Taking the CPA Exam

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What I Wish I Would’ve Known before Taking the CPA Exam

By: Amina Doleh, Staff Tax Accountant

When I graduated college, I knew I wanted to get my CPA license and that I had to pass the four sections of the CPA exam to get it. But what does obtaining your CPA license entail? Here is some information that I have collected that you may want to know before starting the process of getting your own CPA license:

  • The application takes a while the first time around: When I applied to get my first notice to schedule (NTS) in June, I did not receive it until August. It took a total of 9 weeks for me to obtain it. Summer is the busiest time of the year for CPA applications, so apply early and assume the application will take at least 6 weeks to go through. Any other time of the year, your NTS takes around 3-6 weeks to receive. In most states, the NTS is good for 6 months once you receive it and you can apply for more than one section at once. When you reapply, receiving your NTS usually only takes a few days.
  • Be aware of the blackout periods: Blackout periods are times when you cannot take any CPA exam sections. The blackout periods are in March, June, September, & December from the 11th to the end of each month. These blackout periods break out each testing window. For example, the first testing window is from January 1st to March 10th. You cannot take the same exam section in the same testing window. If you plan a tentative schedule, you can easily avoid accidentally planning to take a section of the CPA exam when you can’t take it.
  • The NTS is only good once and fees are charged every time you schedule: If you fail an exam, you have to apply for a new NTS before you can schedule to retake it. Fees vary depending on each state; however, they are generally made up of 3 types: application fees, examination fees, and registration fees. The application fee is a one-time fee only charged to first-time applicants. Registration fees are only charged for reapplications, while examination fees are charged every time you apply. In the long run, it is cheaper to apply for more sections at once than one at a time.  The NTS expires in 6 months, so you do not want to apply for more sections than you believe you will be ready to take in that time.

  • The passing rates: Below are the average passing rates per quarter from 2006-2018 by section:

Although the passing rates vary per quarter, it is not due to the CPA exam being easier or harder to pass throughout the year. According to the AICPA website, “an increase in pass rates simply means that the candidates are better prepared.” Therefore, the lower passing rates in the first and fourth quarter are likely due to busy season and the holidays taking the focus away from testing for the CPA exam.

  • You can practice & learn what areas to focus your studies: If you have never seen how the CPA is formatted, do not go into the exam clueless. The AICPA has CPA exam sample tests on their website that illustrates the look of the actual sections of the CPA exam. This includes a handful of multiple-choice questions, the calculator you would have to use, task-based simulations, authoritative literature, and written communication questions for BEC. The AICPA website also provides CPA Exam Blueprints that breaks down what is included in each section. It provides how each area is tested and to what extent it is tested.
  • No cookie cutter approach to studying: There is not one magical formula to study for the sections of the CPA exam. Everybody studies and learns differently and what works for one person may not work for you or vice versa. You need to figure out what works for you and how you learn best. The study material is generally the largest cost of the CPA exam process. Even if you work for a company that will help pay for the costs, they will usually limit the amount they are willing to pay. Before you buy anything, find out how much your company is willing to cover and see if anyone has study material that they are not using anymore, or they could share with you.

Obtaining your CPA license is difficult, but not impossible. Plan when you are going to take your exams, apply for multiple exams based on your schedule, and figure out how you study best. Split the cost of study material with someone if you can and use the AICPA website to practice and understand what areas to focus your studies. By following these guidelines, the CPA exam process will be a little bit smoother.