How to Pass the CPA Exam on the First Try

So, when it comes to studying for the CPA exam and passing it on the first try, there are several things you can do that are really going to increase your chances of passing on the first try, so that you don’t have to pay for retakes or waste a bunch of time restudying. So, let’s get into these main points.

Set Your Test Date And Stick To It

The first one is to stick to your date. So, what I see a lot of people do and a lot of my colleagues or people from my Master’s Program that I still keep in touch with, they will schedule tests and then they’ll do a crappy job of studying. Basically they don’t study, and then they will just keep pushing back their exam, or the other thing they do is they don’t study. They do a crappy job of studying, and their employer will pay for exam attempts, so they don’t really care, or it’s just not a big enough deal to them that they actually put in the work and study.

So, when you schedule your exam, you need to set that date and base everything else around that date. You need to commit to that date. Tell yourself that no matter what happens, you will not reschedule that test. And that just adds a lot of urgency, and having a real deadline that you will not break yourself against just does a lot of things for you.

It’s like when you were in college and, you know, you had those five to ten-page papers that you wrote the week before the due date. Now, you can’t do the same thing with the CPA exam. It’s just impossible. You can’t put it off, and then cram for five days and then pass it, but what I’m saying is when you have that date that you will not push back, it just gives you a lot of extra motivation and urgency, and just mentally helps you get the job done.

Make the Concepts Your Own

So, that’s the first thing; is to set that date. The second thing is once you start the study process, the biggest thing you can do and what you’re really trying to do is learn this material. Right? So, learning the material… The best way to do that is to make the concepts your own. So that’s the big point here, is making the concepts your own. And what I mean by that is when you learn about dollar value LIFO, for example, which was probably the topic I hated the most on studying for FAR, you need to go through the questions, read the text if you have to, and then the main way to do this is to talk this out. Just explain the concept to yourself out loud until you understand it.

So, when you can explain a concept to yourself out loud and you really get it, then what you do is you write it down in your own words. So, when I was studying for the exams, what I would do is I would make my own CPA exam flash cards using a free software like Brainscape or Quizlet. And I used Brainscape personally. So, when I was studying, I would just have another tab open on my computer with Brainscape open in edit mode, and I would be creating these decks of flash cards for myself, and I was writing these concepts out in my own words. And that was one of the things that I really feel like made the difference for me and helped me pass on the first try on all four of my exams. Well, I did fail FAR once, and seeing the exam in person made me realize that I had studied completely wrong.

And so, after that I didn’t fail again. I passed all four, back to back to back to back, studying this new way. And the way that I studied I’m kind of explaining here. So, make the concepts your own. The next thing that you need to do is to study every day. You cannot let days go by without studying. So, this goes back to the commitment factor of setting the date and sticking to it, and deciding and committing that you’ll stick to that date no matter what. Along with that, you also need to commit to yourself that you’re going to study every day. You’re just going to do what it takes to get this exam out of the way. There is no better feeling in the world than finding out that you’ve passed your fourth exam and that you’re done. And the only way to do that is to commit to the process, and the process includes studying every day.

So, when you enter your exam date into your CPA review software and it gives you your schedule of lesson plan outlines, you cannot miss a single day of, you know, getting through those lessons. Not a single day. And it just goes back to commitment. Everything else is secondary. Hanging out with your friends. “Having a life.” All that stuff that really doesn’t matter, at least not during your time period where you’re trying to pass the CPA exam. That is all secondary and just not important until you pass. You can’t let anything come between you and your study time each day.

Make Your Studying Count

So, the next point is to make your studying count. This goes back to kind of the making the concepts your own. And what a lot of my colleagues do when I kind of see them studying or when I ask them, “How do you study?” they say that they watch the lecture, they read the text, then they do some questions, and yes, that’s what the CPA study programs recommend that you do; is you watch the lecture, you read the chapter, and then you go through the questions, but there’s a huge difference between somebody that’s actively studying and someone that’s just leaning back in their chair, you know, pressing play on the video and then okay, I’m studying, but they’re thinking about something else or they have ESPN open in another tab. And you know, it’s impossible to be actively studying all the time.

I mean you’re just going to slip and fall into these moments of where you’re really not studying. Yes, you’re sitting there with your CPA exam prep open in front of you, but you’re not actually studying. If there’s not actively, you know, concepts and definitions and new information going into your brain and you putting it there on purpose, you’re not studying. If you’re pressing play and you have the lecture turned on, but you’re not actually studying – you’re sitting there listening, then you’re not studying. And so, this kind of goes into my next point: you need to be actively studying, and the best way that I found to do that — now, this gets into where I said I failed FAR the first time and seeing the exam in person I realized that I’d studied completely wrong.

