This post is geared for college students considering taking the CPA exam  – because as everything in life, it all comes down to planning and looking ahead! The first part of the post is geared towards first and second year college students. The remainder focuses on strategies to study for the CPA exam that I have either used myself or have seen work with others.

To provide a little context, I would like to explain a little about my own path to becoming a CPA.  I completed undergraduate school with 120 credit hours (before they changed the rules to require 150 hours).  After graduation, I purchased one of the mid-range priced CPA exam study books. Through planning and dedication, I managed to pass all of the exam parts on my first run through. (Albeit not by much, but who is keeping track!) 

 In many states you only need 150 semester hours of education (as long as you meet your states individual credit hour breakdown) to sit for the CPA exam.  If you can swing it, I recommended trying to graduate in 4 years with 150 credit hours and sit for the exam with out a masters degree. Now, I realize this is an unpopular opinion.  However, by going this route you are able to graduate a year earlier with less debt and at the same time begin to put in your time towards moving up the ladder.  On the other hand, I have heard over and over and… over that getting your masters will give you a leg up to get your foot in the door. While there may be some truth to this, it is my experience that employers also like to see that you worked your butt off to graduate a year earlier opposed to many others living the life of Van Wilder. (I hope I didn’t date my self with the movie reference!) 

Employers are always on the search for hardworking and committed people.  You can teach almost anyone to work on an audit or a tax return, but it is much more difficult to teach character and work ethic.  Coincidentally, it is also difficult for an employer to identify these attributes in an interview. 

Of course this options does not preclude you from earning a Masters Degree later on.

If you are staying a 5th year for your masters and you determine that you have free time after your coursework, consider studying to take the CPA exam while still in school.  That said, the cost of the study materials and CPA exam may pose a challenge for students. Also, you should be cognizant of the fact that in New York State, once you pass  the first part of your exam, you have a limited time to pass the others.  Therefore, I suggest that this strategy is best used during your last semester of school.

If starting to study before gradation is not possible, I highly recommend to start the process of studying and taking parts of the exam immediately after graduation.  First year accountants at most CPA firms start work in September, giving you the entire summer to tackle at least a couple exam parts (or potentially all!). Everyone who tells you that you should enjoy the last summer of your life and take a break is… (cough, cough) ill advised.  Don’t listen to them! I cannot tell you the number of people I know who put off taking the exam and still haven’t passed 10 or 15 years later (and have been trying the entire time).

At this stage in your career, it is critical to think about your future rather than the “now”.  Are you going to want to have to study when you have to mow the lawn or take care of kids after work?  Most people find that their desire and time to study takes a nose dive after starting to work full time.  

Once you have scheduled your study time, here are some of the options that I have personally heard work or worked for me personally.   Picking the one that works for you boils down to knowing yourself and how you learn best.

Fast track programs that have in-person classes

  • These courses are offered though some of the larger CPA study companies and involve studying around 8 hours (or more) a day every day for two weeks and then taking that respective part of the exam. I can say I personally know people who have done this and they would not change how they passed the exam at all.

Using just CPA study books

  • As you can imagine, you order the books and do it yourself. This option is generally the cheapest but requires a great deal of self-discipline.  Because I am cheap, this is the option I chose! 

Using the CPA study books in conjunction with online classes

  • This is a method that I tried but found during my first online class I paid attention for maybe 3 minutes of the total hour. After that I never watched another lesson.  On the other hand, this method worked very well for other CPA’s at The Kane Firm.

And the ever popular, cram on your own using CPA study books for a few weeks for each part

  • This is definitely not for everyone. I know people this has worked for but your mind has to function this way for this method to be advantageous.

So you picked the type of course that meet your budget and your style of learning.  Good for you!  However, none of that means jack squat unless you are dedicated.  I will never say passing the exam is about how smart you are.  Instead, it is all about how dedicated you are to studying.  I have never been a great test taker, I had to work hard and study every day for weeks on end to pass the exam.

Regardless of the study option that works for you,  I implore everyone to take every practice question.  I can almost bring myself to argue that you don’t even need to read the chapters if you do all of the questions (assuming the company you purchased your study materials from is reputable).  That said, don’t just be happy you got the question right.  Read the answer for why that answer was correct but also why the other options were each incorrect.

The answer guide in the books I had were structured this way, making this process much simpler.  As I was reading the books, I took every question in each chapter. Once I was done with those, I took all of the practice tests and then retook all the chapter questions again.  I am convinced that doing every question (many I did twice) is the reason I passed the exam.

For most, the CPA exam is a marathon and not a sprint.  The only way I was able to stay on track was to purchase a calendar and write down the studying I had to accomplish each day.  I would schedule an exam part and then back into a schedule to read every chapter, complete every practice test and go through all of the questions in each chapter a second time.  Whether it was reading chapter 13 and doing questions 1-50 or getting through question 150, I had a goal each day. If I didn’t meet it, it meant I had to study more the next day.

On average, I studied approximately 2 hours right when I came home from work every day during the week and 3-4 hours each day on the weekend for six weeks per exam part.  (I had started working somewhere around June or July after graduation so I didn’t have a ton of time off in the summer).  The calendar helped to keep me motivated and prevent procrastination. This became a necessity since I took the first part of the exam in November and did not even feel like getting around to studying for the next one until 3-4 months later.  

Once I got my act together, I scheduled all 3 of the remaining parts about 6 weeks away from each other (one at the end of one testing period with the other one at the beginning of the next one and the last one at the end of that same period).  I did this so that I couldn’t procrastinate anymore.

To quickly summarize my main points:

  • Figure out how you learn and purchase the suitable study materials

  • Start studying right after graduation (or before if you can!)

  • Stay on track and stay dedicated

  • Answer every practice questions and old exam questions you can get your hands on

  • Prepare for an exhausting and time consuming effort in return for a worthy reward. 

As you can likely glean, I, like many, did not pass the exam because I was smarter than anyone else.  In fact, I am sure there are much smarter people than me who have failed parts of the test.  My most important point would be that you pass the test out of sheer dedication.  And don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise!

My final recommendation is to try and not get too stressed about the studying or the exam.  You will end up too frazzled and it will hurt your concentration and ability to retain information. Remember, thousands of people have passed it before you. With structure, grit and determination you too are capable of passing the exam!


By: Andrew Ziolo, CPA 

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