Prepare For Success On The CPA Exam

Written by Professor Joe Hoyle, based on over 30 years of experience in guiding candidates to success on the CPA Exam.

Question from the candidate: I am ready to begin my preparation to sit for the CPA Exam. I really plan to do this the right way so that I can maximize my chances for success. I want to get this exam completed. How can I use your free questions to earn the points that I need to pass each of the four parts of the CPA Exam?

Joe: We make available thousands of free questions and answers covering all of the essential areas mentioned in the content specification outlines released by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the official body that produces and grades the CPA Exam. We suggest that you consider three different approaches as you begin your preparation. Most candidates come to prefer one particular method of preparation. Take your time and experiment with all three until you are comfortable.

FULL APPROACH: Go to the topic outline for the section of the CPA Exam that you are currently preparing to take (Financial Accounting and Reporting, Regulation, Auditing and Attestation, or Business Environment and Concepts). Start at the first topic and work all (or most) of the questions and check your answers. Take short notes for later review purposes as you move methodically through all of the subject matter. Plan to finish the last topic approximately one week before you expect to take that specific portion of the CPA Exam.

TOPIC APPROACH: Go to the outline for the section of the exam that you are preparing to take. Select a topic that you feel is especially important or where you feel that your knowledge is weak. Work all of those questions first. You are focusing your time and energy on the areas where you are most able to pick up points. However, this approach is less organized and more likely to leave some subjects uncovered. It works best if you have previously taken this section of the exam, especially if you came within 10 points of passing and now want to concentrate on adding those final few points needed for success.

TEST APPROACH: Have questions selected randomly for you in a test format so that your coverage more resembles the format of the actual CPA exam. This approach works well if you already feel well prepared as you get close to the time for taking the exam. It helps you adapt to the challenge of moving quickly from one subject to the next. In addition, the test approach can point out areas of weakness. If you find that you are consistently missing questions about a particular topic, go back and spend more time reviewing that area.

Q: What part of the exam should I take first?

Joe: I always believe you should take the part that you enjoy most first. You want to have a positive experience at the very beginning of your study and focusing first on the part that you like most will make that much more likely to happen.

Q: You mentioned taking notes. What kind of notes should I take as I work your free questions?

Joe: Proper coverage of such a broad array of topics does not leave much time for later review prior to taking the exam. Therefore, your note-taking should be in a form that will allow you to review the essentials quickly in order to bring the information about each topic back into your mind. Look at the notes as a way of refreshing your memory about the most important aspects of every topic.

One good method is to make notes on three by five cards that can be carried with you throughout the day. Put a basic question on one side with the main points of the answer on the back. Try to limit these to just 10 words so you don't spend so much time writing notes and memorizing answers. This information can be studied whenever you have even a minute or two of free time. Candidates can maximize their grade on the CPA Exam by learning to make use of these note cards in spare minutes that would otherwise be wasted.

Keep the notes as short as possible. Candidates should view each card as the tip of an iceberg. It only shows a little bit of the topic but it helps you visualize the remaining rules or procedures. Realize that most exam questions focus on just one or two particular points. As you work each of our free questions (as well as the content in our subscription service), look for those components that are most important. That is the essential information to put into your notes.

In addition, whenever you answer one of the questions incorrectly, identify the exact step or steps that you missed. I always say that candidates do not miss questions; they miss a particular step in arriving at the answer. Identify that missed step and you will be much less likely to miss it again on a similar question. Study your errors closely so that you understand the correct approach and can explain it in your notes. Then, especially as the exam gets closer, read through those notes every chance you get.

Q: If I have not taken the exam previously, how many hours should I expect to study if I want to maximize my chances for success?

Joe: Obviously, every candidate is different but I have long recommended that a total of 250 to 400 hours of study is a reasonable goal. Some parts take longer to learn than others but you should expect to spend approximately 60-100 hours per section. In my experience, most candidates who fail a part of the exam simply did not spend an adequate amount of time in preparation. When I taught live CPA review classes, I would always write three words on the board: Hours Equal Points. That is a good equation to keep in mind.

If you take an average of four minutes to work one of our free questions, read the answer, and take a few notes on the most important elements, you can work 500 questions in less than 35 hours of study. That many questions provide a lot of coverage. If you do that efficiently and combine it with an ongoing review of your notes (and our subscription service if needed), you should be well prepared for each section of the CPA exam by investing 60-100 hours per part. The key is working as many questions as possible while learning something from each one.

