The CPA exam is like a marriage. If you want to know how to become a CPA, you have to stay focused on your goal, even when it gets tough and you feel like breaking up with the process. You can’t cheat on your study schedule and expect to see the letters "CPA" behind your name.
When a manager told me I was living in fairytale land to think I could pass the CPA exam in less than a year, I wanted to snap my fingers and show her my powers. She had tried for five years to become a certified public accountant and was frustrated by unsuccessful attempts.
I didn’t have a straight-A record in my accounting courses to vaunt about, nor did I grow up surrounded by accountants who shared their financial statement stories with me. What I did have was a level of grit and tenacity that stems from being a first-generation college student determined to expose others to the possibilities in life when you relentlessly go for what you want.
Knowing how to become a CPA by passing the tests in nine months? Now that was the ultimate test to see how far my drive would take me.
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While my colleagues were celebrating their bachelor’s degree success with late-night parties and exciting excursions around the world, I was spending quality time with my CPA review instructors on my computer screen. I wanted to become a certified public accountant and was going to do whatever it would take to get it — even if that meant changing my voicemail message to say, “Sorry I’m not available at this time. I will call you next year when I’m a CPA.”
If you were to ask me about my social life, I would have to say it was pretty much nonexistent. My daily interactions consisted mainly of conversations with people who were interested in International Financial Reporting Standards, internal controls and U.S. tax law. Needless to say, my social circle was filled exclusively with aspiring accountants.
First came a few failures
I took my first exam, Business Environment & Concepts (BEC) in August 2009: Passed! My second exam, Auditing & Attestation (AUD), was in October 2009: Passed! My third, Financial Accounting & Reporting (FAR). was scheduled in November 2009. What was I thinking? I looked at my score report and found a depressing 71. Ouch! I needed a 75 to pass.
My fourth exam, Regulation (REG), was scheduled for January 2010. I got a 74. Really? Only one point away from success. Now, that's what you call a heartbreaker.
I had 12 months to pass the CPA exam sections that I failed. My strategic scheduling allowed me to do just that. I had a chance to give all of my attention to FAR and REG, and was able to pass both exams by May 2010.
Nine months — from start to finish
In August 2010, I received notification that I was officially a CPA! I can't even express in words what that moment meant to me. It wasn't just about me passing an exam; it was about me giving strength to anyone who has ever been told that they couldn't do something. Here is an important reminder you need for success: If you can dream it, you can achieve it.
If you dream of becoming a licensed accountant in less than nine months, here’s what you can do to make that vision a reality:
1. Find out what you need to know
Here are some threshold questions to check out: What are the qualifications you need to meet to be eligible for the exam? What content will be tested on the CPA exam? When is the best time to take each exam? Find out as much information as you can about the exam and use this information to create a strategic plan.
During my junior and senior year of college, I took my time to explore the CPA exam requirements and content so I would be prepared to take the exam immediately after graduating. I decided to schedule all exams within a six-month window, starting with the exam I felt most comfortable with. I needed to build up my confidence before I took the longer, more intimidating exams. Starting with the exams that I was most comfortable with gave me the ammunition required to tackle the more difficult exams.
2. Get an accounting internship
Securing a busy-season audit internship during my senior year of college helped me apply the textbook examples to real-world experiences. Although an internship is not absolutely necessary to achieve success on the CPA exam, it's an advantage to be able to pull from personal experience when you are studying the exam content.
For me, when it was time to study audit procedures for the exam, my eyes perked up knowing I had experienced this several times at my place of employment during my internship.
3. Find someone who wants to pass even more than you
The process to becoming a CPA can be a lonely one. This can feel pretty depressing, if you start to become discouraged by the process.
No one says you must tackle this educational adventure on your own. There are thousands of others who are studying for the CPA exam, and you can leverage their motivation to keep you going. Whether it’s finding a study partner to hold you accountable for your study plan after a 12-hour day of working or an online support group to go to for questions, keep people around you who can keep you moving forward.
I met my CPA study buddy at a National Association of Black Accountants meeting for undergraduate and graduate students. We expressed our desire to become CPAs and immediately joined hands to make the vision a reality. Our daily 7-11 p.m. study sessions after work combined with weekend study dates kept my mind focused on the goal of becoming a CPA.
4. Review all the practice questions
I cannot emphasize enough how important the practice questions are. Answer every single practice question, test question, and book question. You need to become familiar with the various types of questions that are asked on the CPA exam.
After you answer questions at the end of each chapter, review all the questions to understand what you got wrong and why you missed each question. Then, answer the questions again two or three days later and aim for 100 percent accuracy.
Don’t focus all of your time on the most difficult content. You never know what questions you will be asked, and the CPA exam doesn’t play favorites with complex questions. Make sure you allocate a good chunk of time to every component of the exam so you can determine your weak areas.
5. Be more than just a student
What would you need to know if you were teaching these concepts to someone else? How can you break it down into its simplest terms? When you can break information down to its simplest terms, it’s proof that you understand the concepts.
If you have a study partner, find ways to share information with each other. Then, have the other partner ask questions based on the knowledge you have shared. Question-and-answer sessions are usually fun, so enjoy!
6. If at first you don’t succeed, try again
Never let the word NO stop your flow. Sometimes NO means not yet, and sometimes it means not this way. Use every experience to strengthen your game plan.
Analyze your process. What can you do better next time? Now do it!
It may mean less sleep and more sacrifice now, but it all comes down to your WHY. Why do you want to become a CPA? What will this mean to you and your family? Your why will keep you on the path to success even when obstacles try to distract you.
Don’t let one or two failing scores discourage you. Be encouraged to try another angle to succeed.
7. Enjoy the experience of studying
Have fun! OK, I know this may seem like a stretch, that you should enjoy the process of studying for the CPA exam, but your enjoyment will speed up your success.
Just because you’re spending five to seven days a week in your study cave doesn’t mean you have to walk around pouting every day. Get fired up and excited about the progress you are making in your life. After you complete a section of the exam, start doing your favorite dance in the mirror. (I never got tired of doing the moonwalk after performing accurate bond calculations!)
It doesn’t matter if you have to take the CPA exam 10 times or just once: Every individual who passes will walk away with the same three valued letters behind his or her name. Create a vision of passing the CPA, start to feel like a CPA, and just keep going until you know exactly how to become a CPA. This designation wouldn’t be valued if you could pass the exam with your eyes closed. After all, everything worth having requires that you focus and prove you really want it.
Good luck to marrying your dreams of becoming a CPA! You can do this!
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After being the first CPA to win the title of Ms. Corporate America 2015 in a pageant held in Orlando, Fla., Charlene Rhinehart created the Career Goddess Academy. She is a workplace solutions expert, keynote speaker and freelance writer. She is the recipient of the 2015 Illinois CPA Society Young Professional Leader of the Year award and has been featured in more than 20 media outlets, including The Huffington Post, Black Enterprise and Chicago Tribune.