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You can pass the CPA exam!

To all prospective CPA examinees: You can pass the CPA exam!

Everyone’s experience with the CPA exam is going to be different; and, it’s important to keep in mind, that what works for some, may not work for others.  I was no Elijah Watt Sells Award candidate (not even close, actually), but I did pass all of the exams on my first try. I want to point out some things about studying for and taking the exam that I believe apply to every candidate, and some things that applied to me personally.

For all candidate

  • Keep a positive attitude.
    According to the AICPA, about 25,000 people pass their fourth exam section each year. You can be one of them.
  • Put in the time.
    Studying is never fun… but it needs to be done. Were you really going to do something productive otherwise? Get back to studying!
  • Take the exam as soon as you are eligible.
    Right out of school, the information is still fresh. It would be counterproductive to forget what you learned in school and have to relearn it while studying.  Ideally, your study time should be reviewing the material.
  • Stick to a schedule.
    You should have the days you are going to take the exams and the time you plan on studying planned out ahead of time. Having a schedule keeps you committed and focused on your goal.

What worked for me

  • Ease into the first exam.
    I studied for about three and a half months for the first exam. For the rest, I studied 2 months. This format worked well for me to avoid burnout. The first exam, I did not have to study as intensely. I knew once I actually took my first exam, the 18-month clock would be ticking for me to get the other three finished.
  • Start with the easiest.
    Start with the exam you believe you are most capable of passing. That way, if you do fail your first exam, the 18-month clock isn’t running. It is also important to remember the whole examination process is more of a marathon than a sprint.
  • The most expensive study material is not always the best.
    Just because it may cost the most, doesn’t mean it’s the most effective. Success on the exams is a function of the time and effort you put into studying, not the review materials you use.
  • Study efficiently.
    For my first exam (FAR), I watched all of the video lectures and read all of my textbooks in depth.  I also took all the pretests and practiced all the simulation problems for every chapter. However, I noticed I was becoming easily distracted during the lectures. I wasn’t actually getting as much out of them as I should have.  For my fourth exam, I didn’t watch any of the video lectures or do any of the simulation practice problems. Instead, I spent a lot more time focusing on the multiple choice questions, which I found to be much more effective at drilling the concepts into my brain. Find what works for you. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that just because you have your study materials in front of you that you’re being productive or efficient with your time.

If I had to do it over:

  • Study the topics most likely to be tested.
    I seemed to think that if a certain subject was part of my review materials, I needed to understand it 100%. Thinking back on taking the exams, I probably spent lots of hours studying topics that I was never tested on. I could have spent that time better understanding the more commonly tested areas.


If you’re considering starting the CPA examination process yourself, know that it is a manageable process.  Have confidence, come up with a plan that works for you, and get started. Taking the first steps are the hardest, but once you do, it’ll be over before you know it.

Author: Bryan Jacques