So, what I did is the first time I studied for FAR, I spent way more time than I did the second time. And on the other exams, when I passed them, I spent all this time and still failed. And I was doing it the traditional way. I was turning on the lecture. I was letting it play. Three minutes in my mind was wandering somewhere else and maybe ten minute or 15 or 20 minutes have gone by and the lecture is getting to where they’re going through sample problems, and I realized I haven’t even been listening. I have no idea what they’re talking about, and then I would just say, “Okay, I’m going to read the lecture now.” I’d go to read the lecture or read the chapter, and it was just obviously really boring and very technical stuff, and I would think: “Ugh, never mind. I’m just going to try some questions.”

And at this point, I’ve wasted 30 to 40 minutes on a given lesson. I have done nothing. I haven’t accomplished anything. And that was basically how I studied the whole time, and that probably sounds pretty familiar to you because chances are you’ve “studied” that way quite a bit. So, the thing that I changed, and this here is my next point.

Start with the Questions First

When you’re actively studying, you want to start with the questions first. And that might sound like it doesn’t make sense. Well, why would I start with questions when I obviously am not going to be able to answer them. Start with the questions first for a given chapter or a topic, and do it in study mode so that each time you answer a question, you get to see the explanations, and read each explanation.

The ones that are wrong, read why they’re wrong. The one that is right, read why it’s the correct answer. And really try to understand it, and go through the questions that way. And what you’ll find is that on a lot of topics, you will not need to do the lectures or read the chapter because a lot of this is framework stuff. It’s simple. You just need to learn it, and there’s not a whole lot to think about. You just need to know the facts and the definitions, and so go through the questions first. And there’s also something about reading a question in the format of a question and your brain instantly tries to think of the answer. I mean that’s just what a question is. And then pressing the button and seeing the explanation, there’s something about that process that makes it much easier to remember than just trying to read the entire chapter first or watch the entire lecture, because you don’t really have context of what you’re trying to learn.

So, then, on some topics, doing this method where you’re doing the questions first, on some topics you’ll obviously get stuck and you can’t just go through the questions. It’s too difficult or you’ll realize there are some things that you really need to know before you can answer these questions. And so, for those kinds of topics, those are the ones that you go back and watch the lecture. And after you’ve struggled through a few questions, you’ll have context about what you need to learn or what to watch for when you’re watching the lecture, and that’ll make this whole process so much easier and you’ll be actually learning the whole time when you turn on a lecture with context.

ABS…. (always be studying)

My next point is to always be studying. So, the way that you do this. I was working full-time when I was studying for my exams, and so yes, it’s very possible. I didn’t have endless study time each day. I studied for two hours every day, and that’s the only actual studying time I got in front of my computer, you know, in front of the CPA review course that I had. But I also had a mobile app with questions on it and I had my own flash cards that I made, like I was talking about, but primarily multiple choice questions, because your studying should be based around multiple choice questions like I just talked about.

So, you get your two hours of course studying in, where you’re sitting there, actually studying, and then throughout the rest of the day, you need to open your app as many times as you can and go through multiple choice questions. So, I would open this app that I had and go through multiple-choice questions, and I would do five to ten questions every time I opened it. I would do five questions if I was walking to the bathroom. I would do five questions if I was going down to the other floor in the building. I would do five questions. I mean a lot of times just at my desk I would take a ten-minute break and open my app and do five questions.

But when you do this — so, five questions. Let’s say that you pull your app out 20 times in the day. You’ve done an extra one hundred multiple-choice questions. And then, when you’re falling asleep at night, avoid the urge to watch Netflix on your phone or read a book. Open your app again and do even more questions till you fall asleep. And that’s just the price you have to pay. That’s just what you have to do.

Commit- End of Story

So, my last point is back to this commitment process. Along with committing to the date that you set and committing to doing the work and doing what it takes, you also need to just commit to the full thing that you’re going to do whatever it takes to pass these exams, to put in the work, and a big part of that is just committing and accepting the fact that your life is going to suck for the next – I don’t know – three to six months, till you pass your test.

And like I said, instead of watching Netflix at night or TV in general, just do more question. That’s the best thing you can do; is more and more questions. So, cut everything extra out of your life and just focus on questions, studying for the exams, looking at flash cards, and thinking about topics. I mean yeah, it sucks, but failing and redoing tests sucks way worse than just, you know, not watching Netflix for a few months. So, commit to the process, and those are the ways that you can pass the CPA exam on your first try.

1 Comment

  • Andrew

    Reply Reply September 3, 2014

    When I start with the questions first, my grades start of really low because I don’t know what I am doing. How long does it take for you to actually learn how to answer the questions, without memorizing the answer?

    What I am currently doing is:

    1) Doing all the MCQ, randomly in study mode
    2) Using brainscape to write, in my own words,key pieces of information/formulas that I think are important/need to remember
    3)On my 1 hour commuter, I use my textbook to read up on trouble areas or read my Brainscape flashcards.

    That is basically what you believe is the best way to study for these tests right?

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