The real reason why the CPA exam is so hard
The Certified Public Accountant ("CPA") exam is notoriously challenging. Some have labeled it as one of the most challenging professional exams in the world. Yet the secret to passing it, as I discovered, is not brains. It's a creative imagination.
When I signed up for the first of four CPA exams, I put into place what I thought was an airtight study plan. I bought a study course with video lectures and practice questions (I used ), and set aside two hours each night, plus Saturdays, as sacred study time. I remember thinking I just needed to show up, put in the time, cram before the tests, and I'd for sure pass.
Boy, was I wrong.
It took me only a few days of this to realize why the CPA exam is such a formidable opponent to so many smart people. It's not that the material is inherently difficult per se. It's not even the duration of the exam (16 hours across 4 parts). There's one factor that stands above the rest that makes the CPA exam so difficult.
The sheer quantity of material.
It's often said that the CPA test is "a mile wide and an inch deep", meaning the test is much more focused on breadth than depth. Each question is pulled from a pool of thousands of topics, but usually only delves into surface-level understanding, with some second-level "gotcha" questions sprinkled in throughout the test (more on this later).
Accounting is already a dry subject, but packing large amounts of monotonous journal entries into your brain is like the mental version of the saltine challenge. Not only that, studying for the CPA is extremely boring. Accounting is already a dry subject, but packing large amounts of monotonous journal entries into your brain is like the mental version of the . It's more dry than you could ever imagine.
A more efficient (and creative) way
After taking copious notes on the first chapter of my study material, I realized I had spent 8 hours writing 5 pages of notes on a topic that I already knew. At that rate, I would be finished with the exams in approximately...12 years. I needed a better way of preparing for the tests, one that would both keep me engaged and also help me master the mile-wide material.
So I stumbled upon 3 tools that totally transformed how I studied, and enabled me to pass all 4 parts of the CPA exam on the first try. Anyone can do them, and when used together, they can actually make the CPA (dare I say it) a creative and imaginative journey.
Let me explain the three tools, and you'll see what I mean.
Tool #1 - the question sandwich
I believe that the best thing you can do to prepare for the CPA exam is to answer practice questions, and most prep courses will have a bank with thousands of them.
The first tool leverages that test bank with what I call the "question sandwich".
Like two pieces of bread with a slice of turkey in between, I start and end each chapter of the prep course with practice questions. Jumping to the questions before the material might seem counterintuitive, but it's crucial to keeping an efficient study rhythm, and will end up saving you a lot of time.
Jumping to the questions before the material might seem counterintuitive, but it's crucial to keeping an efficient study rhythm, and will end up saving you a lot of time.
Start each chapter by taking a mini practice test on that chapter's material. Do enough questions to touch on all the sections in the chapter. The goal of the pre-test is not to get every question right, it's to identify gaps in your understanding. Read each question through the lens of, "do I recognize what this question is asking?". Lucky guesses don't count here.
If you're taking the CPA exam, you already studied most of the material in school. It's just hidden in some dusty corner of your brain. You'll be surprised at how many of the questions you already understand. And when you do get a question wrong, figure out why.
The motion of researching why the right answer is right will either lead you to say, "Duh, I knew that!", or "Wow, I have no idea what's going on here." If it's the former, it's icing on the cake. And if it's the latter, you've now identified an area where you should go deep in the material.
Study the gaps, skim the rest (middle of the sandwich)
Now, skim through the material, delving deep only on the subjects you identified as gaps from the pre-test. The goal is to get through the material as quickly as possible, so only spend time on your weaker areas.
After you finish studying the material, do another set of questions. You should start to see improvement in the number of questions you recognize and get right. You'll know you're ready to move on to the next chapter once you have 4-5 questions in a row where you say to yourself:
"Aha! I've seen you before, and I know exactly how to defeat you!"
Side note: am I the only one that talks to my test questions like they're a Bond villain?
In short, spend as little time as possible on the material, and maximize your time with practice tests. Answering questions is where the real learning happens.
As soon as you've mastered the questions in a chapter, immediately implement tool #2 while your memory is fresh.
Tool #2 - the cheat sheet
Have you ever been emotionally attached to a piece of paper? Strangely, that's what happens when you implement tool #2 - the cheat sheet.
To be clear, this is not a piece of paper that you try to smuggle into the test with you. Rather, this is a compact set of visual cues to quickly jog your memory on the trickiest parts of the test material. The goal is to be able to look at a single journal entry, drawing, or word, and then recall both the fundamentals and potential "gotcha" items for a given subject.
The cheat sheet has only one rule: all your notes from one test must fit onto a single piece of paper, front and back. This forces you to write down only the most important things, and distill a single subject down to a 2x2” square. You might take longer notes as you study, and it will take work to distill that down onto one page. But believe me, on test day you'll be glad you put in the effort.
The cheat sheet has only one rule: all your notes from one test must fit onto a single piece of paper, front and back.
Add to your cheat sheet bit by bit. For example, here is my actual cheat sheet for the FAR exam. To you, it probably looks like chicken scratch. To me, it is a work of art 😍 (bonus points if you can spot my drawing of a cowboy boot).
Your cheat sheet is 100% personal to you, and will probably be meaningless for anyone else. The value is in the process of building it.
On the day of the test, I blocked off an extra 30 minutes to sit in the Prometric testing center lobby and review my cheat sheet. I can usually get through the fingerprinting and sign in process in about 10 minutes. Then, as soon as I sat down at the computer, I filled up the scratch paper with the most important sections from my cheat sheet.
💡Tip: when you sit down at the computer, you don’t have to start the test right away. Use the extra buffer time to brain dump onto your scratch paper while your mind is fresh!
To help me remember what was on my cheat sheet, I used tool #3.
Tool #3 - the memory palace
As I was studying for my first test, I came across an in the New York Times about an ancient memory technique called the "memory palace." Also known as the "method of loci", the idea of a mind palace was invented 2,500 years ago in Greece, and is used by modern-day memory champions to memorize thousands of random numbers, decks of cards, the digits of pi, and even all in an Ikea catalogue.
As the name suggests, the premise of the memory palace is to use visual and spacial cues to remember random things.
You start in a real-life space that you're familiar with - your home, school, or anywhere you spend a lot of time. You then assign images to the content you want to memorize, and place them throughout the space. You're even more likely to remember the objects if they're silly or invoke emotions.
Then, as you move through the space in your mind, you encounter the objects, almost like creating a movie in your mind.
It sounds weird, but it works.
In the weeks leading up to each exam, I began memorizing my cheat sheet in a memory palace. I often used my childhood home as the space, and would start at the front door and work my way through each of the rooms.
On one test, I visualized a talking dragon in my living room explaining a particularly tricky subject (I'm talking to you, lease accounting). The especially hard "gotcha" moments would come out of the dragon's mouth as fire, making them that much easier to remember.
It's true - accountants are also creative
Of course, this is all what worked for me, but you'll need to find your own way of studying that helps you pass. Feel free to take my 3 tools and adapt them to your own work styles. Come up with your own cheat sheets, and build your own mind palaces.
If nothing else, these tools will infuse some much-needed creativity into the process. And who knows, studying for the CPA might actually be...well...fun.