The CPA exams are one of the hardest professional exams that exist. Many people think it is actually the hardest professional exam one can take. According to AICPA, the average pass rates in 2015 for each section were:
- AUD: 47%
- BEC: 57%
- REG: 50%
- FAR: 48%
Yikes. On 3 out of 4 sections, half of everyone who took the section failed. As you probably know, you have 18 months once you pass your first section to complete the other 3. That sounds like a lot of time, but it goes by fast when you’re working full-time and trying to study. Many candidates have had sections they previously passed lapse because of the time limit, and have had to various sections multiple times.
So… the big question:
How Do You Pass the CPA Exams?
There are several key things that successful CPA candidates do that most unsuccessful candidates don’t. Here’s a list of the top things, and this isn’t in any particular order:
An effective & efficient study process. There is a ton of stuff you have to learn in a short amount of time. Successful candidates are able to figure out an effective & repeatable study process that they can sit down and go through each day.
Some ideas: I found that trying to watch the video lecture and read the chapter for every single lesson took way too much time. Do you really need to watch a 30 minute video about how the AICPA sets a new standard? No, you don’t. You just memorize the steps, understand them, and move on. I found that I could learn the key points of most lessons just by going through questions in practice mode and then carefully reading the answers. Of course, there are many lessons where you’ll need to watch the video lecture maybe even a few times, but don’t get stuck in the mentality of having to watch every minute of every video lecture that’s included in your review course.
A consistent daily study routine. This is possibly the biggest factor. You’ve seen those Nike T-shirts that say “Every Damn Day”? I assume it’s referring to working out, but let’s pretend it means CPA study, because your studying has to be a daily ritual that you do not break for any reason whatsoever.
Some ideas: This might sound like pouring salt in an open wound, but if you will just get up early and do your studying in the morning, this whole process will be 10x easier. When I and my recent-hire-colleagues were going through the CPA study process, most of them would stay at the office to “study” after work for a few hours. The soulless look in their eyes as I left each day was truly haunting, but not only that – the next day when I asked them how many hours they got through, they would typically say something like “oh probably 20 minutes of real studying” or, “I didn’t really even study”. It’s incredibly hard to do something as brain-intensive as CPA study after a 10-12 hour workday. Do yourself a favor and start getting the main portion of your studying done in the morning.
Learn to answer questions fast. This all comes with practice… but you want to get to where you can complete a 30-question testlet in 40 minutes or less. I know that sounds pretty challenging, but you can easily get to that point with enough practice. The reasoning here to two-fold: to get to this point means you’re good at the multiple-choice questions, but the bigger reason is that the #1 strategy for the SIMs is simply to have as much time as possible. The biggest rookie mistake you can make is leaving yourself an hour or less for the SIMs. The SIMs on exam day are going to be nastier, harder, and more confusing than any practice SIMs you gone through. So the only thing you can control about them is how much time you have to sit there and try to figure them out.
Some ideas: Like I said, this one just comes with practice. Do at least one set of 30 practice questions daily; to get fast at answering MCQs, and as a form of ongoing review.
Ongoing review. Going through new lessons each day isn’t enough. You need some way of systematically and regularly reviewing the previous concepts you’ve learned, otherwise you get to exam time and you’ve forgotten the first 20 chapters of material that you studied 3 weeks ago.
Some ideas: My favorite way of doing this was taking at least 30 minutes a day to generate practice exams from all the material I had covered.
Ruthless focus while studying. Admittedly, CPA study isn’t as interesting as reading about the latest celebrity train wrecks. Spending several hours a day learning parts of the tax code and financial reporting rules is tedious, boring, and soul-crushing. But, those hours you put in HAVE to count, and you HAVE to learn how to make them highly productive. Otherwise you’re just wasting your 3-4 hours each day, and you’ll end up having to do it all over if you fail the section.
Some ideas: One thing I found that really helped me clamp down and focus when I studied was to study in blocks of 50 minutes. I would use a timer to make it “official”. So set the timer for 50 minutes, turn your phone off and put it face down, close Facebook, close Twitter, and close any other time-wasting websites. For that 50 minutes, don’t leave your review course window one single time, and just plow through your studying. Once you train yourself to do this, you will start getting more done in one 50-minute block than you normally do in 2-3 hours. After a 50-minute block, take a 10 minute break: walk away from the computer and completely clear your head.
Ability to internalize the concepts. Just memorizing everything in your study material isn’t enough: the questions are dynamic and a lot of them are setup to trick you. You have to understand HOW the concepts and rules apply in different situations in order to pass on exam day.
Some ideas: One thing that helped me to really understand difficult concepts, was to explain them back to myself out loud until I understood them. So yes, you should sit at your desk and talk to yourself out loud like a crazy person. Then once you understand the concept, make your own flashcard for it – again, written in your own words – and most of the time you’ll have it at that point. The act of writing it out on a flashcard does something extra about burning it into your long-term memory. The other benefit though, is if you do forget it over time, when you review your flashcards, because you wrote it in your own words, it will come back to you much easier.
A hard, unbreakable, sealed-in-blood pact with yourself to pass. This is another huge, huge thing that sounds self-help-ish, but all successful candidates have this in common. Show me a candidate that makes excuses and keeps pushing back their exam dates and I’ll show you a candidate that’s not going to become a CPA. Treating your exam deadlines like they are written in stone completely changes how seriously you take your study sessions and the results you get. When you start trying to learn dollar value LIFO at 5:30 in the morning, if pushing your test back is an option in your mind, it’s just too easy to quit for the day.
Some ideas: This one is pretty self-explanatory. Set your date, and then take the oath of self-imposed exile from all your favorite TV shows and games on your phone, and replace it all with CPA study. It’s painful in the short-term, but nothing close to the feeling of failing a section and having to do it all over again.
Is this making sense?
I've got a LOT more advice where that came from. In fact, I have a FREE online training class where I'll walk you through my best advice for passing the CPA exams fast.
What Makes the CPA Exams So Difficult?
In my opinion, there are really 3 main reasons the CPA exams are so difficult. Here they are:
1) Retention. Learning all the concepts and rules that might appear on the exam is staggering. And, you’re supposed to learn it well enough over several weeks to be able to recall it on exam day. So the real challenge is putting that amount of new information in your brain in a short period and having to remember it all.
2) Study Methods. When you sit down to study, what do you actually do to learn the material? Do you have a clear plan that you follow each day? Are you making progress? How do you know?
3) Time Itself. Most CPA candidates work full-time, and most of them in the very demanding field of public accounting. Fitting in 3-4 hours of CPA study after a 10 or 12 hour day at the office is torturous at best. So how do you find time to study that you don’t have?
In my free study training, I cover these 3 issues in detail and how to deal with them effectively, and in much less time than the “normal way”. Also, if you’re on the training live, you’ll get a free copy of my CPA flashcards.