Q: Okay, I can see how this program works. How much time would you recommend that I spend working your free questions (or the content in your subscription service) and how much time should I spend reviewing my notes and reworking questions in areas that I have previously covered?

Joe: I always suggest a "Cover and Review" strategy for success on the CPA Exam. We even built this in automatically when we set up our study guides for our subscription service.

Working our free questions (and looking at the content in the subscription service) will enable you to cover all of the topics that you need to know. Then, going back over your notecards and reworking previous problems will allow you to continually review the material so that it all stays fresh in your mind.

This is not rocket science. This is a logical approach to learning the material and passing an exam -- something people do all the time until they graduate from college.

Here's one approach that I like:

- Start by deciding how many weeks you are going to study for the current section of the exam and then divide those weeks into three equal parts. During the first weeks, spend 100 percent of your study time working questions and taking notes. You need to start building up a storehouse of essential knowledge on each topic. Spend as much time as possible each day. Put a note on your wall where you can see it frequently: "Every question I work gets me closer to 75."

- For the second section of your study, spend 75 percent of your time working new questions and the remaining 25 percent reviewing material from the first section. Put a note on your wall where you can see it frequently: "Start turning your knowledge into points."

For the third section of weeks, spend 50 percent of your time working new questions and 50 percent reviewing material covered in the first two sections. This provides a logical and organized approach that should have you ready to walk into the testing site with sufficient knowledge to get a passing score. Put a note on your wall where you can see it frequently: "You don't need to be perfect; you just need enough to answer enough questions to pass."

Q: Should I plan to study every day when I am preparing for the exam?

Joe: I never like for candidates to study every day. At that pace, they wear out quickly and just become very inefficient in their preparation. You want to stay fresh and energetic so that you get the most out of the hours you spend studying.

I prefer for candidates to take one or two days off each week and not think at all about the CPA Exam. Go to a movie, read a book, or just do something else that you find to be fun. A lot of candidates seem intent on punishing themselves and refuse to follow this advice. They prepare every day even when mentally and physically exhausted. Human beings are not built to work each and every day for long periods of time. I firmly believe that working 5-6 days each week will get you more points than working seven days.

Q: Do you have any other advice on preparing for the CPA Exam?

Joe: Spending 250-400 hours on any mental activity can be terribly stressful. Thus, I always recommend that candidates plan to do a little exercise (maybe 15-30 minutes) two or three times per week. You will feel better and when you feel better you work better.

Ride a bicycle or play basketball or go for a brisk walk. Your only goal is to get the points you need to pass the exam and a little exercise will help. You do not need to spend hours but do enough to get your heart rate elevated. Exercise will make you feel like a success and that always leads to more success. Exercise builds both mental sharpness and confidence.

Q: How should I set up my schedule when I first start preparing?

Joe: Well you can purchase a month of our subscription service and a study guide is provided. Additionally, buy a cheap calendar and start listing out how many hours you want to study each day and the anticipated times. Maybe it will be two hours every Monday from 7 until 9 and one hour every Tuesday from 5 until 6 and 90 minutes ever Wednesday from 9:30 until 11 and so on.

Be honest and realistic—don’t put down more hours than you can or will possibly spend. Leave 1 or 2 days per week open for fun and relaxation. Carry this schedule out until you reach 60-100 hours. Then, GET STARTED. Too many people spend all their time planning how to study and then never actually do any of it. Work the first question, read the first answer, and start taking your first notes.

It is helpful to keep very accurate records of your study time each day so that you can monitor your progress. For example, assume you plan to study two hours on Monday. Jot down the time when you start working and when you stop to see how much time you actually do invest. Then, set up three columns in a computer file. The first is for the planned study time, the second is actual study time, and the third is the accumulative record of the study time over or under your schedule. Nothing makes you stick with a task more than knowing you are going to record the actual time and compare it to your goal for the day.

Q: What is the biggest problem that candidates face in preparing for the CPA Exam?

Joe: That is an easy question: The biggest problem is always procrastination. Candidates put off studying or they put off studying the hard parts. “Later” is always an easier command to follow than “Now.” Human beings simply prefer to put off activities that are difficult. As a result, their work often has an “I’ll do that task tomorrow" sound to it.

