I graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in Commerce in May of 2008. I was scheduled to complete my Master’s Degree in Accounting at UVA in the Fall and to start work in January as an auditor with KPMG in Washington, D.C. After graduation, my friends all headed out from Charlottesville to intern for the summer before returning for the Master’s program or to take time to travel during their last summer before starting work. Meanwhile, I had my own full-time summer adventure ahead of me: the CPA exam.
The most common piece of advice that I received about the CPA exam was “get the exam done as soon as possible.” The second most common piece of advice was “if you can get the exam done before you start working, do it.” Taking this advice to heart, I set aside the summer between my graduation and my master’s program to focus on studying for and taking the exam. I figured that plan would give me a chance to retake any exams during my master’s program if necessary.
A few days after graduation, I sent in my application and curled up with my self-study materials for the summer. I feel compelled to point out here how important it is to get your application for the exam submitted as early as you can and to be aware of your state’s general timeline for responses, especially during high-volume periods such as graduation. It’s much easier to commit yourself to studying when your exams have already been scheduled, and it’s also much easier to focus on studying when the administrative tasks are out of the way.
I can’t say it was easy hearing about the fun and excitement that my friends were experiencing at their internships or on their travels while I was spending my days studying. In fact, I thought I made the wrong decision on a number of occasions, but I had made a commitment to myself and I stuck to my plan. Looking back, I realize just how hard it would have been for me to try to fit studying into my work schedule during my first year.
I based my strategy for scheduling the exams on my strategy for taking finals during school. I preferred to take the most difficult exams first so that I would be able to focus better when studying for the other exams. For me, I was most worried about FAR, followed closely by AUD. My last two exams would be REG and BEC in that order.
Since I was planning to take all of the exams in one testing window, I scheduled them evenly across the two months, with each exam two weeks apart. I made sure to put them all on the schedule at the same time so that I would be committed to the schedule that I had set for myself.
I spent the last half of May and the month of June going through the self-study materials for all of the sections, including the CD lectures, the practice questions, and the flash cards. I spent between 8 and 10 hours each weekday and about 8 to 10 hours each weekend studying. I went through all of lectures and practice questions for each section at least once during my initial studying period. Near the end of June, I revisited all the practice questions that I missed the first time through. As I went through the questions, I tried to keep note of my weaker areas so I would know where I needed to spend additional time studying.
During the two weeks before each exam, I focused on reviewing my weaker areas so that the concepts would be fresh in my mind when I took it. I also completed each of the practice exams that were included in the self-study materials so that I would be comfortable with the actual testing environment. For each section, I took the first practice exam near the beginning of the two weeks to identify my weaker areas and to get an idea of how to best manage my time. For time management, the materials all provide recommended time frames, but I found that I needed a little more time on the simulations and a little less time on the multiple choice sections than recommended.
A few days before my scheduled exam dates, I would take the second practice exam from the self-study materials using the timing I had determined during my first practice run. Taking the second practice exam so close to my actual test date helped me to build my confidence going into the real thing.
As a crammer by nature, I was studying right up to the point that I walked into the testing location. I had my flash cards and book with me in the car and flipped through the definitions and mnemonics until it was time to head in. For me, last-minute studying has always given me an extra boost of confidence before a test. I purposely scheduled all of my exams to be in the morning so that I could limit the amount of time I would have to study right before the exam and avoid burning myself out before the actual test.
Once I was in the exam room, I took a few moments to jot down all of the mnemonics that I could remember from the self-study materials. I also jotted down the times so I would know when I needed to move on to the next section.
To help with time management, I went through each multiple choice section three times. The first time through, I would answer every question that I could answer with certainty without needing to deliberate. The second time through, I would answer the questions that I needed to think about for a few moments but was still fairly certain of the correct response. After the second run, I would see how many questions were left and how much time I had left for that section.
With that strategy, I knew exactly how much time I had per question, and I didn’t need to worry about running out of time on questions that I could answer easily. If I saw that a question was taking up too much time during my final run through the questions, I would just answer my “best guess” and move on.
One of the hardest aspects of taking all of the exams in one testing window was jumping right back into studying after each exam without knowing whether I had passed or failed the test I had just taken. I definitely had my doubts about my performance after leaving each exam, especially with the number of questions that had ended up in my “best guess” strategy. It was tough sticking to the same studying routine without knowing if it had worked. To be quite honest, I was convinced I hadn’t been studying enough until I received my first passing score for FAR just before I was scheduled to take BEC.
I started my master’s program anxiously waiting for my last three scores to be posted. I checked the website on a daily basis and reminded my friends that they shouldn’t take any studying advice from me until we knew if my strategies had paid off. Finally, I received my three remaining scores just before my birthday. I don’t think I could have asked for a better birthday present than passing the CPA exam on my first try.
Jen is a self-study exam crusher.
Take her advice.