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CPA Study Strategy

Updated on May 7, 2013

Passing the CPA exam is not easy. It takes tremendous sacrifice and determination. Above all else, it takes a commitment. Many people have tried to tame the exam, only to find that they simply can’t sustain the effort required to pass it and fall short. Discouraged and frustrated they say things like “I don’t really need it” and try to rationalize their failed attempt. But rest assured, you don’t have to join the long list of 74’s.

While not all of us are blessed with photographic memories or great study habits, I will share my 3 phase approach to not only pass the exam, but do so in less than a year.

Learn the Rules to the Game

You don’t have to master everything, but need to know as much as you can to understand your strengths and weaknesses. The exam is a timed exam and if you know that no matter what, you simply aren’t going to understand derivative accounting, skip it and move on to the next topic. But in order to understand what you know and don’t know, takes tremendous amounts of studying and practice exams.

Before you even register for the exam, I suggest taking Roger CPA cram courses for each section. Each course walks you through 80-90% of the material that will be tested for each subject in a higher level, summary form. Roger provides you some helpful acronyms, but most importantly, he provides the best overview of the exam in the business.

From his cram course, you should be able to break each topic into 2 categories, with a 3rd category for a probability factor. For each topic covered identify:

1) those you know and are familiar with,

2) those you don’t know, have no clue and

3) the emphasis placed on the material during each course.

You will find that some topics ring a bell with something you’ve learned, other are just distant memories you never want to re-live. The goal is, to understand what to study.

Shock and Awe

Once you have your list, its time to get to work. Find your second or third easiest section and take that first. Don’t take the easiest section first, nor the hardest. Why? This is a marathon, not a sprint. If you over-study on the easy exam, you’re more likely to burn out 8 months later when you’re still studying. And what happens if you fail your “easy” exam, that is a huge blow to your confidence, which you will need plenty of. If you take the hardest one first, you likely are spending too much time trying to figure out what will be covered and will likely over study. Get some real experience, tap into the mindset of the test writers. Taking a section that is a stretch but still in reach for you will give you the best evaluation of what you did wrong, and what you did right.

Now that you’ve found that first topic. Study….and I mean, really study. Not 2 hours a night, 5 days a week. I mean, study as much as you can, as often as you can until the exam. Give yourself at least a month and a half to study for that first exam. You can adjust from there, but a solid 180-240 hrs of studying , with an additional 500 questions, should almost guarantee you pass. If you don’t, you’re studying the wrong materials. See my earlier point about categorizing what you know and what you don’t know.

Some helpful hints:

Invest in Yeager CPA video lectures. They are long, they are detailed but they will give you absolutely everything you need to get 75% of the exam correct. They do not, provide you a 100% background and you will miss questions. But learning to pass on the 1 or 2 questions covering a topic you don’t care about or quite honestly, don’t understand will give you time to focus on what you do. Become in expert in what you know, then gain an understanding of what you don’t, and just rely on the videos to fill in the blanks.

One Down, Three to Go

If you’ve passed your first exam, you have an understanding of what it will take to get through the rest. My suggestion, next exam should be your easiest, most proficient section. Give yourself a break and some easier topics to maneuver through. It is still a long way away. You should schedule your second exam while you’re studying for your first exam. Don’t worry if you don’t pass your first exam. That is the tester of the bunch, to gauge what it is going to take.

For the second exam, hopefully you’ve learned where you went wrong…or better yet, what you did right. Continue more of the same for another month and a half. If all goes well, within 4 months, you have 2 of the 4 exams passed.


At this point, with 2 down and 2 to go, given the staggering nature of the scheduling window’s, its unlikely that you can squeeze 3 exams into a 4 month window. It can be done, but lets be honest, if you can do that, you probably aren’t reading articles about passing the CPA because you’re shooting for the 90 th percentile.

The Third Wheel

The third exam should be your most difficult. Find that topic that just makes you wish you never went into accounting, Tax for instance, or Financial Accounting. Because you are at an awkward time in the testing windows, you should have 2 solid months to study and prepare. This is the time to give it your all. Sacrifice, be willing to skip dinners out, happy hours, Saturday nights on the town. You need to spend as much time going over the material until you know what you know and know what you didn’t 2 months prior.

By the third exam, you should have a routine of what material you are using. Are you using Wiley, Roger, Yaeger, Kaplan, etc. Are you studying the book, listening to video lectures or taking live classes. I personally wouldn’t waste my time with mp3’s or audio. The content is just too vague. The only section there is any value would be BEC and only for the law sections, but even then, its more for background noise in the car.

Fourth and Final Exam.

If you have 3 done, including your hardest exam, your final exam should be the home stretch. By now you know those questions to skip, how to leave enough time for the simulations and how to guess logically. If you’re struggling to get to this point, you’re doing something wrong.

Think back to the application process and the hurdles just to even apply. The board is testing you ever step of the way. The hardest section of the CPA exam, is the test of will power to push aside everything else in your life for the exam. Do you want to go out tonight?, Sorry, I have to study. Get used to it, this is the sure-fire way to pass the exam. If you’re thinking about studying or doing something else, you have your answer, study.

Find a Friend

Because it sucks, because it eats away your life and sanity, find a friend to study with. More importantly, find a friend to complain to about how much this seems like the worst idea of your life, and then when you pass, to share the best feeling you’ve had in a long time.


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