Memories of the CPA Exam

Here’s what it’s been like to take the exam over the decades.

Memories of the CPA Exam
Photo by panda3800/iStock

Taking the CPA Exam is a singular experience that no accountant ever forgets. This month marks the 100th anniversary of the venerable exam's use for licensure, and to celebrate, the JofA asked readers to submit their most interesting stories about the exam. Here are some of our favorites, which have been edited for length and clarity.


The Ohio State Fair is recognized as one of the most celebrated state fairs in the country. Many people remember visiting the fair to see acts such as Bob Hope and famous rock bands. However, many may not know that aspiring Ohio CPAs took the CPA Exam at the Ohio state fairgrounds, specifically on tables in the buildings used for showing prize-winning chickens. When I took the exam in November 1981, we were issued cardboard to place under our exam materials so our No. 2 pencils wouldn't go through the paper into grooves in the table created by chicken and rooster claws.

Janice L. Culver, CPA
Dayton, Ohio


I took the CPA Exam on a day when a hurricane was scheduled to make landfall by night. It was pouring rain, and the parking lot at the testing center was so flooded that I had to climb over the sandbags to get into the office. There were backup generators but no guarantees they would maintain power. It was the last day of the testing window, so I couldn't reschedule. The power stayed on, but by the time I finished taking the exam, the water was just starting to come over the sandbags and into the testing center. I passed the exam, even after all that.

Charleen Fariselli, CPA
Radakovich, Shaw & Blythe LLP
San Luis Obispo, Calif.


In the spring of 1986, while driving to my CPA Exam site, a tractor-trailer truck almost ran me off the road. As the truck passed, I noticed the trailer was owned by a leasing company. Strangely, the only thought that immediately passed through my mind was: "Is that a capital lease or an operating lease?"

James Boakes, CPA/CITP
Westampton, N.J.

Kurt Meisinger, CPA/ABV
Kurt Meisinger, CPA/ABV


I first sat for the CPA Examination in Nebraska on May 8, 1987. While I was taking the four-part examination, a proctor walked past my seat and placed a folded piece of paper on the desk. I ignored the paper because I thought it could be a test to see if I was cheating. The proctor walked back past my desk and tapped the piece of paper with intensity. I picked it up, and the proctor nodded in approval. The paper read, "Angie is in labor at Methodist Hospital."

Needless to say, my heart began to race as I was just informed that my wife was giving birth to our first child. When my hand stopped shaking, I briefly answered the two remaining essay questions while trying to get all the "gimme" points. I then drove approximately 60 miles to the hospital and met my wife. She asked how the exam was going and if I thought I was doing well. I stated that I was certain I had passed some parts. She said, "But if you don't go back for the afternoon, that doesn't count." I told her she was correct. At that point, she said the contractions were not very close together, and it could be hours before she delivered. She instructed me to return to the exam and take the afternoon session that began at 1 p.m.

Being a good husband, I did as instructed and returned for the afternoon session. Under the testing guidelines, I had to spend one hour in the testing location. I spent one hour and 10 minutes, answered all 60 of the multiple-choice questions and all of the essay questions. I then sped back to the hospital to discover my daughter had been born at 1:15 p.m. The only good thing that came out of my return to the exam site was learning from my scores that I had conditioned. (Editor's note: "Conditioned" meant that he had passed two parts of the exam and 50% of the other two parts and therefore only had to retake the parts he did not pass.)

Kurt W. Meisinger, CPA/ABV
Frankel Zacharia LLC
Omaha, Neb.


In May 1974, while teaching at the University of Texas, I was offered the opportunity to work as a member of the CPA Exam grading team during May and June. I was assigned to help grade one essay question. As I was sitting in the grading room, one examiner spoke up and said a candidate answered his question with this phrase: "Mary had a little lamb." Everyone laughed, and a little later another grader spoke up and said that a candidate answered his question with the phrase "whose fleece was white as snow." Then another examiner spoke up and reported a candidate had written, "You have blown my mind. I give up."

