One of the most common questions received from potential CPA candidates is “when should I start studying for the CPA exam?” Truthfully, the answer can be complex and situational, but the simple answer is “as soon as feasibly possible”.

The fact of the matter is that most of the test material that a candidate must know to pass all four sections of the CPA exam is arguably not applicable in the real world. The test incorporates and requires many study skills that are acquired through school, and these skills quickly fade once you remove yourself from the academic world. Additionally, students generally have a more flexible schedule with ample amounts of study time. Because of this, the most ideal time to study for the CPA exam is while you are still in school. Understandably, this is not feasible based on individual situations unique to each candidate. Tackling the CPA exam as a full-time employee is still very practical and achievable, the route to get there may just look slightly different. As such, we will discuss different tactics and advice based on differing situations.

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Current Students

Whether you are currently in an undergrad program or if you are pursuing a master’s degree, as soon as you are deemed eligible by your respective state you should purchase a review course and lay out a study plan. The four sections of the test cover a vast amount of content that is hard to truly grasp and adequately study without a strategic review course. Some of the best and most reputable CPA exam study materials are Becker and Wylie. They have proven success rates and are set up in such a way that if you follow the path they instruct, you have a high chance of passing. Most course have numerous study avenues you can follow based on personal preference, such as self-study videos and multiple-choice questions, or live in-person courses.  I personally had success through self-study, but many people say that the live courses are very beneficial. The courses set you up for success, you just must have the self-motivation to follow the prescribed path.

As I was once a current student and recent graduate, I know there is strong temptation to take a break and “start later”. School is stressful, so if you truly need a mental break then take it, but you must have a strict deadline of when you will begin studying. As we all know though, it is so easy to continually procrastinate once you start. There is no “due date” for this test; it is completely self-regulated and therefore requires a fair amount of self-discipline. If you believe you can persevere and study while in school or take the short break between graduation and your start date to study and test, I highly recommend it.

If you can pass all or some of the sections before you start your career (or early into it) you will be extremely valuable to your future employer. As you move higher up the ladder within accounting firms, promotional opportunities are dependent on having your CPA. Plus, most firms offer a monetary incentive to pass that only decreases with time. It’s hard to adequately understand this while you are in school, but the days get shorter and potential study time becomes extremely limited when you start a full time job (especially if you are in public accounting). Most importantly, the feeling of knowing you never have to study and test again is so relieving and indescribable. The point is, make a plan and stick to it because it will be worth it.

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Full/Part-Time Employees

On the flip side, if you are a full-time worker, you understandably have more time constraints, but again, the key is a disciplined study schedule. The path to passing the CPA exam will undoubtedly be more difficult while working full time, but nevertheless it will be just, if not more, rewarding. You have eighteen months from the time you pass the first exam before tests begin expiring, so if necessary, make a plan to utilize all eighteen months. Tailor your study plan in such a way that works around your busiest times to give yourself adequate time to study for each. There is no harm in taking short breaks between tests as very little of the content of one overlaps into another.

Support groups are very beneficial and arguably necessary to pass the exams. Find the family members, friends, and coworkers that will support you as you study. You will come to find that your social agenda will inevitably suffer and be put on the back burner as you work through the tests. If you have family and friends that understand this, it is much easier to say “no” to proposed social events and not be tempted to fall into the procrastination pitfall. Additionally, if you find coworkers who can relate to what you are going through, chances are they may offer to take responsibilities off of your plate during the critical study times.

Passing all four parts of the exam while working full time is very doable and should never be a deterrent. Perhaps you wake up one hour earlier than usual and carve out one hour before you go to bed that you fully dedicate to studying. As mentioned numerous times before, the key is consistency and sticking to the plan that you set for yourself. Be realistic and vigilant and your hard work will pay off.

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Making a Plan

There is no “secret” to passing; it is largely based on recognition and memorization of content that simply comes from commitment to the material and repetition. Apart from “when” to begin, perhaps the most important factor is consistency. No matter if you are still in college without a job, working through your master’s program, or a full time employee who has been out of school for five years, the most crucial factor to passing the exam is consistency and discipline. The test is not easy, but with consistent and disciplined study it is very passable. It is a test that is based off recollection of key concepts, and the best way to defeat it is to train yourself to be able to quickly and efficiently recall information.

As such, the first thing you should do after purchasing study materials is to make a realistic and regimented study plan. Dependent on your personal situation, all four parts can be feasibly passed in as little as six months if you have the study capacity and you stay disciplined. This timeline is aggressive and not practical for all, but my point is that it is possible. The test is not going to get any easier (and potentially only harder), so the best time to start is now. Be realistic and get it done.

From a personal standpoint, I passed all four parts of the CPA exam on the first try due to consistency. It had less to do with my personal abilities and more to do with my determination. I personally used the Becker review course because the company I had been hired to work for paid for it. I began studying in the last half of my master’s program and passed three by the time I started working. I passed the fourth during the first month of my career at a public accounting firm.

I found success through watching every video all the way through, and following along with a highlighter and pen, writing notes in the margin and highlighting key takeaways. I went through all the multiple-choice questions numerous times and downloaded them onto my phone to flip through whenever I had downtime. Additionally, I made my own flashcards for concepts that I personally struggled with, to understand the concepts in a way that made sense to me. I completed all the simulations; however, based on personal preference, I don’t think it was necessary. Rarely will you get a simulation on the test that is like one included in your review course. The key to simulations is truly understanding the material, and never leaving anything blank. If you perform all the other suggested steps, you will understand the material and theoretically have success through the simulations.

There is not “correct” order to take the tests, but undoubtedly two of them, the FAR exam and the REG exam, take more time to prepare for than BEC exam and AUD exam. Because of this, I suggest breaking up your timeline (whether that be 4 months or 18 months) into 4 segments. Two of the segments should be longer than the other two to account for the additional study time required for the FAR exam and the REG exam. Additionally, if possible, these two segments should be the least busy in your personal life. The depth and amount of information included in these two tests are far greater than BEC and AUD and therefore require more time.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how much time you do or don’t have to study for the exam. What does matter is how much time you personally make to study and be prepared. If you have very few time constraints but you choose to haphazardly study a few times a week, you will have a very difficult time passing. On the contrary, if you have a very busy schedule but find time daily to study, you have a high chance of succeeding. Start studying as soon as possible, make a regimented plan and stick to it, and you will soon find yourself passing all four parts of the CPA exam.

About the Author:

This article was written by Allyson Hamill, CPA. Allyson is a Senior Accounting Analyst at Commercial Metals Company.