• Nikki Winston, CPA

How to Study for the CPA Exam While Working Full-Time


Work. Study. Repeat.

If you’re like me and don’t have the luxury of staying home to study full-time, it can be tough trying to manage both. Preparing for the CPA exam, like your job, can be exhausting. If you opt for a self-paced course, studying is probably the last thing on your mind after working all day. I’ve tried just about every format available and can attest. The live classes helped my learning but about halfway through the class the law of diminishing returns is in full effect. Some employers fully support studying, even covering costs while others not so much. Some may even feel like studying is a distraction to your performance (that’s another conversation for another day). It’s important for you to keep performing well in your job while you tackle the CPA. If you’re struggling to find time to study because of work, check out these 5 tips that worked for me and can work for you too!


Pack your lunch. I remember one time wanting a black bean burger so bad that I stood in the cafeteria line for over 20 minutes. Standing there, scrolling Instagram (basically, doing NOTHING) waiting to get my to-go box with my burger and extra avocado. I was pissed because it wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be. I was equally pissed at myself for wasting that much time waiting for food. What could I have done with 20 minutes?! A HIIT workout, took a nap or practiced a bunch of MCQs. Bring your lunch to work. Not only will you save money (and hopefully make better food choices) but you can plop down in an empty conference room or in the cafeteria and squeeze in a study session.


Take advantage of your commute. If you take public transit, this is a great time to do some reinforcing of what you’ve been studying. Instead of scrolling on your phone, use that time to study flashcards. If you drive, turn on an audio session and listen to a lecture. Even if you don’t have access to course lectures YouTube has a plethora of video explanations on exam topics. Granted it’s not as exciting as your favorite radio show or podcast but the journey to CPA requires some sacrifice. On average, people spend 2–3 hours per day commuting — which can be as much as 15 hours per week working a full-time job. Imagine what you can learn if you spent those hours studying instead of scrolling on your phone.


Use flashcards. Most review sessions include flashcards for an additional fee but what if they don’t touch on the areas you need to study most? I made my own because the “standard” flashcards that come with many review sessions were less relevant to what I was studying. They either summarized content that I needed to dive deeper into or included a lot of minutia. If you’re struggling with a particular topic, flashcards are a great way to master topics and do so regardless of where you are — like the commuter train (hint). They are also very cost-effective. I paid a couple hundred dollars for flashcards that didn’t work for me — only to go to Target and pay $2 for a large pack of index cards and make my own.


Stay late. Ironically, this works. If you’re a parent or have other obligations, sometimes staying late at work to study can be a great thing for your productivity. After 5pm most offices are close to empty which means fewer distractions. I found that staying late gave me the calm I needed to get through studying. On the days where I wasn’t chaffeuring kids to football or gymnastics, I studied at my office. And on the days we did have extra-curriculars, I brought my flashcards and studied in the bleachers.


Do your work and do it well. If you work in accounting now, that’s great for 2 reasons: first, you’re getting PAID to do your work so do it well. Second, “more likely than not” (MCQ jargon) you will find things in your job that can help facilitate your studying. For example, if you are a staff accountant recording journal entries, think about what impact those journal entries are having on the financial statements. Besides saying “I’m debiting an expense and crediting a payable” what are you actually doing? Why is this entry recorded this way? If a manager asked you about the entry what would be your response? If you work in public accounting, that’s great on-the-job learning for the audit section. Thinking through these things is the same mindset you need to be in when answering actual exam questions.


It’s doable because I did it. A demanding job, 2 kids, a household, a husband and much more. It’s hard but it was so worth the struggle.


Is this your current situation? How have you managed working, studying and everything else you have going on?


~N

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©2020 by Nikki Winston, CPA.