MY CPA Exam Journey: Nathan Blackwell


I was born in 1979 in southeast Tennessee near Chattanooga, where I still reside.  I am currently married, with one son who just turned 13. I originally attended East Tennessee State University in 1997 and graduated in 2001 with a Bachelor’s in Political Science.I proceeded to get my Master’s in Public Management from ETSU in 2004.  At the time, the Public Management degree combined elements of business and public administration.  

After graduating, I went to work for Babies “R” Us as a Store Supervisor and then took a job as a Store Manager for TNT Fireworks in 2008.  

Both jobs were fun and I enjoyed working in retail management.  In February 2013, I got laid off from TNT.  I returned to TNT in April of 2013 as a contract employee to train some of their new managers for the upcoming fireworks season. 

After searching for a full time job for a while, I realized that the level of competition for retail management jobs was astronomical.  I had one hiring manager tell me that I was one of 52 qualified candidates that had applied for a management job.  There were 9 of us with a Master’s degree in management.  I realized that finding a job I would enjoy and would be worth it wasn’t going to be easy, so I started thinking about a career shift.  I decided I needed a job with a specific set of credentials, something that made me a “skilled” worker versus the rather generic management degree I already had.

Based on my experience and my educational background, accounting seemed the most logical choice, especially since I already had the business courses from my Master’s degree.

I searched for programs that fit my needs, and settled on Brenau University.  It is a small college in Gainesville, GA.  The benefit to Brenau was that they conduct classes in 7 week periods instead of over the whole semester.  You take fewer classes at one time, but they’re more focused.  This meant I could take Intermediate Accounting 1, then 2, then 3, then Advanced Accounting in just two semesters versus 4 since each is a prerequisite for the next.  Brenau also offered a Post-Master’s Certificate in Accounting for people who already had a Master’s degree in business or a related field, meaning I only had to take the appropriate graduate and undergraduate accounting classes.  I graduated from Brenau at the end of 2015.

I was planning on seeking employment with an accounting firm in the Fall of 2015, since I only had one class left to go in Fall, but my wife was diagnosed with cervical cancer in early 2015 and had to undergo surgery, chemo, and radiation.  I put off the job search to stay home with her.  I decided that after my last class ended in October, I would concentrate on passing the exam and letting my wife finish her treatments and hopefully beat the cancer.

I had heard about Roger CPA from a presentation through the Georgia Society of CPAs and decided to give it a try.  

I started studying for the FAR section of the exam in the last week of October and scheduled the exam on November 30.  It was a terrifying prospect.  Everyone had talked about how hard the exam was, and I really doubted I could pass.  Truthfully, from the very beginning of my studies, the exam was always the boogeyman in the back of my mind waiting to trip me up.

This is why I am glad I chose Roger CPA versus some of the other programs.  I have seen samples and Roger is by far the best of the lot.  The thing that really helped me was Roger’s ability to take the complex topics from my classes and make them understandable.  For the first time, I “got” a lot of the concepts that I had only cursorily understood in class.  I watched the courses, read the book, and did the study questions.   I grew more confident in the material, but I was still nervous.

November 30th came and I took FAR.  

When I walked out, I honestly had no idea how I had done.  I really didn’t have a good or bad feeling about the exam.  I anxiously awaited my score and when it came in a week and a half later, I had gotten a 91.  I had passed.  It was at this point I decided to go ahead and schedule REG and AUD.  I scheduled REG for January 21st and AUD for February 15th.  

Shortly before I took REG in January, my wife went in for a PET Scan and the cancer had returned.  It was now systemic and terminal.  They were going to start aggressive Chemotherapy and try for remission.  That has to be the single worst day of my life.  I have never before prayed so hard for God to let me trade places with someone before.  

I thought about canceling the test and rescheduling, but my wife wanted me to go ahead and take the exam.  

I threw myself into studying as a distraction.  Even so, I wasn’t nearly as prepared and when I left the exam I was sure I had failed. Unfortunately, I had to wait until late February to find out since I took the exam after the 20th.  I began studying for AUD next, since I would have to take AUD before I even got the results for REG.

