates are not doing, that will make a [00:28:00] massive difference in your performance on test day, if these are all part of your daily study routine. So I hope you found that valuable and helpful to kind of understand those nuances to the study process.

So if these ideas made sense to you, make sure to watch one of our free study training webinars, because in those webinars, we cover the five pillar strategies that all this stuff is based on that your study process daily and weekly should be based on to get the best results out of the littlest amount of time studying.

And I’m not exaggerating when I say that somebody who is really dialed in and they know how to study strategically, can study like one fifth or even one 10th of the time of somebody else who’s trying to, you know, memorize every detail from every video lecture and every chapter in the textbook, you can get such better results in literally a fraction of the time when you know how to study effectively and efficiently using the [00:29:00] same review course that you already have now. And that’s what we cover on those free study training webinars. So if you haven’t watched one of those, click the link in the description of this video, choose a time that works for you, and then make sure you just attend the training.

It’s one hour that will save you months and months of time and frustration from trying to figure this stuff out on your own.

And also, if you’re watching this on YouTube, please take a second to like the video and then down in the comments, just leave a comment about one takeaway, maybe the biggest aha moment you got from this video.

So thanks for watching or listening and we’ll see you on the next episode.

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