Passing the CPA Exam on the first try is a major hurdle in your professional career, but you can do it! I passed all four sections on my first try and got strong scores. You can, too, with these study tips. This article details 5 study tips that will help you pass the cpa exam on your first try.
So, what are the top 5 tips to pass the cpa exam on your first try?
Step 1: Use the Right Study Tools
Many study tools on the market can help you study for the CPA Exam. The best ones review theoretical concepts and then reinforce those concepts by applying them to practice questions. The AICPA has some basic free CPA Exam study materials. They also have free CPA Exam sample tests and a video that shows you how to use the CPA Exam platform.
The right tools will help you study more efficiently and effectively, ultimately making passing the CPA Exam a lot less painful. However, before you purchase any study aids, you should step back and take stock of your study plan.
How Do You Learn?
Before you purchase a CPA Exam review course, it’s essential to consider the way you learn best. Do you like to highlight hard-copy textbooks and take notes? Do you like to watch lecture videos that are linked to study materials? Does answering lots of practice questions help you learn? Or maybe you prefer on-the-go audio lectures and flashcards?
Each CPA Exam review course uses slightly different learning tools to get you to the same goal. Tactile learners, or people who prefer “hands-on” methods, should search for a review course that provides a large test question bank, sample problems with varying levels of difficulty, and lots of practice task-based simulations. Visual learners will benefit the most from courses with video lectures, written materials, and multi-media elements. If you’re unsure or would like a recommendation, my latest post has plenty of helpful information.
Select the CPA Exam Review Course for You
Review courses typically include hard-copy or downloadable texts, video and/or audio lectures, test banks with multiple-choice questions, and sample task-based simulations and written communications. Look for a review course that is regularly updated to match the current CPA Exam; you don’t want to waste your time studying concepts that no longer appear on the exam. I also suggest purchasing a course that gives you unlimited access to their material.
As you look at review courses, you’ll note that several are now using adaptive technology, which helps you identify your weak areas by constantly testing your knowledge. Adaptive technology tools can significantly reduce your study time because you won’t be dedicating hours to reviewing concepts you already know.
Step 2: A Steady Study Pace Wins Every Time
Here’s some important advice: space out your studying. Don’t cram, and absolutely don’t wait until the last minute to start reviewing the material.
When it comes to studying for major exams like the CPA Exam, scientists have found that studying in short bursts over long periods of time (such as 10 hours per week for 10 weeks, for example) is much better than studying for long hours over a short period of time (for example, 5 hours a day every day for 3 weeks). For most of us, we can only effectively absorb information for so long. If we sit and study for too long, we start to lose focus, and our brains simply can’t retain as much information.
Study in the Morning
Scientific studies show that most people are at their peak productivity in the morning. I know that for me personally, if I have important tasks to take care of, I do them first thing in the morning. We tend to have a clear mind in the AM. Our brains aren’t cluttered with the stresses that build up during the day. For that reason, most people retain information better in the morning rather than the evening.
Of course, we all have busy lives. Your personal, family, or work commitments might prevent you from studying in the morning. In fact, I know a lot of CPAs who had to stay up late after everyone else in the house had already gone to bed. If you have to study in the evening, at least find a quiet and dedicated space that you can use on a daily (or almost daily) basis.
Develop a Realistic Study Plan
One of the most important—yet often overlooked—steps is to develop a realistic study plan. But notice the emphasis on realistic. How often do we come up with grandiose plans that we don’t stick to because we just can’t? I know I sometimes do. But it’s absolutely essential that you have a plan that you can follow from beginning to end.
Plan Your Schedule
Sit down and look at your work and personal schedule between now and when you plan to take the CPA Exam. How many weeks do you have? How many hours can you realistically study among all of your other obligations in each of those weeks? Will you have time during the workday? Or in the evenings after work and school? On the weekend? Or on-the-go whenever you can grab a few quiet minutes? The answers to these questions will help you figure out how many hours per week you can devote to studying. Once you have that schedule in mind, you can map out the topics that you need to cover and benchmarks for meeting certain study goals.
Also, keep this in mind: once you pass your first part of the four-part CPA Exam, you have an 18-month window to pass the other three parts. Therefore, it might be necessary for you to prioritize studying in your free time so that you can meet that deadline.
