CPA Exam study tips from top scorers

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After four years of college, two of which were dedicated to an accounting major, you're ready to officially become a CPA. You just have to pass the CPA Exam, which consists of four sections taken within 18 months.

Oh, and studying for it requires an average of 350 to 450 hours.

Sound daunting? You wouldn’t be the first to feel overwhelmed by the volume of work needed to prepare for the exam. Conquering the concepts is critical to scoring well on the exam, but so is creating a realistic study plan and holding yourself accountable to that schedule. This is why we asked seven of the 2021 Elijah Watt Sells Award winners—who also completed the Becker CPA Exam Review—for their advice on how to optimize your studying for peak performance. 

What is the Elijah Watt Sells Award? 

The Elijah Watt Sells Award is given to CPA candidates who: 

  • Earned an average score above 95.50 across all four sections of the CPA Exam.
  • Completed testing during the calendar year.
  • Passed all four sections on their first attempt.

For context, you only need a minimum score of 75 to pass the CPA Exam. As of May 2022, only about 50% of candidates who have taken the exam this year have passed, which means it’s common for candidates to retake sections. 

You don’t need the Watt Sells Award credential to have a successful and fulfilling accounting career, but it can certainly turn heads if you do. For 2019 award recipient Adam Moscovich, having that title on his resume was a positive way to get noticed and network, especially as a new employee: “The Watt Sells Award helped me make a name for myself and start to know people. I even had leadership reaching out to congratulate me.”

Prepping for the exam tests you in more ways than one, such as with your knowledge of the subject matter, grit, and ability to manage your time. This exam is meant to challenge you, but don’t let it break you. Below are some key tips from our interviewees on how to master the material and handle your stress. 

CPA Exam tips from Watt Sells winners

Set a realistic study plan

As an undergraduate student, you’ve already had a few years of experience overseeing your course load. The CPA Exam is no different, albeit on a much bigger, yet condensed, scale. 

Sydney Ferguson applied what she learned about time management in school by planting her CPA Exam date “flag” well in advance. This gave her plenty of time to study for the exam. She then leveraged the Becker study planner tool to provide a framework for her study schedule, feedback on areas of improvement, and regular progress reports on her exam readiness.

Similarly, Scott Haveman learned how to set realistic time-on-task for himself by going through the review program’s chapters and modules. This helped him budget his time according to his own pace: “Once you have a plan for which chapters and modules will be completed each day or week, it is a matter of sticking to the plan.”

Use school as a stepping stone

For Megan Hartley and Ariadna Rodriguez Villamizar, their best time management hack was taking advantage of when they had the most time—while still in school. Hartley found that approaching her undergraduate classes as part of her CPA Exam prep gave her a leg up when it came time to study for the exam. While “Becker did a great job of touching on all of the content areas,” she highlighted how beneficial it was “to have seen and worked through the material in the classroom beforehand.”

Starting your CPA Exam studying while in school has another benefit: easy networking for study groups. Rodriguez Villamizar worked through tough exam concepts and kept herself accountable by finding study partners. Not only was it helpful to have a sounding board, but it was also a way to encourage each other to persevere. 

Regardless of when you decide to take the exam, Becker has multiple Facebook study groups to join for anyone enrolled in our CPA Exam Review program. This is a seamless way to build your support system by connecting with over 54,000 group members who are going through the same experience as you.

For best results, wash, rinse and repeat

You don’t get “game-day ready” without practicing being in game-like scenarios. This is why test simulation and multiple-choice-question drills worked so well for Maha Haque. This approach helped Haque ingrain knowledge while strengthening test-taking “muscle memory.” She not only became comfortable with the exam structure and wording, but she also learned how to pace herself under pressure. 

But here’s the thing: You won’t get every question right. You might even get a lot of them wrong—that’s totally OK. The goal as you work through the CPA Exam Review is to tackle your performance with a growth mindset, which reinforces progress and leads to results. For example, Gabriel Galanti asked himself the following questions after his first exam: 

  • What went well?
  • What could be better?
  • What topics do I need to focus on next?

Reflecting honestly on these questions informed how he recalibrated his study plan moving forward, which he attributed to his success. 

Beat burnout with breaks

All seven interviewees agreed: Make time for your physical and mental well-being to avoid burnout and optimize knowledge retention. 

It may sound counterintuitive to not dedicate every waking moment to studying. Still, this year’s winners emphasized how regularly walking away from their studies was good for their performance in the long run. “Refill your cup” by taking breaks throughout the day, going for daily walks, exercising, and seeing friends and family. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so sticking to a balanced routine is the key to success.

For instance, some people can sit and focus for long periods of time, while others need frequent breaks. If you identify with the latter, try the Pomodoro Technique, which breaks up your focus time into 25-minute increments, followed by five-minute breaks. For every four completed sections of focus time, you earn a 15- to 20-minute break. This works well if you:

  • Are easily distracted (hello, iPhone notifications).
  • Are overly optimistic or ambitious about how much you can accomplish.
  • Need an external force to keep you on track. 
  • Like a rewards-based system. 

If you’re naturally a morning person or night owl, you can also adjust your study routine to optimize for when your brain is the most receptive to high-attention work. While early risers perform best by tackling their most challenging work in the morning, night owls wouldn’t do so until much later in the day or evening. Likewise, when you’re starting to crave that second cup of coffee, it probably means it’s time to shift to easier work, like checking email or administrative tasks. 

Understanding that you’re not a robot, and that your brain naturally goes through ups and downs throughout the day, can help you create a study routine that’s healthy and customized to your needs. Haque said it best: “Do whatever works for you. Just make sure that you are kind to yourself!”

One size fits one

Over the last 14 years, more than 90% of Watt Sells Award winners have prepared for the CPA Exam with Becker. And nearly all the Watt Sells Award winners we interviewed who completed our review program have worked for or are currently employed at the top five accounting firms in the nation. While your personal career goals may differ from theirs, it’s proof that the Becker CPA Exam Review produces results that align with the expectations of the top-ranked accounting firms in the country. 

Studying for the CPA Exam is an intense investment of your time and resources. This is why we’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting for you by developing and organizing:

  • Detailed lesson plans delivered in fun and engaging ways by our dedicated instructors.
  • Extensive libraries full of content and practice questions that accommodate different learning styles.
  • AI-powered assessments that analyze your progress in real time and tailor your practice tests to your learning needs.

In the same vein, we provide scholarships and financially inclusive payment plans to enable all candidates to take advantage of our program, regardless of circumstances. 

You got this

If you wanted to learn accounting principles, you’d get a textbook or practice exams. 

If you wanted to see what the CPA Exam is like, you’d find a workbook of past exams. 

But you’ve come this far not to just come this far.

Passing the CPA Exam is something to be proud of, and being a Watt Sells Award recipient is just the cherry on top. But if you want to be “game-day ready,” you’ll need teammates and coaches on your side to help you land those three letters you’ve been chasing since college: CPA. Through the process, you’ll develop confidence in your accounting acumen, as well as in your ability to persevere and achieve future professional milestones.

Start preparing for game day with the support of Becker CPA Exam Review.

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