Destigmatizing Failure on the CPA Exam


Every CPA Exam candidate knows that the overall pass rates for the CPA Exam isn’t staggeringly high. In fact, for each section, the cumulative pass rate is normally just below 50%. What that tells us is that less than half of all candidates pass all sections of the Exam on their first try. 

It can be easy to let these statistics overwhelm candidates and bring them down. It can even stop some people from wanting to become a CPA. But the way we see it, these pass rates can actually be used as positive reinforcement about the CPA Exam. 

If obtaining a CPA license were easy, everyone would do it.

With the amount of benefits a CPA license offers such as increased salary, travel, job security, and numerous opportunities to pursue a career in different industries, this designation isn’t just given away or won by someone in a raffle. In addition, because CPAs serve as financial consultants with the capability to perform a variety of financial services, it’s obvious that they have to know their stuff and know it well. Enter the CPA Exam. 

The fact that this Exam is considered one of the most difficult Exams to pass should already tell us that pass rates aren’t going to be stellar.

It also doesn’t take into account the number of candidates who just didn’t study enough or had other life events get in the way that prevented them from putting 100% of their effort into passing a section of the Exam the first time around. 

And yet, there is so much stigma surrounding failure on the CPA Exam.

But why? On the surface, we know that failing is disappointing simply because there’s automatic association with being unsuccessful. In addition, candidates spend a lot of time, energy, and especially finances purchasing a review course and paying application/registration fees—which they have to pay again to reschedule a failed section. We know this is frustrating on many levels. And we also know that there’s more to it than just what’s on the surface. 

For many candidates, failing sections of the CPA Exam is disappointing because of all the sacrifices they’ve made to accommodate their studies.

Relinquishing a social life with family and friends for months at a time is difficult, to say the least. There’s also added pressure if they’re a working professional looking to pass the Exam within a certain amount of time to obtain a bonus from their firm. And it can be particularly rough when their peers and colleagues are passing the Exam seemingly more easily and quickly than they are. 

Furthermore, many candidates feel on edge when asked by family, friends, and coworkers how they are progressing.

It can be embarrassing to let them know that they’ve failed a section after putting in so much hard to work to study for it the first time around. As a result, candidates often times begin to compare themselves to others and let failure get to them as they begin to wonder if they’re really cut out to be CPA material.

Combine all of these factors, and it’s no wonder that CPA Exam candidates are so hard on themselves when they fail a section. However, we’re here to say that this shouldn’t be the case. And that we should change the way failure on the CPA Exam is viewed. 

Therefore, if you’re a candidate who didn’t pass one or more sections of the CPA Exam, don’t let this define you.

Don’t let it make you believe that you are any less capable; it just means that you have to put in some extra time to strengthen your weak areas and that maybe you didn’t know some of the material as well as you thought you did. And that’s okay. Give yourself some time to “grieve”, and then get back on the horse. Giving up and never trying again is when you really allow the stigma to be true.  

It’s also very crucial for you to be transparent about it.

In order to destigmatize failure on the CPA Exam, there should be conscious effort to be comfortably open about it. Too many candidates bury their failures and don’t talk about it until after they’ve passed the entire Exam, which only furthers the idea that failing a section should be viewed as shameful and embarrassing. Many other candidates are going through the exact same struggles and you’re not alone. 

Of course, there are many CPA Exam forums and sites that allow candidates to share their experiences and advice for failed sections, which is great. But we also encourage candidates to share their stories offline. It won’t only help to destigmatize the topic, but will open the door for more open and comfortable conversation which can serve as inspiration and motivation for others. 

After you’ve taken a breath, try again. 

Know that the CPA designation is within reach for you. It’s all about maintaining a positive attitude, having confidence, and believing in yourself. If you’ve failed a part of the CPA Exam, here are the following things you can do to make sure you pass the next time: 

  • Review your score and see if you can pinpoint what your weak areas were. Then go back and review, viewing lectures, reading the textbook, and practicing questions. 
  • Change your study routine and/or study habits. See if you study better during the night or day, on the weekends, with fewer distractions, etc. Make studying a priority in a way that you haven’t before. 
  • Ask your support network for help. If you need someone to meal prep for you, pick up your kids, or help you with chores around the house, ask! 
  • Lastly, make sure you’re using your review course to the utmost capacity. Our SmartPath Predictive Technology is a data-driven platform that provides targeted recommendations on how to focus your efforts by comparing your progress and performance to those that have passed the CPA Exam. It shows you exactly what you need to study, and how much. Once students have met all the recommended targets, they’re ready for Exam Day. This takes all the guesswork out of CPA Exam preparation. 

We wish you all the best of luck and remember that the CPA Exam isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon! Anything worth having never comes easy, but we know that your full commitment to becoming a CPA will definitely pay off.  

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