Your CPA Exam Review Course Can Help
Most CPA review courses come with handy built-in planners that help you create a personalized study plan. These planners assess your current knowledge through a preliminary test and then build a review schedule based on what topics you still need to master to pass the CPA Exam. Use these tools to help you study at a steady pace.
Step 3: Use Online Review Courses Wisely
Yes, it’s important to pick the right study tools, as I’ve already stated in step 1. However, it’s just as important to use those tools wisely. To make the most of your CPA Exam review course, follow these steps.
Recreate the CPA Exam Testing Environment
Good online review courses include practice CPA Exams. Most of these online test prep providers have built platforms that look and feel like the real CPA Exam. But in order to make the most of this feature, you need to recreate the Prometric testing environment at home.
So, when you sit down to practice, choose a quiet space where you won’t get interrupted. Think about the pace you’ll need to answer all of the questions in the allotted time. Practice using a small 10-key calculator to work out your math problems, because that’s what you’ll get at the Prometric site. Using these tips will help you feel what it’s like to sit for hours while you take your exam.
Take the Sample Questions Seriously
The test banks that come with CPA Exam review courses often have thousands of questions. When you come to questions that are hard or seem unimportant, it’s easy to skip them. However, that’s a big mistake.
Every question is in your review course for a reason. A similar question might have appeared on a previous exam or covers material that is likely to appear on this year’s exam. Plus, every question is designed to cover a specific topic or topics that the AICPA has indicated will appear on the exam.
Read All Answer Explanations
Even if you answer a practice question correctly, read the answer explanation. I strongly recommend that you read the explanations for the incorrect answers, too. Sometimes, the incorrect explanations give you useful nuggets of knowledge to reinforce concepts you think you’ve already mastered.
Retest Yourself When You Answer Questions Incorrectly
Once you’ve gone through a series of questions, I suggest going back and re-testing yourself on the ones you got wrong. Do you think you could get them right this time? Do you have a better understanding of why you answered those questions wrong in the first place?
This step is especially critical for re-takers. My readers who use this technique have told me that this helped them increase their score by 10-30 points. For most candidates who fail the CPA Exam on the first time, this bump is enough to pass the second time.
If Two Choices Seem Right, You Haven’t Studied Enough
The CPA Exam doesn’t really have “trick” multiple-choice questions. However, some questions are certainly designed to test your nuanced understanding of complicated or interrelated issues. Audit questions especially can seem to have two correct answers. Still, one answer will clearly be better than the others. So if you think that some of the practice questions have multiple correct answers, go back, and study your core concepts.
Step 4: Don’t Second Guess Yourself
If you want to pass the CPA exams in your first try, then you must not second guess yourself. Technically, if you have time left after answering all of the multiple-choice questions in a testlet, you can go back and change your answers. However, I advise against doing that. In many cases, you will second guess yourself and submit an incorrect answer.
Instead, take a bold “one and done” attitude. Approach each question to the best of your ability. Give your best answer, and then move on.
Step 5: Carefully Read the Questions
I know you’ve heard this over and over throughout your academic career but carefully read each question. I like to read the question stem, then read the answers, and then go back and re-read the question stem to make sure I understand it. If you think that two answers might be correct, you probably missed a little detail that was given in the question.
Some Final Thoughts
If you develop a good study plan and stick to these CPA Exam study tips, you’ll have a better chance of passing the CPA Exam on the first time. Find the right review course, space out your studying, and follow my proven test-taking techniques to improve your overall score.
Stephanie Ng is the Executive Committee member responsible for Finance at New Sight Eye Care, a charity registered in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. She oversees the financial aspect of New Sight in Hong Kong, including accounting, taxation, financial management, and compliance.
She began her career as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers in New York and Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong. She later joined her client to work in the Group Finance Department, where she spent five years specializing in corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, and debt refinancing. She also extended her role to management accounting and financial accounting and obtained her U.S. CPA qualification.
Stephanie also is a published author of the book How to Pass the CPA Exam. Additionally, she created I Pass the CPA Exam, the first CPA help site in 2010. Her guidance and mentorship have helped hundreds of thousands of candidates pass their exams.
Stephanie graduated with Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago, majoring in economics with a second concentration in public policy studies.