Joseph D. Brophy, CPA/ABV


I remember staying up most of the night before the CPA Exam, which was conducted in a large, open room, with candidates anxiously waiting for the proctor to signal that we could pick up our pencils and open the exam booklet. Seated across from me was a young woman who looked as confident as any candidate could appear under the circumstances. At the appropriate time, the proctor signaled we could now open the exam booklet and begin the exam. Less than five minutes into the exam, the woman across from me stood up, put on her coat, and announced, "I guess I had better look for a different job." She left and never returned.

Phil Straley, CPA/PFS
Straley Lamp & Kraenzlein PC
Alpena, Mich.


Back in 1996, the CPA Exam was a two-day examination. It was on paper, and applicants had to take all four parts at once. It was given twice a year at select locations.

My experience began on a typical South Dakota winter day, with temperatures in the single digits and a steady 20-mph wind blowing. It was invigorating. I arrived at the Ramkota Convention Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., a day early to be there in time to take the test the next morning. My hotel room didn't have any heat, and unfortunately there were no other rooms available because over 300 other individuals taking the examination had the same idea.

I slept in my clothes, winter coat, gloves, and knit cap. When I woke up the next morning, the glass of water I had set next to my bed was frozen solid. I skipped the shower to avoid risking hypothermia. I was nervous, so I skipped coffee, too. I forced down a couple of spoons of dry Cheerios to quell the butterflies in my stomach, plus I didn't want to be the person who had to rush out of the examination to throw up.

I walked over to the large conference room with my clear plastic bag filled with pencils, candy, and gum, ready to do battle. We signed in, had our identification checked, and our bags examined, and we were issued fluorescent green calculators. We filed into the test area, sat down two to a table, received our instructions, and began taking the test. You could hear the sounds of erasers and pencils scratching, blending with the sounds of tables wobbling and exasperated sighs from those trying to remember how to fill out a Schedule R.

About an hour into the exam, the room next to us erupted in laughter and loud applause. Someone had scheduled a sales convention next door. We tuned it out as best we could and soldiered on.

Martin "Skip" Langlois, CPA, CGMA
Director of internal audit
BrickStreet Mutual Insurance Co.
Charleston, W.Va.


I scheduled to take the Business Environments and Concepts section of the CPA Exam on a Tuesday morning at the beginning of a testing window in October 2008. To celebrate taking the exam, I purchased last-minute tickets to see the Boston Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

When I purchased the tickets, the series was tied 1—1, so this was a chance to see the Red Sox win at home. When I received the tickets in the mail on the morning before the game, I noticed I had received tickets to Game 3, not Game 4 like I had purchased, which meant I had tickets to that night's game, which was the night before my exam.

I invited my cousin to come with me and drive so I could finish studying in the car. While I was at the game, I received an email from the ticket seller that said they had noticed their error and were holding the tickets to Game 4 for me.

On exam day, I woke up bright and early, quickly read through my prep materials, and went into the testing center. When the exam was over, I picked up my cousin, drove to Boston, and met up with the seller, who gave me the tickets for Game 4. Unfortunately, the Red Sox lost again and also lost the series. Three months later, I got my test results. I had failed by 3 points.

I ended up passing BEC during the next testing window and was certified eight months later.

Mark DeBonee, CPA
Simsbury, Conn.

Queen Elizabeth 2
Queen Elizabeth 2 (MiPictures/iStock)


I took the CPA Exam in the early 1990s in New York City at the passenger ship terminals on the West Side of Manhattan. For one of the exams in November, the Queen Elizabeth 2 was at berth. At sunset, the ship backed out into the Hudson River to go out to sea. Once the ship got parallel to the West Side Highway, the horn blasted, signaling the start of the journey. We were four hours into the exam and frazzled, with time running out, when everyone still in the passenger ship terminal jumped from the unexpected horn blast!

Scott M. Brenner, CPA
Managing partner
Dylewsky, Goldberg & Brenner LLC
Stamford, Conn.


