Help Your Students Tackle the CPA Exam

Bolster students’ confidence as they prepare for the exam.

March 14, 2017

The CPA Exam is one of the most challenging of all professional examinations. Students naturally become apprehensive when faced with the prospect of taking a 16-hour exam over the course of 18 months. Though passing the exam pays off in terms of increased career opportunities, students still may be reluctant to take it—or, if they fail a section, to try again.

As a faculty member, there are ways you can help students succeed on the exam (aside from the academic preparation you’ve already given them).

Our experts share the advice they give their own students:

Be strategic about the order in which you take the sections. Spencer Usrey, CPA, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, advises students to take the section they consider most difficult first, as the 18-month window to take the full exam doesn’t start until they pass the first section. Should they fail on their first attempt, that clock won’t start and they can begin again with the full 18 months ahead of them.

However, this advice may not apply to all students. Leslie Blix, a doctoral student at Southern Illinois University who is in the process of taking the CPA Exam, decided to take the audit section first. She did so because she wanted to begin with a section that would be easier for her to give her a confidence boost heading into the other sections.

Tell students to consider their personal study habits, which may also affect the order in which they choose to take the sections, said Emily Seay, CPA, Ph.D., assistant professor at Ohio University. For example, Usrey, Seay, and Mark Edmonds, CPA, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, noted many students find the Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) section to be the most time-intensive when it comes to studying.

“I knew if I studied FAR first, it would burn me out,” Seay said of her experience.

Budget your time. Usrey said students can expect to spend 400 to 600 hours studying for the exam, so advance planning is essential.

Suggest that students create a study schedule and stick to it, Seay said.

“As soon as they can sit down and create a schedule, that kind of takes the pressure off,” she said.

It’s important for students to be realistic about a study schedule that will work for them. For instance, do they study best in the morning or at night? Do they prefer long blocks of study time or smaller chunks? (Seay said she treated exam preparation like a job where she’d study regularly for the same four-hour block of time each morning.) Are they a “traditional” student in their early 20s who might have more flexibility, or a “nontraditional” student—perhaps someone older who has returned to school—who may have other considerations such as family or work?

Usrey said faculty can encourage nontraditional students to sit down with their spouse or family and discuss days of the week to set aside for studying and for family activities. He said it’s important for students to communicate to their family that the CPA Exam is an important part of the process in joining the profession and worth the sacrifice.

Use preparation tools. Usrey suggests spending the money on a prep course, saying they are worth it and will help with study timing.
Seay, Blix and Edmonds have developed a simulation, “Learning Through Experience: Reducing the Fear of the CPA Exam,” designed to help students through a comprehensive overview of processes they’ll see on the exam—for example, understanding how an audit works from start to finish, Edmonds said. (Seay, Blix, and Edmonds invite readers to email them for the case at,, or

The AICPA also provides resources that can help students prepare for the exam, including sample tests, a tutorial, and the comprehensive Exam and Licensure section of the AICPA’s website, Students should also carefully review the blueprints for the revised exam, which detail the content and skills that are tested on each section. They can also read the CPA Exam Diaries, a collection of anecdotes and advice from accountants who’ve passed the exam.

Manage your stress. Make sure students know that studying will be stressful, and that managing that stress is key to success.

Let them know it’s OK to take a break if they need it, Usrey said. Sometimes a couple of days away can be exactly what’s needed to return to the study process feeling ready to move forward, he said.

Students can also draw on their experience. “Remember what you do normally—how you handle regular exams,” Usrey said.

You may also suggest that students plan to reward themselves for their efforts. For example, they can set up a fund to take a vacation when it’s all over, Edmonds said. Or they can plan an activity they enjoy each time they finish a section, Blix suggested.

Above all, students should take care not to become so stressed that fear keeps them from taking the exam, Usrey said. They should at least attempt it—even if they fail, he pointed out, they’ve gained valuable experience in knowing what the set-up is like and what the exam room looks and feels like. They can take that forward and feel more confident when they try again, he said.

Build the confidence of students who fail a section. If students become discouraged after failing a section, help them to understand that, while they’re going to have to go back and start over with studying, it doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent, Usrey said. They’re also not alone: Only 46% to 55% of candidates passed any given section in 2016.

It can help if they try to go back and analyze what might have gone wrong, he said—maybe they need to study more, or maybe something happened in their life that caused a distraction.

“You get to take it again, that’s the great thing—it’s not over,” Usrey said.

Edmonds advises students who fail a section to remember that they’re not alone. They may find it cathartic to talk to others who have been in their situation, he said—either in person, or through online forums where they can find people going through the same experience.

Faculty agree it’s important to keep things in perspective. The CPA Exam is an important exam, but it’s just an exam. It can always be taken more than once, Edmonds points out.

“The only way you’ll fail the exam is if you quit,” he said.

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this story, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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