Whether you’re studying for the certified public accountant (CPA) exam for the first time or the fifth, it’s natural to be a little nervous. As one of the key steps to earning your CPA certification, the test carries a lot of weight.
Know the CPA exam requirements
Understanding the registration and scheduling process can help you feel more prepared before you even start studying. Each state's board of accountancy sets the requirements for certification and facilitates CPA exam registration and scheduling.
Because each state's requirements, forms and deadlines vary, refer to this state-by-state list (and check back regularly for the most current information). When you register for the CPA exam, it could take up to eight weeks to receive your Notice to Schedule (NTS), which allows you to set your examination time. When you schedule your exam, consider the time of day when you will be most alert, as well as which day of the week is most convenient for you.
Understand the format of the test
The Uniform CPA certification exam consists of four parts, which can be taken at the same time or scheduled separately, within an 18-month time frame. Each section has its own three- or four-hour time limit:
- Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) — 3 hours
- Auditing and Attestation (AUD) — 4 hours
- Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) — 4 hours
- Regulation (REG) — 3 hours
Each section consists of "testlets" that can include multiple-choice questions, task-based simulations and written communication tasks. Familiarizing yourself with the typical question format and wording by taking practice exams will help you maximize your time when taking the exam.
Practice with the software
The CPA exam employs word processing and spreadsheet software that, while similar to standard commercial versions, has its own quirks. Taking practice exams will help you familiarize yourself with the software and feel more comfortable on test day.
Study, study, study
Taking the CPA exam is one of the most important steps in your accounting career. When you begin studying, you may find it helpful to develop a study schedule. Use a calendar and plan your test dates and study days, block out important family and work events, as well as add breaks and rewards when you reach study milestones. Whether you plan to study one hour a day or eight, set a schedule and stick to it.
Many candidates find CPA exam preparation programs helpful to focus their study and provide a plan for progressing through the material. Some of the most popular exam preparation programs include those offered by Becker, Roger CPA Review and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). The AICPA also provides a search feature for CPA exam preparation programs on its ThisWaytoCPA website. Test prep programs can help you decipher which areas of the test will require extra review time and which you’ve already mastered.
Heed the warnings of this tell-all writer — 5 Ways to Fail the CPA Exam (Like I Did).
Think outside the library
While blocks of study time in a quiet place are certainly beneficial, you can also study in nontraditional locations. Consider downloading study materials on your phone, tablet or laptop so you can take your studying on the go. You can also use social media — LinkedIn, Facebook, or even Twitter — to connect with fellow exam candidates to ask questions, review tough material or even share a quick study break.
Take care of yourself
Regardless of how busy your schedule may be, don't forget to get adequate sleep, exercise and nutrition. If you find your attention wandering during long study sessions, taking a walk or going for a swim can help you refocus. Exercise in particular has been shown to reduce stress and improve learning and memory recall.
Reach out to others
No matter where you live, you can find other candidates preparing to sit for the CPA exam as well as certified CPAs to assist you. Joining your state CPA society is a good way to meet colleagues and find a supportive community to answer your questions, both before and after the CPA exam.
You'll also want to make sure your friends and family are aware of your study plans and exam dates. Studying will likely impact your social life, and having the support of those closest to you can help you remember your goals and get through the exam prep with your sanity intact. Remember to also balance your studying with your social life — giving yourself a break to enjoy time with friends or family can help you return to studying energized and refreshed.
Prepare for the big day
A day or two before your exam, drive to your designated testing center to familiarize yourself with the best route. You may even consider asking a friend or family member to drive you to the exam testing facility so you can focus on your test.
The night before, lay out everything you need to take with you, including your NTS, two forms of ID and earplugs (which are allowed!). Test facilities do not allow you to bring any personal items into the testing room with you, so leave all non-essentials at home.
Breathe, and take the CPA exam
The exam software will provide you with a countdown clock for the duration of the exam. You may find it helpful to write smaller time goals on the scratch paper provided to keep track of how long you can spend on each testlet. If you do find yourself getting stuck on a particular question, take a deep breath and move on. You can always mark questions and return to them if you have time remaining. Remember that every exam includes some experimental questions that do not count toward your score.
Wait patiently for your scores
Once you've successfully completed the CPA exam, all that's left for you to do is wait for your scores. The AICPA releases candidate scores four times per testing period, so depending on when during the exam window you take your test, you may be waiting up to three weeks to receive your scores. While you wait, be sure to celebrate the time and effort you put into studying by treating yourself to a special meal, vacation or shopping splurge. You deserve a break!
Need additional resources to prepare for the CPA exam? Explore Robert Half's continuing education resources, including test prep materials. And be sure to read this:
Want to learn everything you need to know about the CPA — and then some?
Editor's note: This post was updated in 2016 to reflect more current information.