I sat for the final section of the CPA Exam on a stormy, gloomy day in 1985. We were under a tornado watch. About midway through the exam, when my concentration was at a high point, it was announced that we were now under a tornado warning, and we could opt to leave the exam room for an area designated as a tornado shelter. I immediately made the decision to stay where I was. I was absolutely going to pass this last part and become a CPA. Many of the other candidates made the same decision. A few minutes later, the power went out. I sat at my table in disbelief. We could hear the wind and rain pounding the outside of the building. After a few long minutes, the power was restored, but we were in a large gymnasium-type room with fluorescent lights that seemed to take forever to get back to full strength. Still determined, I hovered over my exam paper in the dim glow and kept going. Thankfully, the tornado did not hit the exam site, and I was happy to open the envelope a few weeks later and see passing results.

Rolanda Waddell, CPA
Vice president and chief accounting officer
Hibbett Sporting Goods Inc.
Birmingham, Ala.


I signed up to take the practice portion of the CPA Exam the day after the November 1992 presidential election. Several months prior, I had attempted to reserve a room at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, Ark., but there were no rooms available. The only available hotel room I could find was outside of Little Rock, which actually turned out to be advantageous. Bill Clinton had won the presidential election, and many of the other CPA candidates had their rooms taken over by the Democratic Party. Many of them didn't get much sleep because they had to drive miles away to find an available hotel room.

Before the exam began, the president of the Arkansas Society of CPAs told us that at 2 a.m. the room we were testing in had been knee-deep in confetti from the Clinton victory celebration the night before, and the convention center staff had done a marvelous job cleaning it and setting it up for the exam. Also, we learned there would be a press conference where Bill Clinton would officially accept the results of the election that afternoon.

After lunch, many of us were sitting on the floor in the hallway waiting to be admitted for the second half of the exam. We had our heads down, reviewing our materials. My husband was sitting next to me on the floor. He nudged me and told me to look. At that moment, Ted Koppel from ABC News, flanked by two bodyguards, walked through the hallway. The CPA candidates were so absorbed with studying; I don't think anyone besides my husband saw him. No one else was looking up.

Judy Reed, CPA
Arkansas State University
Jonesboro, Ark.

Stuart Kessler
Photos courtesy of Stuart Kessler


I was in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Riverside, Calif., when the first two parts of the May 1951 CPA Exam were scheduled. In those days, you could not sit for all four parts unless you had three years of experience, nor could a New York exam candidate sit for the exam in another location outside New York. I had been in the New York Air National Guard since June 1948. We were called to active duty on March 1, 1951. On March 15, we were sent to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside.

I had one huge problem. Since I was a recent Air Force inductee, I had accrued just five days of leave time, which did not provide enough time to travel from California to New York, get home, change into civilian clothes, get to the exam site, sit for the two parts, return home, and then return to my base in California. My first sergeant assisted by approving two three-day passes, one at the beginning of my leave, and one at the end, which I later discovered was illegal.

Next issue: I did not have enough money for a commercial flight home. My commanding officer suggested I try to get a flight from our pilots who were traveling east. I signed on as a working passenger on a flight from my base to Georgia, a 2,000-mile trip in a nonpressurized airplane.

We made it to Georgia in one day. After sleeping that night in Georgia, I was able to get a flight to North Carolina and then one to Newark, N.J. After two-and-a-half days, I was practically home. The exam was a day away.

All I can recall about the CPA Exam was that after I had used both sides of the exam booklet for written answers, a proctor told me that I should have used only one side of the exam booklet. I protested in vain for extra time to rewrite my paper on one side, and at one point shouted, "I came 3,000 miles to sit for this exam!"

The trip back to my California base started with my father driving me to Mitchel Air Force Base on Long Island, where I hoped to obtain passage on a flight heading west. This became impossible, so four other stranded servicemen and I each paid a driver $25 to drive us to Andrews Air Force Base [in Maryland]. After sleeping overnight in a chair at Andrews, I secured a flight to Illinois, and over the next two days, I hitched flights to Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho, and Oakland, Calif., where I was fortunate to get a ride to my home base, arriving two hours before the AWOL deadline.

Fortunately, I passed those first two parts of the CPA Exam.

Stuart Kessler, CPA
New York City

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters, at or 919-402-4077.

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