How to Pass the CPA Exam and Become a Certified Public Accountant

If there is one thing that has surprised me over the years of years of being a financial planner is how much you need to know about taxes.

Taxes revolve around almost everything in the financial planning process. Retirement account contributions, Roth IRA conversions, required minimum distributions are just a few of the many examples of conversations I’ve had in the past week were that beloved three letter word came up: TAX.

As much as taxes do come up, I’ve always had an itch in becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). I’m always jealous of the wealth of tax info that my CPA can spit out on a whim.

I know. I’m weird. Raise your hand if your like me and our jealous of someone and the tax know how.

Anyone?

Yeah, didn’t think so.

Unfortunately, as many projects as I have going right now, the thought of going down that path will have to be for another life and I’ll just continue to rely on my CPA for all the tax stuff I would ever need.

For those of you that are ambitious and are interested in becoming a CPA or enrolling into a CPA school, I have a special treat. I released encountered someone who just passed the CPA exam I thought it would be neat for her to share her experiences. Introducing Amber….

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My name is Amber and I blog over at Blonde & Balanced. My blog discusses striking a balance in life, health, and money. Fitness and personal finance are two of my passions and I’m always trying to balance the two in my life, while also balancing a busy schedule. I absolutely adore writing and have even started doing some freelance personal finance and tax writing on the side. I’m also getting married next June, so much of my time right is spent planning the wedding. It’s a lot of work, but I must say it’s a nice change from hitting the CPA books every day after work!

1. What inspired you to want to become a CPA?

I became frustrated that I wasn’t being challenged enough at work. After college, I landed a stable full-time job. After a few years, I stopped learning anything new and my mind was basically on cruise control. At first, I thought this was awesome! But eventually, I became anxious and realized I didn’t want to stop learning in my mid-20s.

I didn’t want to fall behind my colleagues or the newest waves of college graduates that were hitting the accounting scene. I also didn’t want to become pigeon-holed in my accounting expertise. I’ve been working in the same type of accounting for 5 years and I wanted to expand my skills. For an accountant, getting your CPA license is the ultimate goal, so I just decided to go for it!

2. What type of study program did you go through to take the CPA exam?

Preparing for CPA Exam

Preparing for CPA Exam

I actually purchased a older version of the Becker materials. Then, I supplemented with Wiley books. The Becker program is very expensive (around $3-4,000 brand new), but it is the best of the best. The Becker books come with pre-recorded lecture CDs that allow you to learn at your own pace. I LOVED this! And even though they were a year old, I was still able to pass all four exams on the first try. I had the Wiley books close at hand for those topics that I knew had changed over the past year (for the tax/regulation exam, for example).

3. Would you have done anything different preparing for CPA exam?

If you can share, borrow, or buy used Becker materials for the CPA exam, I would definitely recommend this. I think you can still pass if you just use Wiley or other less expensive programs, but it might be more difficult to learn the material. I don’t think I would have done anything differently – Becker and Wiley together seemed to be the best combination for me.

4. What was the hardest thing about preparing for the CPA exam?

Without a doubt, the hardest part about preparing for the exam was the amount of time I had to sacrifice. I spent many, many Friday and Saturday evenings at home with the books while my fiance was out having fun. To be blunt: It sucked! I vented about it a lot on my blog. I studied probably 10-15 hours every weekend and 1-4 hours every weekday for about a year. It was so difficult; the only thing keeping me going was the $1,000+ I had paid to take the exams. I figured I had already paid the money for the certification, I might as well pass the tests!

5. What was the hardest thing about taking the CPA exam(s)?

I’ve always been a good test taker, so I never had a problem with information overload or anything like that. So, for me, the hardest part about taking the exam was the stamina it takes to complete a four-hour test without taking one break. I remember hitting walls about 2-3 hours in and just digging really deep to focus and work my butt off for the next hour or two. My mind never stopped thinking, analyzing, calculating, etc.

I never let myself do mediocre work during the exams. I put every last drop of energy into each question and essay. I remember feeling like my mind was buzzing when I left the testing center, but being mentally exhausted at the same time. My fiance would always take me out for dinner and drinks afterwards, so that was definitely something that I looked forward to!

6. Now that you have the CPA designation, what are your future plans?

Become a Certified Public Accountant

Become a Certified Public Accountant

My next move is to edit my resume and put those three letters behind my name! After that, I am not 100% sure. The best part about having the certification is that so many doors open for you. I’d love to get into tax, but I still want to maintain a healthy work-life balance. I’d also like to see where my tax and personal finance writing takes me. If I could do taxes 50% of the time and write the other 50%, I’d be the happiest girl in the world. I’m currently working with several connections to see what kind of opportunities are out there. But that is just the greatest feeling – knowing that I have almost endless amounts of opportunities now.

7. Any last tips for someone wanting to become a CPA?

People always say to take the CPA right out of college. I’m not sure I agree with that. If I would have taken it right out of college, I probably would have failed because my mind was not in the right place. It was not difficult at all for me to pick up the concepts that I had learned in college that are tested on the exam. But, I would recommend taking the exam before you get married and have kids. It would be pretty difficult to study that much with kids and a husband/wife (I know there are some people that do, though!).

Also, if you can afford it or are able to buy a used version, I would go with Becker. I really do think it’s the best CPA program. (I promise I don’t work for Becker, I just know from experience. :-) ) One last thing: You’ll have ups and downs during your study sessions. Some days you’ll think you can’t pass. I thought that SO many times. You CAN pass the exam if you put enough work into it. I was never the curve-setter or straight-A student in college, but I passed all 4 parts the first time. If you focus on the big concepts and learn them well, you’ll do great!

Thanks to Amber for doing this interview. You can read more from her at her blog Blonde and Balanced for follow her on Twitter.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Doun Dounell

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Comments | 3 Responses

  1. says

    Thanks for a great article – very interesting and informative. I have a question: did you ever reach a point at which you felt that you had learned it all well enough, or did you keep plugging away until the very end.

  2. says

    Jeff (and Amber),

    I really enjoyed this post! And yes, TAX is definitely a hot topic right now with future hikes and the like. This is a great piece for those who are unsure of their future in accounting. Our St. Louis CPA firm, Stone Carlie, is kicking off our blog this month and also releases monthly newsletters addressing future tax issues. We’ll definitely keep an eye on your blog!

  3. says

    Great post! The CPA has actually changed since 2010. They have added more content including IFRS regulations. But, this is still a very informative article.

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