May 30, 2018

Preparing For—and Passing—the CPA Exam

The Uniform CPA Examination (the exam) is a rigorous, 16-hour, four-part exam that all certified professional accountants must take and pass to be licensed as a CPA.

Exams are offered by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA). As of January 1, 2024, the scope of the exam includes Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) and Taxation and Regulation (REG), and Business Environment and Concepts (BEC). BEC was split into three Discipline exam sections, each four hours long. Candidates select one of the following for their exam: Business Analysis and Reporting (BAR), Information Systems and Controls (ISC) and Tax Compliance and Planning (TCP).

The exam is challenging. According to AICPA, the cumulative pass rate by section for 2023 was as follows: AUD, 46.92%; BEC, 56.52%; FAR, 42.94%; REG, 59.19%.

Since 2008, approximately 28% of candidates pass all four sections on the first attempt according to sources at AICPA.

She Sat for the Exam During Graduate School
Grace Piotrowski passed the CPA exam in September 2021. She approached the exam strategically in every way, from the order in which she took the sections to how she studied.

“I took an unconventional route, but it made sense for me. I was going into my last semester at Northern Illinois University and would reach the required 150 credit hours needed to sit for the CPA exam upon completion of my master’s degree. I had just completed a course in tax, so I decided to take the Regulation exam first since the material would be fresh in my mind. I signed up for Becker CPA Review Service and relied on that a lot,” said Grace.

“I started to study during my winter break. When I got back to school, I would get up at 5 a.m. and study for a few hours before I had to go to class. I attended class from 9 to 12, then went to my part-time job as a graduate assistant from about 12:30 to 4. If I wasn’t scheduled to work that day, I used the afternoon to do any homework that was assigned. Then I’d go home, eat a quick dinner, and study from about 6 in the evening until about 10 or 11 o’clock. Then I’d go to sleep and do it again the next day,” she said.

Grace passed Regulation. “In retrospect, I probably overstudied for that first exam. But I refined my process for the other three sections. I decided I needed to work smarter, not harder,” said Grace.

Security at the Test Site
She described the strict security at the test site. “I had my hair up in a scrunchy. They made me take it out and they checked it to make sure there wasn’t a microphones or camera tucked inside. They made me roll up my slacks and checked my ankles to make sure I wasn’t sneaking something in. They checked my glasses and all of my pockets. And they fingerprinted me. I’m glad I had read the rules about the test site before I got there because I knew sort of what to expect and wasn’t freaked out by it. But the scrunchy check really surprised me,” she said.

“We were given noise cancelling headphones. It was during the pandemic so I was wearing a mask. I felt like I was wrapped in saran wrap,” Grace said. “I’m superstitious. I wore the same outfit for each exam.”

For her second section, she chose to take Audit because she was completing her final financial accounting course her last semester. She took the exam in May after her finals and found out she had passed a few weeks later.

Final Stretch
After graduation, Grace moved back home. She said, “I approached studying like a job. I would study every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and get in 6-8 hours of good studying each day. I took the third section, Financial Accounting, at the end of July and spent all of August studying for the fourth section. I took the BEC section in September.”

Grace was at home when she found out she had passed her final section. She was now a CPA. She described what happened next. “I just started bawling. It was such a relief. Both of my parents are CPAs, so they totally get what’s involved with studying for the exams. I called them up at work and they heard I was crying, and they thought I had failed, but I said, ‘No, these are happy tears.’ We went out for a nice dinner that night. My dad said, ‘Now the real work begins.’”

After following such a rigorous study schedule, does Grace have any advice for others getting ready to prepare for the exams?

“Do what works for you. Fit your study habits to what works for you. I took my exams in the morning because that’s when I work best, but not everyone is like that. I also can’t recommend the Becker study program enough. I thought the preparation and study modules they provided were exceptional. The guy leading the study modules and simulations, and offering tips was named Peter Olinto, and it got to the point that I was hearing his voice in my head. I used the practice tests to identify the areas that were troublesome for me, and I made notes and focused on those. I honestly don’t think I would have passed without Becker,” said Grace.

A Break Before Studying
Neli Peeva graduated with a master’s degree in accounting from The Ohio State University in May 2022. She took some time off to travel to Bulgaria to visit family and started studying in August 2022. She took FAR first, followed by BEC, Audit, and Regulation. Like Grace, Neli also used Becker for test preparation.

“The studying was a lot of repetition. Becker was helpful putting all the information together because there is just so much to review. It was overwhelming at first. Each time I took an exam, I was very nervous. I felt like I had a good grasp overall, but you never know which odd little section the exam might focus on that you really didn’t spend much time reviewing. Getting into the test site to take the exam felt like going through the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) at the airport,” said Neli.

She started at Weiss in July 2023 and took her final exam in August 2023. When she received the notification that she passed, she was relieved it was over.

“I sent an email out to everyone at work that I had passed. I was so happy and got so many messages of congratulations from my co-workers. Everyone was so happy for me,” said Neli.

Making Time to Study
Does Neli have any thoughts about why fewer accounting majors are taking the CPA exams?

She shared, “It is hard to get motivated to jump right back into that studying mode after just graduating. It is maybe just as hard, if not harder, to get motivated to study for the CPA exam while still in college. Many people dive into the working world right after college, but then end up working too many hours with too many other responsibilities in their personal life to be able to set aside time for studying for the rigorous CPA exam. Ultimately, it’s possible that this perfectly qualified person never has the time or the energy to take the exam. I believe that this is the most common scenario.”

About Weiss & Company

Innovative and flexible like the best boutique firms, with the broad selection of services of larger firms, Weiss & Company delivers solutions precisely tailored to your needs.

Stay Connected

Newsletter Signup

For the latest financial news you can use, subscribe to our company newsletter, The Weiss Advisor

Signup Now