The question that I get most often (and I get a lot of questions) is: “I want to pass the CPA Exam in a reasonable period of time and I don’t want to spend any money. I am out of work and really don’t have money to spend on fancy courses. I am not shooting for 100. All I want is to get 75 points on each of the four exams and pass and then get on with my life. I realize that the pass rate is about 50 percent on each part but I am willing to work hard. If that is my goal, how would you recommend that I prepare for the CPA Exam?”
I think that is a very reasonable goal and one that CPA Review for Free can help you accomplish. I have long held that too many people who really need to pass the exam (so they can get a job and start a career) never even take the exam because of the high cost of review materials. I think that is terribly sad. I think that is bad for the country and bad for the profession. Professions should not just be open to the wealthy.
So, here are my steps to success on the CPA Exam without spending money (or spending almost no money). Please feel free to pass this along to anyone you know who might be looking to take the CPA Exam (especially those folks who are short of cash).
a. Make sure that you qualify to take the CPA Exam in the state of your choice. Go to ThisWayToCPA for a list of the states and a brief overview of the requirements to sit in that state. If you click on the state name, more specific information is given as well as state board contact information. This site is great for U.S. or international candidates.
b. Start learning about the CPA Exam itself. The enemy here is big. You want to understand the process as completely as you can. Go to the AICPA's website and you’ll find a massive amount of information. You don’t have to look at it all but try to get as comfortable with the process as you can.
On the openingpage, you’ll see the following links that you should follow and read:
---What’s on the CPA Exam?
---Tutorial and samples exams
On that same page, if you scroll down the right side, you will find information about the international administration of the CPA Exam.
On that same page, on the left side, you’ll see a link “For candidates.” Follow that link and you’ll find:
---The Candidate Bulletin – nearly 70 pages just full of good information about the CPA Exam. Every candidate should read the candidate bulletin from front to back. That needs to be a requirement. You need to know this exam and this is where to look.
---How to Prepare – at this point on the site, they give some good advice on taking the exam.
In the middle of the page, there is a link to “Authoritative Literature” which provides you with a way to practice the search function that will be found in all of the exams except BEC. You won’t need a ton of practice to get smooth at that process but some practice is helpful.
c. Decide which exam you want to take first. I always recommend starting with the one that you like best because you will be more inclined to do the study that is necessary. You want to get off to a positive start and I think that is most likely to happen by taking the part that you enjoy the most at the beginning.
d. Estimate how many hours per week that you will be able to study. If you are working at a job, that might be 10-20 hours each week. If you’re not working, that might be more. I am not a big believer that studying more than about 50 hours per week is efficient. I think at some point you need to get out and do something else (like relax or exercise) so that you will remain effective.
e. Estimate how many hours in total you want to study for your first part of the exam. I usually recommend 60-100 hours as a reasonable amount of study for one part. I can live with 150hours or maybe even 200 hours. But, if you get to 200 hours, I recommend stopping right then to take the exam just to gauge how close you are to passing.
f. Divide e by d (total hours of study by hours per week) to determine how many weeks your study is going to take. Schedule the exam for that time. Get your seat reserved for that time. Procrastination is a huge enemy. Having a set date is a good goal that makes the task more real.
g. Schedule out the next 7 days so that you will be able to hit your required hours for that week. Indicate when you are going to study each day and for how long. I think candidates should try to study 4-6 days per week but I think studying 7 days per week can become counterproductive. Wearing yourself out doesn’t provide any benefit. At the end of the week, evaluate what you have accomplished and make your schedule for the next 7 days.
h. Go to CPA Review for Free and start answering questions. When studying, never guess because that can provide misleading information about your knowledge. We have about 600 questions in our database on each of the four exams. If you take 3 minutes per question (a reasonable pace when studying), you can do them all TWICE in roughly 60 hours. I think that will give you a good, wide range of coverage at the appropriate depth level.
i. Always remember that this is not school. In school, you spend most of your time learning a lot of material and then you take a test on that specific material. The emphasis in school is on reading textbooks and taking notes. On the CPA Exam, your only goal is to be able to answer enough questions. I would recommend spending a large majority of your time actually answering questions and reading the answers. In other words, put your focus toward what the test requires.
