CPA Exam advice from top scorers

2016’s Sells Award winners share their best tips for exam success.
By Lea Hart

Corey Shubiak remembers feeling a little overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge needed to pass the CPA Exam.

"My biggest concern was the amount of information covered on the exams," he recalled. "With so many different topics, there are bound to be some that can hinder the confidence of a candidate."

But Shubiak didn't let that stop him.

"The key is to accept those challenges and overcome them, rather than avoiding them," he observed.

Clearly, he had the right attitude. Each year, roughly 100,000 people take the exam, and Shubiak was one of just 58 winners of the 2016 Elijah Watts Sells Award, given annually to candidates who obtain a cumulative average score above 95.50 across all four sections of the Uniform CPA Examination and pass all four sections of the exam on their first attempt.

While the exam can seem overwhelming at the start, a solid plan can help prepare candidates for success. Shubiak, a CPA candidate, and four other Sells Award winners—Sabrina McMullin, CPA, and Chris Parsons, Georgina Prataviera, and Rachel Weeks, all CPA candidates—share their advice for preparing for the CPA exam:

  • Begin preparing as early as possible. As soon as you know you're going to take the exam, start preparing. Shubiak, a graduate of The College of New Jersey now employed with PwC, LLP, decided during his sophomore year of college that he was going to take the exam, and then used each class to prepare for it, he said.
  • "Then going into my exam prep, when I was taking a review course, it was more about filling in gaps of what I didn't know—there weren't many topics that I hadn't seen before," he said.

  • Map a routine. Each exam candidate will need to find his or her own best strategy for studying and preparing, the award winners agree.
  • Parsons, a graduate of Lehigh University now employed at PwC, used a prep course, and said he'd begin studying for a section by looking at which topics would be covered, the exam format, and the topic weights. Various preparation courses provide this information, as does the AICPA's website, including the Exam Blueprints, which provide a comprehensive guide to the exam.

    Parsons said he created a study plan for several days at a time. Rather than map how many hours to study each day, he'd plan for the materials he wanted to cover.

    "I would start and end whenever I got through all that I wanted to get through for the day," he said.

    Prataviera, a graduate of the Universidad Católica de Córdoba, now employed at Deloitte, was working full time when she took the CPA exam, and used a review course as well. She followed a similar pattern as Parsons, but because she was working, instead set aside one to two hours per day to study, as well as time on the weekends. She said she spent one to two months studying for each section.

  • Don't try to take shortcuts. Parsons said he made a checklist of all the topics he needed to study and didn't take any shortcuts.
  • "Even if I knew one topic well, I didn't skip over it," he said. "It would be disappointing to skip the review and then not do well on a topic you thought you knew."

  • But don't get hung up on one question or topic, either. In both studying for and taking the exam, it's important to plan your time well.
  • Parsons noted that, when studying, remember each topic is just one part of the exam.

    "You can feel overwhelmed if you're struggling with one topic, or maybe part of a topic, but it's good to keep the big picture in mind," he said.

    Shubiak said when he struggled with a topic, he'd skip it and complete the rest of the chapter in the review book. Sometimes seeing other subject areas would put the area of struggle into context and make it easier to understand, he said.

    When exam time arrives, give yourself time to answer all questions, said McMullin, a graduate of Nanyang Technological University now employed at YRC Worldwide Inc. Map out how much time you'll spend on each question and try to stick to that plan.

    "Make your best educated guess, and move on," she said. "You don't want to get to the last question and know that you know how to answer the question, but [find that] unfortunately you don't have any more time left to finish it."

  • Take breaks. While Weeks, a graduate of Texas A&M University now employed at EY, said a routine was helpful, she also acknowledged she found her eyes glazing over at times.
  • "If I was reading or listening, and zoning out, I'd give myself a break," she said. "At that point, you're not absorbing it—you're going to get burned out and it's a waste of time to study when your mind can't focus."

  • Plan your test strategy. McMullin said it's important to remember you have an 18-month window to take the exam. Once you pass the first section, the remaining sections must be passed within that 18-month window.
  • Weeks chose to take Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) first because she saw it as the most time-intensive section. She took Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) next because it felt like less memorization of rules to her, and offered a little bit of a break after FAR. She took Auditing and Attestation (AUD) last because she said she felt it was the least time-intensive and gave her a breather at the end.

    Prataviera also took FAR first because she felt it was the most difficult. It offered a confidence boost when she did well on it, she said. Each person should think about what topics are most difficult individually, and that can help determine in which order to take the sections.

    "When you take your last exam, you'll be more tired," she advised. "Save the easiest for last."

  • Looking for more advice? McMullin created a series of videos offering exam advice. Part 1 covers topics to consider before applying to take the exam. Part 2 covers applying for the CPA exam. Part 3 covers study methods and tips.

Developing a strategy and beginning when you decide to take the exam will give you a better chance of success, the award winners agree. Have a routine and a schedule that you stick to, and take it day-by-day.

"The biggest key to passing it is just dedicating yourself," Weeks said.

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article, email senior editor Courtney Vien.

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