How Current CPA Candidates Are Managing Stress in a Changing World


During these unprecedented times, managing stress is no easy task — especially when it comes to preparing for the CPA exam. For many candidates, stressors such as economic uncertainty, adapting to new realities, and staying productive and motivated have been drastically exaggerated due to the pandemic. 

In order to get a better understanding of how candidates are dealing with these stressors, we checked in with a few to learn more about how the pandemic has affected their CPA exam progress and what they’re doing to successfully combat it.

Dylan Luo – University of Texas at Austin, MPA 2020
Incoming Assurance Associate, PwC

For Dylan Luo, a 23-year-old incoming Assurance Associate at PwC, the pandemic could not have come at a worse time. As he currently prepares for his fourth and final CPA exam, Dylan finds that the pandemic has significantly impacted his productivity and mental health. 

“I think I speak for a lot of other candidates when I say that, in terms of preparing for the CPA exam, I am absolutely experiencing a lot more stress [than before]. Studying in quarantine is just not the same, and my productivity has definitely tanked. To put things into perspective, the days I consider to be my most productive days in quarantine would be my least productive days outside of quarantine.”

While he has struggled to maintain the same positive attitude he’s had while studying for his previous exams, Dylan does recognize that this is his new norm and has made the effort to make the most out of his situation. What has made the biggest difference for Dylan is having an online study group that can keep him accountable, with the added benefit of being another social outlet. 

“One thing that really helped me was that my study group kept in contact online. We had a Google spreadsheet, and each person had a column where we would write what goals we want to complete each day. We planned out absolutely everything – like what modules or concepts we hoped to finish that day.” 

Dylan points out that in the current pandemic, it’s crucial to have discipline. “Planning day-by-day is more important than it has ever been,” he explains. “There’s really no feasible way to study for these exams without a strict schedule.”

In terms of managing stress, Dylan finds that guided meditations have been effective in keeping him both mentally and physically healthy. He suggests listening to “Waking Up” by Sam Harris, as each day begins with a different course that supports studying and focus. 

To find out more about the meditation course, click here.

Adelle Columbus – University of Colorado Denver, 2017
Tax Accountant, Weber & Vanorio CPAs

Adelle Columbus was prepared to take her fourth and final exam in April; however, due to the pandemic, her exam has been scheduled, cancelled, and rescheduled two times since. She explains, “I was actually ready to take [the exam] mid-April, right after tax season. I had it scheduled, but then it got canceled, and now I’ve gone from ‘okay, I’m done reviewing and now I need to refresh’ to ‘oh I might actually have to relearn some of this stuff.’” 

For Adelle, whose current terms of employment requires her to get her CPA license, the uncertainty of her future has her feeling left in the dark. 

“I feel very stuck,” she explains, “like I can’t move on to my next project. [Right now] I want to focus on what I can. I kind of kind of backed off on studying for a bit and focused more on things that will help me get through the moment – like meditation and yoga, going outside and hiking – just working on myself more.” 

In terms of preparing for her exam, Adelle identifies two resources that have helped her stay motivated and productive: Roger CPA Review and social media. “Thankfully for us Roger extended our courses so I’ve been able to continue studying; just not quite at the same rate as I was before. For me, I’ve found it helpful to go through [all of the study material], not just an overview, and kind of identify the areas that I don’t quite fully understand, going more in-depth with those topics and filling in the blanks there.”

Also just knowing that others are out there in her same position, going through the same situation and also battling the same feelings of uncertainty, has made it easier for Adelle to move forward with her studying. “Through posting stuff on Instagram and social media, I’ve had other candidates reach out to me – people who have passed that can give you that jolt of motivation like, ‘I made it through, you can, too.’ When you can reach out to others and connect with them, it makes it easier to move forward.”

Sean Donnelly – University of Texas at Austin, MPA 2020
Incoming Audit Associate, Deloitte 

Sean Donnelly, an incoming Audit Associate at Deloitte, is currently preparing to take his second CPA exam. Unlike Dylan and Adelle, Sean is surprisingly experiencing less stress; though he realizes that this may have more of a negative impact on his productivity than he’d like.

“I’m not necessarily as stressed,” he explains, “but I’m not getting as much done as I would like — just because I don’t have that stress to push me to get it done. It’s just tougher to get into a routine. I have so much time, and not much to do, so I’ll just push it off rather than tackling it head on. So at the end of the day I’m less stressed, but less productive.”

As someone who needs structure to get things done, Sean finds that not having a set routine has left preparation for his CPA exam on the back burner. He also attributes his lack of productivity to what he dubs “quarantine depression.” 

As journalist Robert Jones puts it, quarantine depression is “much worse than feeling stir-crazy, sad and blue during a winter’s cabin fever.” It’s the extended lack of physical contact and isolation from friends and family that can severely exaggerate the already distressing feeling of loneliness.

While Sean still struggles to maintain focus himself, he advises for others in his position to take things one step at a time. “If you think about the big picture,” he explains, “you’ll just stress yourself out. Just put your head down, study and try to get it done – especially for those who have free time before starting a job. If you can get it done before work, you’ll thank yourself down the road. Everyone I’ve talked to said it’s infinitely harder when you’re working 40 hours a week.”

Other Tips & Resources

Aside from what the above candidates have mentioned, there are numerous other tips and tricks for students who are struggling to manage their stress during these unprecedented times. To summarize, consider the following stress management recommendations:

  • Help others, practice gratitude and be thankful.
  • Surround yourself with people who can help you stay positive and motivated.
  • Self-reflect: identify areas of yourself that you want to improve, and set goals for yourself.
  • Stick to a daily routine (and that includes self-care!).
  • Take things one step at a time.

To conclude, remember that you’re not alone. We hope that this article has left you feeling more confident that you will get through these difficult times. Hang in there!


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