That is why setting up a schedule at the very beginning and then sticking with it is so important. If you do not have your hours planned out, it is hard to know whether you are ahead or behind. Having no schedule or not recording the time worked, just opens you up for the temptation of procrastination.

Q: What is the second biggest problem that candidates face in preparing for the CPA Exam?

Joe: Schools tend to stress that the goal of education is perfection. On tests, you are trying to get all of the questions correct so that you can make 100 or an A. Missing any question is almost the equivalent of committing a sin; you should feel guilty.

The CPA Exam is entirely different; you just want to answer enough questions to garner a passing score. Because they are used to seeking perfection, candidates do not always move through the materials fast enough. They feel a compulsion to learn it all. They bog down and get discouraged. In my live review classes, I used to say “Hit It, Get It, Move On." In other words, cover each topic as quickly as possible, learn as much as you can, and then move to the next topic. You are so much better off to learn something about all of the topics than you are to learn any topic in depth. Use your time efficiently and keep moving forward.

Q: What is the goal of CPA Review for Free?

Joe: Our one and only goal is to help all candidates who visit us get the 75 points they need for success on the CPA Exam. We have no interest in any grade above 75. As far as we are concerned, a grade of 76 means you worked too hard. In school, you constantly were pushed to shoot for a grade of 100. On the CPA Exam, no one cares as long as you pass. We believe that if you work our free questions and take good review notes, you can make that 75 and save yourself a lot of money.

Q: A majority of CPA Exam questions are multiple-choice. However, in FAR, BEC, and Regulation, you also have 6-7 task-based simulations. How do these task-based simulations differ from multiple-choice questions?

Joe: Simulations are like very short case studies where a variety of questions (and a variety of types of questions) can be asked based on a central core of information. For example, information could be presented about the terms of a lease and then questions asked about operating leases and capital leases from the perspective of both the lessor and the lessee.

People who are involved with the CPA Exam always say (and I believe) that simulations cover the same basic knowledge as the multiple-choice questions; it is only a different form of presentation. Therefore, special study for the simulations is not necessary. Whether a topic is covered by a multiple-choice question or a task-based simulation, the information being tested is still the same.

I strongly recommend, though, that you get a feel for the physical format of the exam, especially the simulations. Early in your preparation, go to the official website - for information on the CPA exam. Click here for "Tutorial and Sample Tests" in order to see what the exam actually looks like. You want to know what you are going to see when you walk in to take the actual CPA Exam.

In FAR, Auditing, and Regulation, the task-based simulation always has a research question where you are asked to find the answer in the authoritative literature. Examples of that process are included above in the "Tutorial and Sample Tests" information mentioned above. If you have ever done an Internet search (such as on Google), I think you will find that this portion of the exam is rather straightforward. The biggest problem may be carefully entering search terms so you don't go too many hits.

Instead of task-based simulations, the BEC exam will have three written communication questions to test the candidate's knowledge of the English language. Once again, examples can be seen in our subscription service and also at "Tutorial and Sample Tests" .

Q: Okay, I am ready to get started. What should I do?

Joe: Prepare your schedule using a calendar so that you have 60-100 hours planned out. Remember that the first 1/3 of that time will be only answering our free questions and taking notes. The second third will be 25 percent review and the final third will be 50 percent review. Then, start answering our questions while you take concise notes on three by five cards. Keep a record of your time and make sure you are keeping up with your schedule.

Do not try to study seven days a week. Make time for regular exercise. Get into a rhythm so that preparing for the CPA Exam is a regular and normal part of your daily life. As time passes, use your note cards to review. Learn to make use of those random moments that might otherwise be lost. Be efficient so that you can pass with as little hassle as possible.

And, of course, if you feel that you want more content to work on, consider our subscription service. Access can be acquired on a one-month basis.

Q: Do you have any final words of advice?

Joe: Sure. I always stress that people need to have confidence in themselves. The CPA Exam is difficult but it is certainly not impossible. People just like you manage to pass every single day. If they can do it, so can you. Making a grade in the high 90s would be very challenging but you don’t need to achieve perfection. All you want to do is make 75 and pass. I have been in the review business for nearly 30 years and I have never met a person yet who could not pass. With our free questions and your time and energy, there is no reason why you cannot achieve your goal of becoming a CPA.

Believe in yourself and then go make it happen!!!

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