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How Hard is the CPA Exam & How to Pass It

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How Hard is the CPA Exam & How to Pass ItBeing a CPA and CFP, I frequently get asked by accounting and finance students and recent graduates how to pass the CPA and/or CFP Exam on their first try.  I’ll focus on the CPA exam in this article.

Fortunately, you do not need to be a rocket scientist to pass the CPA Exam, and yes, you can pass it on your first try if you prepare appropriately.

In my opinion, you only need to do two things to pass this exam (actually four separate exams) on your first try:

1.  Use the best available CPA Exam review materials, and

2. Put in enough time studying to master the materials before taking each exam.

That’s it.

Use the Best CPA Exam Review Materials

The best CPA exam review materials take an enormous amount of data (think of all the information you learned in school regarding taxes, auditing, financial accounting, IT, business law, etc) and condense it so that you are only studying what will be tested.

Think of how impossible it would be to pull out all of your accounting text books and try to decide what to focus on (I never opened a single college text book when studying for the CPA exam).  This will be done for you in a concise and simple format.  All you have to do is put this information in your brain.  Remember, the purpose of a CPA exam review course isn’t to teach you everything there is to know about accounting, it’s to teach you what you need to know to pass the CPA exam.

The best CPA Exam review materials also take potentially complex issues and simplify them so that anyone can understand them.  I firmly believe that even somebody who has never taken an accounting course in their life could pass the CPA Exam if they used the very best review materials and put in the time.  To be fair, they would obviously have to study much longer than someone with an accounting background.

The best review materials will also make the information easy to remember.  Their materials contain acronyms, funny rhyming sayings, and other ways of remembering key points.  Some of these are so memorable that you will probably remember them years after passing the exam.

The best CPA review course providers have a good collection of practice problems, many of which will be similar or even identical to problems you will see on the exam.  On every exam I took, there were at least four or five problems that were identical to ones I had already practiced.  Many of the other questions were not identical but very similar.  Test problems are occasionally released to the public, and the best review course providers use many of these for test takers to practice on.  Fortunately for all of us, many old problems are recycled and used again.  I cannot emphasize enough the importance of practicing as many practice problems as possible.

Finally, the best CPA exam review course providers can make studying boring material bearable.  Let’s be honest here, most of us would rather pluck out our own eye with a fork rather than study this material.  The best review courses make the material come alive and even entertaining.

What Are The Best CPA Exam Review Materials?

There are a lot of quality companies out there that provide CPA exam review materials, so you have a lot of choices.  However, not all CPA exam review courses and materials were created equally–trust me on this one.

With so many choices, many people have no idea which materials or course to choose.  After having done a fair amount of research on the various materials and providers, I would definitely recommend the Surgent CPA Review Course to most people.

Surgent boats an 89.7% pass rate.  Need I say more?  Given that less than 20% of applicants pass all four exams on their first try, that number is quite impressive.  I also really like the following:

  • Unlimited access to the materials until you pass
  • It’s adaptive learning technology assesses your knowledge and guides your studying towards the areas you are struggling with
  • Top instructors
  • Free trial
  • Mobile compatible
  • More than 350 video lectures
  • Very high quality materials at a fair price

I especially like the adaptive learning technology that Surgent uses.  This is very important in my opinion.  Certain concepts will be tested over and over again on the same CPA exam.  If you are struggling with one of those concepts, being able to identify the concept and focus your study on it (which many students struggle to do on their own) until you master it could mean the difference between passing and failing the exam.  You need a minimum score of 75 to pass each exam.  A close relative of mine passed all 4 of his CPA exams on the first try with scores of 75, 75, 75, 76 (he jokes that he over-studied).  Not understanding one or two crucial concepts could have caused him to fail every single one of his exams.

I also like the fact that the total cost of the Surgent CPA Review Course is very reasonable and well below the industry average (some review courses, such as Becker, cost significantly more).

I would generally recommend purchasing the most updated version of the materials to ensure that what you are studying is still accurate, and that you are fully prepared for your exams.  Accounting rules and regulations change often, as does the format and content of the CPA Exam.

Surgent CPA Review

Devote The Necessary Time

The amount of time needed to study in order to pass the exam will vary by person according to the amount of knowledge they already have, how quickly they learn, and how good they are at retaining information.  Don’t take an exam before you are reasonably ready.  However, once you have mastered the information in your study materials, have gone through all of the practice questions a few times, have practiced the simulations and are comfortable with the software, then go take the exam.

My Experience

Using the simple strategies I mention above, I passed all four CPA exams on my first try.  You need a minimum of 75% to pass each exam, and my scores were 88%, 91%, 85%, and 80% (I quickly realized that I was over studying and decided to put forth less effort on the last two exams, as the exams are pass/fail).

I am a person of very average intelligence (according to my wife that may even be overly generous), but passing the four exams was not overly difficult since my review materials told me what to study and I didn’t take an exam until I really understood the material.  I passed three of the exams during my final year in college and my fourth exam shortly after starting full time employment.  I recommend getting these exams out of the way as soon as possible so that you can concentrate more on your job and personal life going forward.

I hope you have found these insights helpful.  I probably told you nothing new, but hopefully I have boosted your confidence in your ability to pass the exams.  If nothing else, remember that the material tested on the CPA Exam is not overly difficult, there is just a lot to learn and remember.  If you use the very best CPA Exam preparation materials (which will tell you what to study), such as the Surgent CPA Review Course and study them until you have mastered the information, then you can rest assured that you will pass the exam.  This approach worked for me and many others I know, and I believe it can work for just about anyone.

I personally know hundreds of people that have taken the CPA exam.  Without exception, the people I know who did not pass all four exams on their first try, or who never passed it at all, either were not using the very best review materials available or simply hadn’t invested the time to really learn the material.

Let’s be honest here–studying for and taking the CPA exams multiple times is not very fun, it’s time consuming, and it’s expensive.  Failing to pass the CPA exam and not becoming a CPA can also be a significant hindrance to your career, future earning potential, and professional opportunities.

You might get lucky using below par review course materials or not putting in enough time studying, but why risk it when so much is on the line?   I wish you all the best on your upcoming CPA exams!!

What are your thoughts about how to pass the CPA Exam?  What was your experience like when you took the exam?  What other strategies did you use?  Leave a comment below!

Image: Maridav/bigstock


{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Hannah January 24, 2015, 5:14 pm

    I am interested in the accounting/CPA field and an currently doing a lot of research on it trying to decide if it is right for me. So far I like it. But I was wondering just out of curiosity, what was your GPA in high school?

    • LD February 7, 2015, 12:26 pm

      That’s great. Taking some accounting classes (if you haven’t already) can also help you see whether it is something you enjoy or not. To answer your question, I had a really good GPA in high school–not because I’m really smart but rather because I studied harder than many of my peers. However, even if your high school GPA is/was less than stellar, don’t let that hold you back from trying to become a CPA. I think anyone of average intellect can pass it if they use good materials and study hard.


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