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Tips On How To Pass The CPA Exam

by Tom Vucinic, CPA

As a CPA exam candidate, you have probably been bombarded by ads from different companies offering courses that guarantee your success in passing the CPA exam. CPA exam review courses are an investment of time and money, making your selection important to ensure that you will successfully pass the exam. In your quest to pass the CPA exam, the following suggestions should help you when selecting the right review course.

1. Course presentation

Choose a course that will complement your learning style and cater to your needs. If you need the discipline of a regimented schedule, choose a classroom course. If you absorb information more efficiently by studying on your own, opt for a self-study course. Review courses are available in every medium imaginable, including integrated software programs, live lectures, audio courses, video presentations, and, of course, a combination of these. For first time review students, your are generally most successful if you select a course with a balanced combination of classroom guidance, self-study materials, and periodic evaluations to monitor your progress. A good course should increase general knowledge, drill you on exam-like problems, and gauge your weak areas. Also, investigate the presentation format. Is an instructor in the classroom interacting with the students? Does the presentation use multimedia resources?

2. Content and depth

The key to choosing an effective course is to find one that utilizes the most up-to-date exam problems and essays available, while presenting them in an easy-to-understand fashion. Look for a program that provides materials based on topics from past exams.

3. Convenience and time allocation

Ultimately, the course you choose should be as accommodating and efficient as possible. When selecting a review course, it's important to have a realistic understanding of the amount of time involved in taking a course. At a minimum, your homework and study time will equal the in-class time. Find one that fits into your schedule. It may be helpful to find a course that offers student tools and make-up days outside of the regular class schedule---since you need to add study time to your already hectic schedule.

To decide whether or not a course will work for you, ask yourself the following questions:

Since there are no shortcuts to success, are you committed to putting in the time necessary to give yourself a chance to pass the exam?

Will you benefit from lectures?

Are there make-up sessions available?

How far do you have to travel to attend class?

Are there hidden costs involved, such as parking?

4. Value

Utilize free-trial programs before committing to a method of review. This will help you decide on the effectiveness of the course for your style and needs. Decide on a course as soon as possible to take advantage of the discounts available to those who register early. Take careful consideration to spending a little more for a course that may increase your chances of passing the exam in your first sitting.

5. Tools and techniques

Inquire about the test taking techniques courses promote in their materials. The benefits from experienced insight into mnemonic devices and testing strategies will prove invaluable in alleviating test anxiety. Apply these tools early in your course and determine if they are truly helpful. If you find they are not, ask your instructor about alternative methods.

6. Help and customer support

If you are dependent on academic support, ask yourself how many times you would e-mail your instructor for answers. It may be important that you have access to your instructor.

7. Pass rates

Pass rates are misunderstood and misused. As a future CPA, question the pass rate data offered and the relevancy to your situation. For example, if you are a senior at Michigan State University, how important is it to you to know how well the review course provider performed at a graduate school in Virginia? If the provider doesn't publish local and national pass rates, ask them why? Remember that the national average pass rate for first-time undergraduate candidates passing all four parts of the exam is approximately 10 percent. For any one part of the exam, the average rate is about 30 percent. (It is somewhat higher for the Audit and Law sections.) A review course provider that promotes a 90 percent pass rate is either identifying a very unique market or is telling you that nine out of 10 of its students pass at least one part of the exam. As a CPA candidate, you are interested in the data regarding the number of students who pass all four sections in your local area.

Once you have chosen a review course that best meets your needs, your primary goal for taking a course is to absorb as much information as you can in a short period of time. The following tips should help you succeed.

Attend lectures

In-class lectures are designed to re-introduce past information from accounting courses. Therefore, it's important to strive for a perfect attendance record so that you don't miss critical information. The chances of passing the exam are greatly enhanced if you attend classes and complete the homework. If you know ahead of time that you will have to miss classes, choose a course that offers make-ups.

The in-class lectures should be the easiest part of a review course and will be very helpful as long as you attentively follow the lectures and highlight items you are unclear about. After you go home, it's important to take a look at the items that were unclear and review them. Don't just review the items once, but come back to them at later dates.

Make flashcards

Multiple-choice questions are a tricky yet essential part of the CPA exam to master. Flashcards are a great method for preparing for the exam. After each lecture, set aside a few minutes to create flash cards of the key points and definitions you learned in class. Also, make flashcards for the difficult concepts and definitions. Once you've done that, set them aside, take a break, and come back to them later. Also, take this time to clean up your notes. Make sure your notes are complete and easy to read.

Your flashcards should go with you everywhere for the next couple of months. Whenever you have free time---whether it is on a bus, in between classes, or eating lunch---take out your flash cards and review the information. The more times you review concepts, the easier they are to remember and understand.

Do homework

Homework problems are an important step in the review process. Answering previous exam questions is an excellent way to understand the content and to simulate the exam. Make sure you not only understand the explanation for the correct answers but also the explanations for the incorrect answers and distracters. Reviewing material outside of class can help to ensure a full understanding of concepts before the exam. Invest in software that has old exam questions. Make sure the software scrambles the information so you look at a "fresh" question each time.

Reread notes

Reading your notes is one of the best ways to remember what was discussed days or weeks before. Set aside a couple of hours every Sunday to review notes from prior classes. You'll be surprised at how quickly you will recall old concepts.

Learn the tricks

Review courses offer simulated exam conditions and exam taking techniques. Review the techniques to quickly eliminate distracters and to assure at least partial credit, even when you are at a total loss.

Take time for a final review

Set aside the last week before the exam for an intensive final review. This time needs to be dedicated solely to reviewing for the exam. Take time off from school or work if at all possible. Most courses will provide a format for the final review, but in general you should focus on:

memorizing mnemonics and exam formats

understanding all subject areas

reworking multiple-choice questions

answering essay questions in an outline format

Passing the CPA exam takes time, effort, and organization, but with the right attitude and dedication, you should pass the exam with flying colors.

Tom Vucinic is the general manager of Becker CPA Review.

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