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Steve Alden

First-Exam Freakouts: 1

My Day My Bio
Steve Alden


Group CFO
AAR Corp.
Chicago, IL

I grew up in Massachusetts and graduated from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, where I majored in accounting, minored in economics, and was a member of the Commonwealth Honors College. After school, I worked as an Auditor for KPMG in Boston. During this time, I passed the CPA exam and got my license. I spent two years in public accounting before leaving to get my MBA at Harvard Business School. Currently, I work in corporate finance.

  • Planning for the Exam

    My exam preparation really began when I chose to major in accounting at UMass. I was a sophomore in the Isenberg School of Management, and I found myself enjoying my introductory financial accounting course. Debits and credits just clicked for me, and dissecting financial statements seemed interesting. When I learned about the fantastic career opportunities available to accountants, I knew that I had to start thinking about the CPA exam. At the time, the best way for me to prepare was to take advantage of the veteran faculty members available to me in UMass’s accounting department. As a result, I enrolled in as many courses as I could, especially the advanced electives that I knew would cover material tested on the exams. Importantly, this plan also helped me accumulate the 150 undergraduate credits required for licensure in Massachusetts without a master’s degree. Needless to say, thinking ahead in college set me up for success down the road.

    After graduating, my goal was to pass the exam within a year. I took the summer off to relax, and my first day at KPMG was in August. Once I had a few months under my belt at the firm, I felt confident in my ability to balance work with studying. I mailed my application at the end of the calendar year and started hitting the review books before receiving my NTS in January.

  • My Exam Strategy

    I set myself up to take all four parts of the exam within a single six-month window so that I could finish them as quickly as possible. I took FAR and REG first because the material for them was freshest in my head, and I figured that cementing my knowledge of the nuts and bolts of accounting would be helpful as I began my career. I also thought that these two parts would be the most difficult, so I was eager to get them out of the way. Friends of mine have saved FAR and REG for the end, so there’s definitely no right answer here. What I would strongly suggest, though, is that, regardless of how you slot these parts in your personal approach, you budget additional studying time for them, because there is a lot of material there. After passing FAR and REG, I squeezed in BEC pretty quickly so I would have time to study for AUD. I purposely scheduled AUD as my last exam, because I figured that the longer I worked as an Auditor, the better prepared I would be for this part.

  • How I Studied

    I studied using Becker’s test preparation materials. I was pretty diligent, making time to study nearly every night after work during the week, thanks in part to supportive senior associates and managers on my engagement teams. For each chapter in the Becker review book, I would watch the video lecture on my laptop, and then answer all of the initial review questions for that chapter on the CD. I would not let myself continue to the next section’s lectures until I was satisfied with my performance on these questions. This did not mean getting every problem right; rather, it meant simply understanding why I was wrong whenever that was the case. By following this self-imposed directive, I picked up on patterns in exam questions and trained myself to read everything carefully. Another tactical move I made was to complete a first pass through all of the chapters at least one week before the test date. That way, I had ample time to run through some simulations, re-visit previously viewed questions, test myself on as-yet-unseen supplemental questions, or take a practice exam. Importantly, I also could avoid cramming by tapering off my studying so that I was a bit more energized when exam day rolled around. For this exact purpose, I found it helpful to take vacation days from work around exam time.

  • The Sacrifice

    The sacrifice of my time and attention, when spread somewhat evenly over several weeks, was manageable. I think the key to studying for the CPA exam is to keep yourself honest. Many nights, you will need to hold your feet to the fire and crack open your review materials. On occasion, though, if you are particularly exhausted or distracted and study anyway, you might find that you retain little of what you cover. When this happens, give yourself a break to recharge and relax. Finally, do not be afraid to draw a line in the sand. While you will inevitably miss out on some events and activities, you no doubt should still live your life sometimes. Make sure you identify those things that you simply cannot miss or do without, and plan ahead to work around them.

  • Taking the Exam

    My goal on exam day was to arrive rested and ready. I would dress in comfortable clothes, and would often bring an extra layer to wear in case the testing room was cold. Once the exam started, I had a pretty methodical approach. Based on the practice tests I would take beforehand, I usually knew roughly how long I wanted to spend on each section. In the multiple choice modules, I would read each question extremely carefully before looking at what my answer options were, because it’s very risky to gloss over questions or assume you know what they will ask. If I couldn’t choose an answer quickly on a problem, I would flag it to review later and move on. For the simulations, I always aimed to have more time than I would likely need, but I never recklessly rushed through multiple choice sections to make it happen. When everything went according to plan, though, it was nice to have the option to complete the simulations at a slower pace.

  • Bonus Tips

    I will never forget how I felt during my first exam when I ran into a roadblock on my first simulation. I knew that bombing a simulation was bad news, and my final answer on this one was not making sense. What’s worse, I could not find where my calculations had gone awry. I stared helplessly and blankly at my terminal before taking a few seconds to gather my wits by closing my eyes. When I opened them, they zeroed in on the dwindling time remaining on my screen’s clock, and I started to sweat. Despite feeling like the exam had gone alright so far, I suddenly felt the urge to just get up and walk out. I was tired and, admittedly, panicking. Thankfully, I soon thereafter came to my senses, calmed down, and continued checking my work, eventually discovering where my error had occurred.

    I share this story because you, too, might have a moment of weakness when you’re three hours into an exam, and you’ll need to summon the strength to overcome your fatigue and frustration. Have faith in your training and preparation, and know that simply maintaining your focus will give you a leg up on many other test takers. Finally, look on the bright side, both during and after your exams. If your assessment of your performance is positive, then be glad, and if it is negative, then at least understand that many candidates before you have felt the same way and then been pleasantly surprised.

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