Overcoming CPA Exam Struggles: 5 Things to Keep In Mind
I was just playing around with the CPA exam back then. 12 years ago my son was a baby and I was starting a new job - there was no time to study. I was already overwhelmed and I knew how tough it would be trying to study all the time. I wanted it but not bad enough to put anything else on my plate at the moment. How bad do you want that CPA credential? It's a struggle like no other that took me 13 times to figure out what it takes to pass FAR, audit, REG and BEC.
As a "CPA Candidate" I was in awe of other CPAs, especially those that looked like me and often wondered what #CPALife was like. Maybe it wasn’t much different from mine - I had a great job and I knew accounting, one day I’ll pass the CPA exam and get my license and it’ll make sense. Again, I wanted it but not bad enough to put in the work at that moment.
I kept wondering until one day, thanks to my NABA fam, my fellow board members talked me out of my excuses. So what are you waiting on? It's too much going on at work. What are you waiting on? My kids are small, they need my undivided attention. A third time: So what are you waiting on? I'm already overwhelmed. What WAS I waiting on? I didn't have an answer, at least not 1 that satisfied the excuses I was making. They held me accountable and most importantly supported me as I discovered my WHY. I enrolled in a CPA exam review course and waited for my NTS. This is really about to happen! I’m not sure if I was more excited or uneasy about what was next. Here's how it went down . . .
I was too busy at work + now had 2 babies at home. Doing this means there will be days when I’m going straight from work to class and I won’t get to pick my kids up or hang out with friends or have weekly lunch dates with my husband because my lunch hours became CPA exam study sessions because there’s not enough time in the day. *insert exhausted overwhelmed busy mom sigh here*
I started with FAR - the highs of passing on the first try quickly turned to defeat when I failed audit. It was cool though, I was still going to pass all 4 sections in 6 months to say I’m a CPA. Passed a few more, failed a lot more and lost credit in some clutch moments. I purchased full and partial courses from multiple providers and still couldn’t figure out why my strategies were minimally effective.
Remember my FAR credit? It expired so my options were to (1) pass FAR on retake and be done with exams or (2) fail FAR and lose credit for REG and audit. I had to wing it otherwise my audit would expire in a few weeks. I hadn’t looked at FAR content in over a year and my effort showed up as a 59. To go from being 1 score away from CPA to being knocked down to 1 BEC credit was gut wrenching. I’m done with this, not torturing myself anymore, all the time and invites I’ve missed, the CPA just isn’t for me.
That lasted all of 2 days. I felt like I was allowing myself to be defeated. Why is it so hard to learn something I love?! There’s always an obstacle in my way - it’s hard out here for black moms. Despite all that, I wasn’t content with that ending. That’s not who I am.
This time around, something had to change. I went back to all those courses I’d invested in - the colorful page highlights, mnemonics, the practice questions, and pre-made flashcards. What was I not getting? What makes these simple concepts so hard to digest?
The things swirling in my mind: I’m actually gonna do this stuff one day. I need to know how this looks in real accounting life. My favorite undergrad accounting course at THE Ohio State University was taught by professor David Williams where he taught us accounting from the newspaper. What will the journal entries look like when Sears and Kmart merge? What kind of transaction was this? This is all business combination and intercompany accounting in FAR.
Being able to relate what’s happening in the world to what I’m learning in the classroom made me want to learn more. Restarting meant I’d be applying for my 11th NTS so something had to change. I downloaded real financial statements and made highlights there. I subscribed to WSJ, made my own flashcards and watched a whole lot of CNBC. It started to make sense. I applied a real-world approach to my studying and got those 3 credits back in 6 months.
And that shit felt good. As I write this I’m reminded of that moment around 3am on June 28, 2018 when I finally had credit for all 4 sections at the same time. I screenshotted it just in case because....because it took a minute to process. Congratulatory letter, wallet-size credential, and the coral frame that outlines my plaque on the wall.
Taking that leap meant long nights, overwhelming days, and frustrating moments thinking I’d never finish. To say it was a learning experience understates the pivotal moments of personal growth that occurred over those 1,373 days.
As testing centers reopen and you shift your exam and study schedules, think about these things:
1. Support is key. Having people around who understand and empathize with the journey you're on takes some of the sting away of doing it alone and having to explain why you are retaking an exam you've already passed - that shit gets exhausting. Being able to overanalyze your score or cry after that 2nd fail goes a long way. When I "quit" the CPA exam for about 2 days, it was my husband who let me cry and vent and reminded me of how capable I was to pass this exam. At the office I had colleagues who shared their experiences and lended an ear when I needed it. Of course you must also believe that you can do this - it's starts with your mindset.
2. Focus less on getting through 500 practice questions and more on learning CPA exam concepts. How do transactions impact financial statements? What’s the relationship between the involved accounts? How does COGS behave when revenue changes? Is that change directionally correct? What components drive that behavior? Purchase discounts, a prior month overaccrual, etc. Think about qualitative understanding here too, not just numbers.
3. You don't have to know everything on the CPA exam. The highest possible CPA exam score is a 99 - you can't even get 100! There's no expectation for you to know everything, but you must rely on your professional judgement and due diligence to take information you have and formulate a logical answer. Don't sleep on the exceptions to accounting rules or remembering what to add or subtract when reconciling net income to the cash flow statement. The CPA exam is not designed to torture you, it's testing your understanding of accounting rules and scenarios you'd encounter in a real setting.
4. You will get to the end. It’s a short term sacrifice for a long term gain. You can’t skirt around the work so just do it.
5. Remember your WHY. It takes mental fortitude to get through this. You need support along the way. I’m inviting you to join my private CPA Exam Accountability Group. Ask a CPA about study tips, career options, and the struggle of working and studying. Plus build your network now and meet fellow CPA candidates on this journey with you.
When I finally finished I had sat for FAR, Audit, and BEC three times and REG four times. Passing all 4 sections of the CPA exam took every bit of 1,373 days and it was 1 of the first blog posts I wrote. I appreciate that struggle because it led me to share my experiences with other CPA candidates and create CPA exam review courses that are proven to help you understand accounting concepts. There's a ton of CPA exam resources on my website. Go now!!!