As noted in the title, I have worked on the tax side of the public accounting business for over twenty years. The part not in the title is that I am the second generation of my family to work in public accounting. My father has been in the business for over forty years. Therefore, between the two of us, we have seen decades of tax and audit staff passing and failing the exam.
Although there are plenty of places to learn about the subject matter of each exam section, I wanted to pass along a few points you might not hear from other people.
1. Plan to pass the entire CPA exam within two years of starting your career.
My apologies if this seems a little blunt, but there are no exceptions to this rule. (i.e. spouse, family, kids, parents, tax season, audit season). Get it done. Once you move beyond two years, you are going to have too many responsibilities in your personal life and at work to devote the time needed to pass the exam. I know outstanding tax preparers that would make great tax managers that are tax seniors because they did not pass the exam in their first two years.
2. Take the hardest part of the exam first.
Which part is hardest? Each person is different. That decision is up to you. But many people that I have seen never pass the exam fall into the same trap. They want to pass a couple of “easy” parts first to learn how the exam works. They will get to the hard parts “later”.
In theory, that sounds like a good idea. But the current exam rules are set up that you lose parts of the exam you have passed if you do not get through the whole exam within a certain period of time. Therefore, if it takes you two or three attempts to pass your hardest section then you will lose credit for some of the earlier sections that you passed. Nothing is more heartbreaking for a manager than to see one of their staff go from three parts of the CPA exam passed to zero. Don’t let this happen to you.
3. Take a review class for auditing.
Maybe as a tax person I am a little biased. But from my experience, most staff do not feel that their auditing course in college came close to preparing them for the CPA exam. My belief is that you should take a review course such as Becker or Kaplan for all of them (Why risk five years of college by being cheap on your review course?) but at least take one for auditing to learn what memorize for the exam.
4. Use index cards for notes.
No, I don’t mean the preprinted ones you buy from a CPA review course (although no review material is bad). I am taking about plain 5 x 7 index cards on which you can write lists/notes on topics that you need to learn or memorize for the exam. There are going to be times that you do not want to lug out the books or your eyes are tired from staring at a computer screen. But you can pull out your index cards while watching TV or sitting outside and slowly learn key pieces of information. Also, I think you will be surprised by how much you learn from having to summarize the key information from your review materials on the cards.
Good luck on the exam.
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