j. When you get a question correct, move on. You seem to have that piece of information under control. But, when you miss a question, read the answer carefully and try to take short notes (I usually recommend 10 words or less) that will help give you a better chance next time. Don’t become obsessed with missed questions. Don’t write out pages of notes on each missed question. If you can’t improve the odds of a correct answer by writing down roughly 10-15words, then move on.
j. Never get obsessed with perfection. A passing grade is 75. No one knows how many questions that you will have to get right to make 75. But, if I were going to guess, I would bet that it is less than 75 percent. That means that you can miss quite a number of questions and still pass. Perfection is not needed.
k. Carry those 10-word notes with you everywhere you go and review them as often as possible. That idea of getting better and being able to answer more questions needs to become automatic, something you do whenever you have a free second. Getting better is the real key to passing the CPA Exam.
l. Too many people fail because they simply wear themselves out. Make sure to schedule in “away from the CPA Exam” time. Exercise once or twice each week. Go to a movie. Read a book. Visit with friends. All of those will help make you feel more like studying when you return to it. Retain some balance in your life. You will feel better which is very helpful.
m. (Okay, this is a bit of an advertisement). If you hit a roadblock where your study is not progressing, consider spending $8.99 for my new book: “Don’t Just Dream About Success: Stack the Odds in Your Favor” (available on Amazon). You could probably read the whole book in 5 hours but I would recommend focusing on a couple of specific chapters. Chapter Seven - where I talk about my own personal experience with passing the CPA exam, Chapter Four -on the need to set goals, and Chapter Five - where I talk about one of my all-time favorite quotes: “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.” What story are you telling yourself about the CPA Exam?
n. For a few bucks, CPA Review for Free will provide you with examples of simulations in all of the parts of the exam. If your study is going well and you want to expand to look at some simulations, these will cost you a few dollars. We also have “essential” content information available. But I prefer for candidates to focus on answering questions.
o. About two weeks before you take the CPA Exam, read carefully through everything the examiners send you about the exam. What do you have to do for them in advance? What are the things that you are not allowed to do? What are you supposed to bring to the testing site? You never want to get to the exam site and find a surprise. The examiners provide you with plenty of great information about the experience. Study that carefully. NEVER LEAVE ANYTHING TOCHANCE.
p. When you get to about 10 days before the CPA Exam, start practicing a little visualization. Mentally, go through everything you have to do on the day of the exam. You want to see yourself with a confident and concentrated attitude. You want to spend a few minutes each day thinking through everything you need to get done on that day. Start thinking about the exam itself and see yourself reading carefully and thinking clearly. Visualize the CPA Exam going just perfectly as you see one question after another that you understand. You want to build up a positive feeling about the exam. Feel that victory in your hands.
q. When you start the exam, realize that you probably have more than enough knowledge in your head to pass. If you have put in the hours, it is important to realize at the very start that you know enough to pass. At that point, the secret is getting the information out of your head smoothly and onto the answer sheet. Read each question carefully. Too many people read a few words and immediately start guessing as to what the question is asking. Don’t do that. Have the self-discipline to read each word and make sure you know what information is available and what the question is actually asking.
r. A percentage of the questions on the exam are being tested and do not affect your grade. If you see something you do not know, assume that it is one of those tested questions. Stay calm and confident; avoid getting rattled. Always whisper to yourself: “I don’t have to be perfect.”
s. If you can get an answer in about 2 minutes, that is great. If you cannot get an answer in 2 minutes, mark it and come back later. Sometimes, the break in time will help clear your head. However, if you still are not sure, eliminate as many answers as possible and take a guess. They grade the number of correct answers so a blank and a wrong answer have the same weight.
t. Watch your time obsessively. Your goal should be to finish the exam with 30 seconds left. Too fast and you make careless mistakes. Too slow and you don’t finish. Pay attention to the clock and push yourself. Most people slow down to a crawl after about 45 minutes. You cannot do that. You want a steady pace from first question to last.
u. At the end, congratulate yourself on a good effort and go relax. Don’t start guessing at the grade. Let the examiners determine the grade. At worse, you will know how close you have come and how many more points you need the next time. At best, you can celebrate and dance and sing.