Setting Expectations for the “Non-Traditional” CPA Exam Candidate

10 min read

“Non-traditional” is challenging, if not impossible, to define directly. Instead, let’s start by defining a “traditional” candidate as a recent college graduate with a degree in accounting (or related field) seeking or starting in their first professional position. Anyone else is “non-traditional”, whether pursuing accounting as a second career, trying to elevate their career prospects by adding the CPA credential to their resume, or simply driven by a desire to continue to learn and develop.

What are the unique challenges faced by “non-traditional” candidates and how can they successfully meet those challenges? We’ll focus on three:

  1. Strength of Foundation
  2. Study Stamina
  3. Time to Study

1. Strength of Foundation

The CPA Exam is difficult for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the breadth of tested material. Whether due to professional specialization and/or the length of time away from college, “non-traditional” candidates are likely to have pronounced strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Career Path: If your career track has focused on tax, you may be comparably stronger on the Regulation section, but potentially weaker in Financial or Audit. If you’ve worked in corporate accounting, you may have greater capability for Financial, but less familiarity with the other sections.
  2. Time: The length of time you’ve been away from college will also play a factor. The exam is constantly changing thanks to new FASB pronouncementsAICPA audit standards and new tax laws passed by Congress. The longer the span of time between your college classes and CPA Exam, the more changes that you’ll have to catch up on.

As you approach the exam, be aware of the additional preparation time you may have to invest in order to address your specific weaknesses and build that into your preparation strategy.

2. Study Stamina

More than one person has compared preparing for the CPA Exam to running a marathon. The big difference is that although some of us might have run a physical marathon, we’ve all run an academic marathon in completing our college education. During college, we’re conditioned to handle the prolonged duration and high intensity required to be successful.

If I asked you to run a marathon today, however, telling me you ran one ten years ago will be of limited benefit. You’ll likely remember some of your best practices to cope with the rigors of the undertaking, but you can’t just pick up where you left off. The same is true for the academic marathon required to effectively prepare for the CPA Exam.

You can’t just pick up where you left off. You’ll need to work back up to the intensity of study you dealt with day in and day out in college. Make sure to consider this when you decide your study schedule. It may require studying in shorter stretches several times a day rather than a single longer session as you build back your academic stamina.

3. Time to Study

When students ask me about my work-life balance when I started out in public accounting, I answer that it was easy. When I started my career, I had relocated to Atlanta where I really didn’t know anybody. In other words, my life was pretty quiet and it was easy to meet my work commitments and have a great deal of discretionary time left over.

Today, my life is a great deal different! With two young children, personal commitments and my ongoing professional commitments, work-life balance is a great deal more challenging. There is no possible way I could devote the time I did when I initially prepared for the exam given my life today. I would expect many “non-traditional” students to face similar challenges. One more time, you have to be realistic with how much time you can set aside each day, each week and each month for your studies.

The Bottom Line

Hopefully you’ve noticed a theme in terms of the strategies to address some of the common challenges faced by “non-traditional” challenge: realistic planning of your study strategy.

You need to account that you may need additional preparation time on topics you haven’t been exposed to or haven’t seen in some time. You should plan on building up your academic stamina in terms of how long you can study at a stretch. You must consider how much time you can reasonably give to studying each day. If you go in with a well-thought out study plan which includes realistic expectations, you will start yourself off with a plan that maximizes your opportunities for success.

For help building your study plan, try using Becker’s “My CPA Path” tool which provides you with suggestions on what me be a valuable course of action!