The No BS Guide to Passing the CPA Exam
How to pass the CPA exam on the first try while working full-time.
Table of Contents
- Setting deadlines
- Which order to take the exam
- Creating habits
- Time saving secrets
- Cut out the lectures
- Drill multiple choice and sims
- Rewriting notes & questions
- Avoid distractions
- Money saving secrets
- No BS summary
It seems like it was just yesterday that I checked the NASBA website and learned that I had passed BEC, my final part of the CPA Exam. It had only been a year since I started studying, but it was such a relief that it was over.
Since that time, I made a move from Audit to Accounting & Finance recruitment. Many people have asked me for advice on how to pass the CPA exam, and after explaining it a number of times, I decided to share my secrets on how I passed the CPA exam, on my first try while working full-time. This guide is short and sweet – and really that’s all it needs to be.
The first step to becoming CPA is making the COMMITMENT to pass the exam. You have to tell yourself that you will do whatever it takes to pass the exam, and that will include some temporary sacrifices. There is no way around it, passing the exam is hard work and you will have to give up other activities in order to make study time.
Setting a deadline
After you made the commitment to passing the exam, the next step to pick a date and register for the exam. Consider this your studying deadline. Having this deadline will give you a defined time period and motivation to study for the exam. If you are working full -time, I suggest scheduling the exam roughly 1 ½ to 2 months from the date you plan to start studying.
Now that you scheduled your exam date, it is time to get to work. Look at your schedule, what time slots do you have free? I recommend studying at least 2-3 hours on 3/5 weekdays and 3-4 hours one day of the weekend.
If you have a packed schedule, see what you can eliminate or cut back on. This may include temporarily cutting back your social events, recreational activities, hobbies, the gym, Netflix, and anything else is not essential. Like I said earlier, you will have to make temporary sacrifices. The good news if you follow this guide, put in the necessary work, and pass the exam the first time, it will be behind you and your life will go back to normal.
Once you have taken a part, give yourself a week to cool off but then get right back to studying. You do not want to lose your momentum.
Also, if you fail a part, don’t move on to the next. That is a huge waste of all the studying you just did. Instead evaluate your areas of weakness and study for that section again. This time just focus more on your weaknesses.
Which order to take the exam?
There is no right answer to this question. There are good arguments to any order but I will tell you what I did and why I suggest this method.
I took FAR first because if you can pass the “hardest” part first it will give you the confidence and motivation to plow through the rest of the exam.
Next I took AUD for two reasons. Firstly, FAR and AUD have some overlapping concepts and understanding FAR can help you understand AUD better. Secondly, you don’t want to burn yourself out taking two massive sections back to back like FAR then REG. There is less material to study in AUD so you won’t have to study so intensely. Then you get ramp back up and go for REG.
Bottom line: Your exam order should look like this – FAR, AUD, REG, BEC or REG, BEC, FAR, AUD.
When you first start studying, you may find it difficult to carve out the necessary time and concentrate on studying for 2-3 hours at a time. The good news is you can make studying a habit by creating a routine.
Start by picking a block of time you can study on a consistent basis, day after day, week after week. At first, you will have to make a conscience decision and push yourself to sit down and study. But as you will find, it won’t take long and before this becomes a habit and you can easily slip into the studying zone. It will become a natural part of your routine and you won’t even be thinking about it.
Time saving secrets
At this point you have committed to passing, scheduled the exam, and cleared a block of time in your schedule so that you can study on a routine basis. Now the question is how to make the best use of that time.
The mainstream studying method for passing the CPA exam includes purchasing a CPA review course such as Becker, Rogers, Wiley, etc. that can cost upwards of $3,000. These courses consist of lengthy lectures, heavy textbooks, and followed by practice multiple choice and simulation questions.
Cut out the lectures
The time saving secret I used to passing the CPA exam was cutting out the lengthy lectures and textbooks and cutting straight to the chase. At the end of the day you are studying to beat the CPA exam, not study all types of accounting theory. In order to beat the CPA exam you have to master the types of multiple choice and simulation questions that will be on the exam, not textbook theory.
FAR was the first part of the exam I took and I received a 75. I started studying in September 2014, started working full-time in October, and took the exam right before busy season in January 2015. I had received Roger’s CPA Review from the accounting firm that I worked for at the time. I spent hours and hours watching lectures and reviewing the textbook and just thought there had to be a better way.
Drill multiple choice and sims
You can master these questions by practicing them over and over again until they become intuitive, and when it comes time to taking the exam you will walk in and it will be second nature to you.
The next part I took was AUD and this time I passed solely by practicing multiple choice questions & sim questions over and over again. No lectures no text book, nothing but drilling questions.
For REG & BEC, I wasn’t leaving anything to chance so I purchased Ninja Notes from Another71. Ninja Notes are concise and to the point notes for each part of the exam. No fluff – just the nuggets of information you need to know.
For these two parts, I would read a section of the notes, and then rewrite the section. There is something about rewriting notes, even if you never look at them again, that helps ingrain the information in your mind. I also remember recalling information, from rewriting these notes, on the exam.
After rewriting the section, I would hammer multiple choice and simulations for the corresponding module a few times until I felt comfortable with that section. Any questions that I kept getting stuck on, I would simply practice that question until I understood exactly how to arrive at the answer. If it was more conceptual, I would rewrite the questions and the answer.
After a few sections I would mix questions from all those sections, to keep what I learned previously fresh in my mind. I would continue this until I finished all the sections
A common issue for most people, including myself, is getting distracted while studying. It can be difficult to sit there for hours and just hammer out questions or rewrite notes, especially in the beginning. You might find yourself browsing Facebook, Instagram, daydreaming, etc. Below are a few things you can do to avoid being distracted.
- Putting your phone on silent and tucking it away
- Study at the library where no one will distract you
- Exiting all other applications and web pages while studying
- Listen to classical music or music without words
- Turn off the TV
Whenever find yourself getting distracted the best thing is to do is stop immediately and go right back to studying. This will save time and also build good study habits.
Money Savings Secrets
As I mentioned previously, mainstream study materials can cost upwards of $3,000. Some employers will provide these courses to you for free. The bad news is not everybody works for one these organizations, and paying for a $3,000+ product could put quite a dent in your pocket. The good news is there is a more cost effective method to passing.
Another71.com, the creators of Ninja Notes, also have a MCQ product for each section that includes thousands of MCQ and simulation questions. Each part costs $47 and you get 3 months access, which is all you need to pass each section. So with four parts that’s $47 x 4 = $188 + $268 for the Ninja Notes totals $468. That’s pretty nice compared to the mainstream products that cost thousands.
At the end of the day I passed the exam on my first try using only Ninja Notes & studying MCQ/Sims. The MCQ/Sims don’t have to be from Another71, if your employer provides a traditional review course just use those.
The No BS Summary
- Commit fully to passing
- Schedule the exam 1 ½ – 2 months from starting study date.
- Order: FAR, AUD, REG, BEC or REG, BEC, FAR, AUD.
- Create a routine and make studying a habit
- 2-3 hours per session 4-5x a week
- Cut out the lectures & textbooks
- Read & rewrite Ninja notes
- Repeatedly practice MCQ & simulations
- Save money by avoiding mainstream study materials
If you are interested in a personalized CPA exam coaching session where I will help you design a study plan and go over these study tactics with you in greater detail, please click here.