I have to admit that I found a lot of comfort in the exam.  I never would have thought that beforehand.  The exam had become a refuge from reality.  It made me think and focus on something besides my wife’s condition.  I studied hard, but when I took AUD I was absolutely, unequivocally sure I had failed as I left the exam.  I knew it beyond a doubt.  I was already putting money aside to reschedule and take the exam in April.  When I got my scores, I had a 94 on AUD and an 80 on REG.  I had passed both.  I kept saying that AUD score had to be an error.

I had decided to schedule BEC on February 25th after I took REG.  BEC is supposed to be the easiest section and I wanted to try and get as many sections out of the way as I could.  Even though I was sure I had failed AUD, I knew I had to focus on BEC.  It was an intense two weeks.  Right before the BEC exam, I got my scores from AUD and REG so I was much more relaxed going into BEC.  I had passed the hardest sections.  For the first time, I felt confident that I was on the downhill side of the exam.  I got an 83 on BEC, and suddenly after four months of study and preparation, it was over.  

For me the exam had always been the immovable object in the background.  

I was sure that I simply didn’t have the ability to pass it, especially since so many people keep throwing those statistics at you.  “Only 50% of those who take the exam pass.”  “The exam takes 300-400 hours of study.”  “It’s one of the most difficult professional exams.”  It’s intimidating.

For me, the key to passing was to learn the concepts behind the process.  Why you do something is very important because there is simply too much information to memorize every account, every step, and every process.  For instance, if you take the effective interest method as an example.  It’s not enough to simply be able to set up the table and calculate the numbers, you need to know why it’s being done.  What is the end result you’re trying to accomplish?  Once you understand the whys, you can take it and apply it to theoretical questions or questions that may not ask you to calculate things exactly the same way as you did in class.  You can look at the question from the point of view of, “what steps do I need to take to get to the end result?”

Another process that really helped me was coming to the same material over and over again. 

For instance, I watched all of the videos and did the questions in the book.  Then I came back and read the whole book.  Then I did all the multiple choice questions for each chapter.  Then I did the TBS.  Then I did all the multiple choice questions I missed again.  The idea was that instead of doing everything in chapter one and then moving on, I kept coming back to chapter one and making myself rethink about those same concepts over and over again.  I had to keep dredging the information up in my mind every few days or weeks, so it never got stale.  

Then, about 3 or 4 days before the exam, I made sure my schedule was completely clear.  I took the text book and started in chapter one.  I took each paragraph, each concept and summed it up and wrote that summary out into a spiral notebook.  I wrote in complete sentences in order to make sure I really thought about what I was writing.  This really helped me commit the little details to memory right before the exam.  I notice things I had missed and revisited all of the concepts in detail.  It was tedious, long, but very effective.

Another thing I found to be true was that this really is a test of discipline as Roger says.  

When I say this, I don’t mean simply taking the time to sit down and go over the material, but I mean you must actually focus while you study.  It’s so easy to watch a video and daydream your way through it.  You have to stop and actually train your mind to pay attention, to absorb.  I can’t count the number of times I had to stop, rewind and rewatch a video because I realized I hadn’t paid attention, that I had “zoned” out. When you are reading, it’s so easy to just gloss over sections, essentially skimming, or to read without focusing on what you’re doing.  Even doing the questions can become a grind, whereby you select the answer that looks right without really bothering to think about the question.  I had to consciously keep making sure that I was actually focused.  That is really more draining than you would think.  It is important to make sure that when you are studying you are actually studying.

Lastly, don’t let this exam become your boogeyman.  I really believe you can talk yourself into failing even when you know the material.  I literally almost talked myself out of even bothering before I ever took the exam because I had worked myself up to the point of disbelieving in my own abilities.  The thing to remember is that many, many normal people have passed this exam before you, so you can do it too.

Nathan Blackwell, Guest Blogger for Roger CPA Review

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