9 Accounting Exam Tips to Help You Pass Your First CPA

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In the ascent to becoming a practicing accountant, CPA is the pinnacle, universally viewed as the gold standard of accounting certifications.

To attain it, however, you have to take the exam. Typical made up of four parts and composed of multiple choice questions as well as written responses, the CPA exam is challenging, but you can pass it by adequately preparing yourself and taking the time to review important accounting concepts in the run-up to test day.

Accountant in business attire smiling, studying for accounting exam on a desktop computer.

One way to fully prepare yourself is through the online Master of Accounting program from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business. In addition to the professional advantages that come with earning a graduate degree from an accredited institution, the program can be taken at your own pace since it’s 100% online, and supply you with the accounting exam tips you need to work the problems out before putting pencil to paper. While a master’s degree isn’t required to take the CPA exam, UAB’s Master of Accounting program can provide you with the tools, insights, and study guides you need, taught by a distinguished faculty of award-winning accounting industry experts.

In the meantime, here are a few recommendations for studying accounting concepts so you can take the CPA exam with confidence and composure, two keys to achieving high marks and increasing your career opportunities:

1. Know What to Expect

Before getting into some of the more practical and leverageable accounting exam tips, it’s important to get a better understanding of what the test entails. As detailed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the CPA exam consists of four unique sections, and those sections are broken down into smaller sections, or “testlets.” Test-takers are given four hours to complete each of the four parts, which are designed to represent fundamental accounting principles. They include:

  • Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
  • Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
  • Regulation (REG)

You must achieve a score of at least 75 on a scale of 0 to 99 on each section to pass.

In 2020, test takers performed the best on BEC, with an average of nearly 62% passing on the first try, according to AICPA data. Approximately 55% of aspiring CPAs passed REG, with an average pass rate of roughly 48% and 46% for AUD and FAR, respectively.

2. Study with Purpose and Conviction

Whether you choose a study group or prefer to hit the books independently, the most important element of all is that you take the time to study. As the 2020 pass rates suggest, receiving a 75 or better is not a given. In other words, attending class in college will likely not be enough to adequately prepare you.

Therefore, it’s critical to carve out as much time as possible to consistently study the material. Of course, you won’t know exactly what all the questions will include, but you can get a better sense of the content by downloading a uniform CPA Examination Blueprint from AICPA’s website. Here is a basic breakdown of what’s in the study materials:

  • Sample task statements that serve as examples of what you could be asked about
  • Reference materials that align with the statements
  • A series of multiple choice questions, task-based simulations, and written communication responses

The CPA Exam Blueprint also explains how scores are weighted and tallied in each of the four sections. In essence, this asset should be viewed as a set of homework problems that can help you practice and get a better feel for what to expect come test day.

3. Don’t Wait Too Long to Take the Exam

When kids return from their summer vacation, their ability to recall information they’ve learned in the previous school year is more challenging. The time away from the material and not regularly using it is the reason why.

While the curriculum from a bachelor’s or master’s degree gives you the foundation to build upon and establish leverageable skill sets, they’re best used soon after you complete the program, or even if you’re in the midst of it. Because you’re practicing and learning key terms and core processes of accounting, it’s easier to recall relevant information that you’ll be tested on.

Whether you decide to wait until you obtain your graduate degree to take the CPA test or plan to schedule it during the program is up to you, but the online Master of Accounting curriculum through UAB is uniquely designed to prepare you for the test. From Principles of Accounting to Income Taxation and Business Law for Accountants, the offered courses can give you the solutions and competencies needed to get you ready for the accounting exam.

4. Don’t be Afraid to Ask Questions

CPA is a highly desirable certification, one that millions of Americans have successfully pursued over the years, with an estimated 658,267 actively licensed as of September 2020, according to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (not including Hawaii or Utah). That means lots of people have taken the test before, perhaps more than you realize. Since they can speak from experience about the test and what it was like for them, don’t be afraid to ask licensed CPAs for help. They should be able to provide you with some added context that may help you study better, develop a strategy to rework problems that are tricky, or take steps they took to fully prepare. Whomever you approach may also be able to give you accounting exam tips on what not to do based on their experience.

5. Use Your Test Time Wisely

While four hours per section may seem like a lot, the time goes by quickly given the number of questions. For example, in the FAR section, 66 are multiple choice, on top of several task-based simulations.

If you struggle with a certain question, it’s better to move on to the next one rather than wait until you come up with the correct answer. Each minute is precious and should be fully taken advantage of.

6. Remember to Take All of the Test Sections Inside of 18 Months

Given that each section is as long as it is, it’s common for test takers to space out when they take each one. It’s up to you which one to take first; just be sure you do them all within 18 months. The clock starts ticking on that year-and-a-half window as soon as you finish the first section.

It’s critical to keep this in mind because waiting any longer will nullify the test(s) you did take; in other words, you’ll have to take them again.

7. Take the Most Challenging Section Before the Others

Since there is no specific order to the CPA accounting exam, you may wonder which one you should take first. Everyone differs in terms of what they’re most comfortable with and what they prefer to do when handling tasks. You may want to do the hardest one first. Generally speaking, the section that tends to be the most challenging is Financial Accounting and Reporting. In the first quarter of 2020, approximately 46.3% passed FAR, the lowest of all, behind AUD (47.9%), REG (55.4%), and BEC (61.7%).

Many people prefer to get the toughest tasks out of the way first: If this includes you, consider taking FAR before all the others. You may want to ask a trusted friend, co-worker, or colleague to see if they agree that this section was the hardest and whether taking it first makes sense.

8. Trust Your Study Process Above All

That said, it’s important not to over-rely on what other people think you should do and follow their advice to the letter. There can be a tendency to get too focused on the details of a CPA exam and needing to know every aspect of what’s involved. This can result in “paralysis by analysis” and may cause you to second-guess yourself as to whether your strategy is best or if you should follow your friends’ advice.

No one knows you better than you do. It’s smarter to stick with what process works for you than use the guidance of someone else who has taken the test, but whose strategy isn’t in keeping with your style.

9. Schedule the Test During a Period Where You Thrive

As noted by CPA preparation provider Roger CPA Review, everyone knows of a time of day where they’re in their element and are firing on all cylinders. Whatever that happens to be for you — morning, mid-afternoon, or evening — schedule the test within that period.

If a CPA test is in your future, an online Master of Accounting from UAB can get you fully prepared. Download the free brochure at the program’s website to learn more.

Recommended Reading


Master’s in Accounting Salary and Job Opportunities


AICPA CPA Exam Overview

AICPA: How to Prepare for the CPA Exam

NASBA: How Many CPAs in the US?

CPA Exam: What Exam to Take First and Why

UWorld Roger CPA Review: 10 Lesser Known Facts About Passing the CPA Exam