Surviving the CPA Exam
There are three components to becoming a CPA: education, examination, and experience. For most candidates, examination is the most intimidating part. The Uniform CPA Exam – standardized nationally – is comprised of four sections:
- Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
- Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
- Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
- Regulation (REG)
Each exam is made up of multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations “SIMS”. BEC includes a written communication portion as well. Once you pass your first exam, you have a rolling 18-month period to pass the others. Because of that, it’s recommended to take FAR first; it has the most material and takes the longest amount of time to study for. As an aspiring CPA, I’ve passed 3 of the 4 sections. This process can be overwhelming, so I’m going to share my experience and some tips I’ve learned along the way.
Step 1. Apply
Your first stop should be your respective state board of accountancy because each state has different requirements. In Idaho, you must have a bachelor’s degree to be eligible to sit for the exam, including a minimum amount of business and accounting credits. A bachelor’s degree in accountancy will meet the accounting specific requirements but will leave you short of the necessary 150 overall college credits to become licensed by about 20-30, so you will have to get those credits later if you don’t have them in the first place. There are several ways to make up the difference – I personally took CLEP exams to meet the minimum. Others opt to get a second bachelor’s or advanced degree such as a Master’s.
On the Idaho State Board of Accountancy website, you’ll find information on the application process and the forms needed to apply. First-time applicants will need to fill out the CPA Exam application packet, pay a $100 application fee, and have their college or university send official transcripts to the Board. You can apply for as many exams you plan on taking in six months, otherwise the re-application fee is $50. Once approved, the board will send you a notification that the Authorization To Test (ATT) has been sent to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA).
Next, go to NASBA’s candidate portal and create an account. This is where you’ll pay for your exams, access important documents, and receive scores in the future. You must pay for all the exams you applied for within 90 days, or the ATT will expire. This amount is currently $209.99 per exam. Once paid, NASBA will send you a notification that your Notice To Schedule (NTS) is available. The last day to take the exam(s) will be six months from this date. You’ll need this document on exam day, so keep it in a safe place.
You will also need the section ID on the NTS to schedule your exam with Prometric, which is your next step. I recommend scheduling in advance as spots are scarce; the only Prometric testing center in the Treasure Valley is in Meridian. My experience has been that having an actual date scheduled acts as a deadline and a motivator to keep me committed to a to a study schedule.
Step 2. Study
If you haven’t already chosen your study materials, this is the time to do it. There are several options and packages available and most companies offer free trials. Choose the package that fits your learning style and budget. For example, do you like studying on the computer, or do you prefer a physical textbook and flashcards? You’ll be spending a lot of time studying, so it’s a good idea to go with something you’re comfortable with. Most review courses range between $1,500 and $3,500 but keep an eye out for sales and discount codes. Some companies even offer payment plans. I chose Wiley and have found it to be more than adequate but also affordable as a mid-range option.
Next, plan out your study schedule. Important factors to consider are 1), when you’re sitting (or planning to sit) for your exam, 2), how many hours a day you plan to study, and 3), and how much time you want to leave for review. Wiley CPAexcel has a tool where you can input all this information and the software will create a schedule for you. Be realistic with this; you must commit a lot of time for studying. Leave some wiggle room so that if an emergency comes up, you get sick, or you have an off day you can adjust your schedule.
Now, onto the crucial part to ensure your success – STUDYING. It will be extremely difficult at times, but you need to keep going. Sometimes I’ve felt like I haven’t mastered certain material, but I have had to move on and make a note to go back and study that section later. Once you go back and do a final review, you realize that things you had trouble with initially start to “click.” Resist the temptation to fully understand something before moving to the next thing. That thing you are struggling with might not even be tested! Don’t let it hang you up. I’ve also found that when I put in the time, I remember more than I think I do. Remember, you’ll have to make sacrifices by saying no to more fun opportunities, but don’t completely burn yourself out either. Take a break and treat yourself occasionally. Take care of yourself, physically and mentally, and reach out to your family, friends, and colleagues for support. Schedule your breaks and allow yourself to accept these non-study times as part of the overall success plan.
Step 3. Review
Once you’ve gone through all the material, leave at least a week to review. This is the time you’ll go through your notes, flashcards, practice questions, etc. Do an overall review and spend time on your weak areas. Going through multiple-choice questions is a good way to study several topics. You never know what kind of task-based SIMS you’ll get, but I practiced some to get comfortable with them. Take a look at the AICPA’s blueprints to see what’s testable and how it could be tested. They also show the format and breakdown of each exam. You can take the AICPA’s sample tests to get an idea of some of the questions that may be on the exam as well.
I find mock exams a helpful tool not only for review, but also preparing for the actual exam. Sitting down and focusing for four hours straight is not an easy task, so try to simulate the exam as much as possible. This includes taking the practice exam at the same time as your scheduled exam, limiting your distractions, only getting up during the allotted 15-minute break, and wearing a mask. This is a great way to practice your timing on the exam too! You are given four hours on each exam. The 15-minute break is after your first three testlets, so shoot for finishing those in about 2 hours. That will leave 2 hours for the rest of the task-based SIMS. SIMS can be overwhelming and take up a lot of time, so it’s best to leave plenty of time for those. Don’t stress too much about your mock exam score because the real exam is graded differently. Use these practice exams as a “trial-run” and a way to find out where your weak areas are.
Finally, the night before your exam don’t stress and get a good night’s sleep. You put in the time and effort studying, now it’s time to rest for the big day.
Step 4. Ace your exam
It’s finally exam day! Eat a good breakfast or lunch that will keep you full and focused. Wear comfortable clothes with layers since you may get hot or cold while testing. When you get checked into your exam, your wrists, ankles, and pockets will be searched, so I like to wear clothes with minimal pockets. Before you leave the house, remember to grab your NTS, two forms of identification, mask, water and a snack for your break. Your primary form of ID must have a recent photo and signature and the secondary form must have a signature. Arrive at the testing center at least 30 minutes early. If you can scope out the testing location in advance, try to do that. The Meridian location can be a little hard to find and you do not want the added anxiety on exam day of getting lost!
Once you’ve made it to your exam, take a deep breath and remain calm. If you come across difficult questions, don’t stress and remember that some of them could be pretest questions that don’t count. Once you move on to another question, don’t worry about the previous one. A helpful piece of advice I received is to pretend each question is its own test.
You took the exam. The hard part is over, now you have to wait for the score release which might be even harder than taking the exam itself! Check the AICPA’s score release dates to find out when you should expect your score. This can be anywhere from a month to a week depending on when you took your exam. While waiting, remember you did your best and you’re one step closer to your goal.
I have one last exam to go this November, so that means I’m 75% of the way there! You’ve got this. Sometimes making a big decision is half the battle, so here’s your push – make an investment in your future and start studying!
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