5 Ways to Fail at the CPA Exam (Like I Did)

Graphic of man holding up test with big red X.

Ethan Low is a senior associate in the audit and assurance department of a regional public accounting firm in Colorado. He’s admittedly flubbed a few attempts to earn his CPA license. This is his warning about how not to approach the CPA exam. It is followed by advice from Robert Half Finance & Accounting on doing it the right way.

In November of my senior year of college, my life began to unfold. I had my first job offer from my first-choice public accounting firm in Southern California. The extra time on my hands and my newfound professional confidence forced me to envision how hot I would be as a fresh-out-of-college, full-time accountant­ living just miles from the beach in beautiful Orange County.

I had my whole life laid out in front of me. All I had to do until I graduated in May was keep my grades up, survive the copious amounts of beer and mac and cheese that is the college rite of passage, and snag that diploma as I walked across the stage. Then, I had the summer until I had to show up for my first day of work in October 2011.

The time between college graduation and your first day of work is a great time to study for, and maybe even pass, a couple sections of the CPA exam.

Ethan Low


Or so I thought. That May, my new boss called me. “How is that CPA studying coming?” he asked.

I dropped the phone. Literally.

It is now 2016. I would like to describe myself as a successful senior associate at a public accounting firm, and the truth is, I am staring a promotion to manager down the throat with only one road block: this maddening exam, which I have taken and failed.

It is because of this that I have decided to steer those reading this as far away from my previous approach to these exams as possible.

A few words about the CPA test

You should know this exam is one of the most difficult professional credential examinations, where the national passing rate for the four sections — Auditing, Business Environment, Financial Accounting, and Regulation — ranged from 47 percent to 56 percent in 2015, according to the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA).

In most of the 54 jurisdictions, candidates must pass all four exams within 18 months, and if they fail a section, they must wait until the next “testing window” to retake it. The testing windows are the first two months of each quarter — January and February, April and May, July and August, October and November. Candidates can take the section exams in any order, but the same section cannot be taken more than once in any testing window. Most jurisdictions allow 18 months to pass all remaining sections in order to retain credit on the passed section(s).

According to Becker Professional Education, which offers a CPA review course, a typical CPA candidate spends 300 to 400 hours preparing for the exam, and “most CPA exam candidates can pass all four parts of the exam in six to 12 months.”

Need additional resources to prepare for the CPA exam? Explore Robert Half's continuing education resources, including test prep materials.

With that, here are five ways I’ve learned how not to pass the CPA exam:

1. Don’t prioritize ‘life experience’

The time between college graduation and your first day of work (which, for me, was five months) is a great time to study for, and maybe even pass, a couple sections of the CPA exam. It is also a great time to go to Europe. While my (former) classmates were slamming the books, I was on a train from Berlin to Barcelona, on the third story of a club in Prague, in my skivvies on the beach in the Adriatic, and riding my bike through the Swedish countryside. Not for one minute do I regret those two months in Europe. Memories and friendships last a lifetime, but it most certainly did not help with my study habits.

Hint from Robert Half Finance & Accounting — Formulate a study plan that works for you. If you’re between school and a job, with the CPA exam your main priority, pursue studying as if it were your full-time job. If you are working 9 to 5, break it down like a true accountant and schedule enough evening and weekend hours of study until you take the test.

2. Don’t try so much to fit in

Moving to a new city is exciting. New people, activities, things to see, do and eat. When I graduated from college and moved to Orange County to start my first job, it became excruciatingly difficult to fit in CPA studying with fun. My thinking at the time was, “It’s better to postpone the studying and fit into a new place than to pass the CPA exam and be an outcast.”

Hint from Robert Half Finance & Accounting — Socialize instead by enrolling in a CPA review course. If you’re still in school, most accounting departments offer free seminars, review courses and tools to help you prep for the exam. Otherwise, there are multiple resources to help, including online and traditional course reviews offered by educational establishments. There’s even an audio course that you can listen to while you’re driving to work. 

Curious about the positions available to CPAs? Search CPA jobs in your area.

3. Don’t get a puppy

This speaks for itself.

Hint from Robert Half Finance & Accounting — Get a dog as a reward after you pass all four sections of the exam. Ethan got an 8-week-old spaniel-type breed called a kooikerhondje.

4. Don’t don an overcoat of overconfidence

When I finally did start studying and taking the exam sections, I did quite well. At first. I got a 95 on my first exam section, but it gave me a seriously false sense of security. Thoughts like, “I studied way too hard for that — all I needed was a 75!” or “Five nights a week is over-excessive; I’ll just do, like, three nights a week and hang out with my friends the rest of the time!” or “Man, I’m so smart; I’ll just figure this out the day of the test!” stood foremost in my mind. These thoughts do not tend to beget success on the CPA exam. Take it from me.

Hint from Robert Half Finance & Accounting — Focus on the ways you learn best, and then, similar to learning a foreign language, reinforce what you’ve learned with a daily routine. Generate practice questions and work with them, over and over. 

5. Don’t skip study sections

Needless to say, I skipped parts of chapters I felt like I already knew and didn’t spend as much time on studying each of the four sections as I probably could have. Although to give myself (some) credit, I have definitely spent more than 400 hours studying for this exam.

So here I am today — beaten down, exhausted, and delaying the inevitable of having to open those rotten textbooks for the ninth time. Yes, you read that correctly: NINTH. I have passed three out of four sections (including one twice), but then went on to fail the final section four times, with scores of 71, 72, 73 and 74, while I needed a 75 to pass. What’s really ironic, is that if you were to combine all four of those failed attempts, I have done well enough on each topic within that exam section to receive a passing score.

Luckily, it's still early in my career, which is the best time to get the exams out of the way.

Ethan Low


When I failed the most recent time, the 74, two of my other exam sections dropped off (you have to pass all four within an 18-month window), so now I technically have credit for only one section of the exam. That means, by the difference of one rotten point, I went from almost being a certified public accountant to now having to pass three sections of the exam all over again. And they say football is a game of inches! Maybe the California Board of Accountancy is out to get me.

Luckily, it’s still early in my career, which is the best time to get the exams out of the way. I say that because the more you advance, the more responsibilities you will have, and the less time there is to study, but also because most accounting firms won't promote you to manager unless you have your CPA.

If you are preparing for the CPA exam and would care for advice from someone who hasn’t passed it, then I would say to you:

Best of luck! It really is as difficult as people make it out to be, and if you can only do one thing to bolster your studying efforts, by all means do not do what I did.

Been in Ethan’s shoes? What advice do you have for how to pass or not pass the CPA exam? Share your story and your comments below.

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Ethan Low is a senior associate in the assurance department of a regional public accounting firm in Denver and guest contributor to the Robert Half Finance & Accounting Blog. He started his career at an international accounting firm in Costa Mesa, Calif., before moving to Colorado. 

He told us in September that his goal is to pass all the exam sections by the end of the year.