The Top 3 Reasons Why People Fail the CPA Exam


If you don’t get it right the first time, try try again. That saying is probably easier said than done in other life situations that aren’t the CPA Exam. Apply it to your child’s first time riding a bike, your friend’s failed apple pie recipe, or even a buddy of yours whose prototype for his start-up needed a second iteration. But when it comes to the CPA Exam, it’s a whole other beast. Many candidates spend hours upon hours of studying for each part. They sacrifice their evenings, weekends, and even their relationships to get that 75 or higher. And they don’t just have to do this once—they have to do it four times.

So…it’s not so difficult to see why failing a part of the exam once or twice can be disappointing and even downright heartbreaking. Especially when you’ve put everything on the line only to go back to square one.

But—it’s not as horrific as you think. Many CPA candidates have found that the reason they failed the CPA Exam wasn’t due to limited ability, intelligence, or determination. Here are the top 3 reasons why people fail the CPA Exam and how you can avoid these pitfalls when you sit for your next one.

1. Unpreparedness

Study time. The first reason, and perhaps one of the most obvious for anyone conquering any feat, is not being prepared enough. The AICPA recommends a study time of 1-2 hours for every hour of lecture time. Combine this with the number of lectures for any review course that explains the large and sub contents for each part of the Exam, and you’re looking at a total of over 400 hours of studying to pass all 4 parts. That’s about 2 weeks and 2 days of consecutive studying without sleeping or breaks! Many students maybe aren’t aware of just how much study time they should be utilizing.

As Roger always says, the CPA Exam isn’t a test of IQ; it’s a test of discipline. Many candidates either do not create a strict study plan to stick to or study what they think is enough time to cover a concept just enough to understand it on the surface and move on. However, many of you know that effective studying means putting in every ounce of effort to avoid deviating away from your study plan no matter how tempting happy hour or the premiere of The Avengers is. a

Study the material thoroughly and use the accompanying practice questions to gauge your strengths and weaknesses; this way, you can leverage your study time accordingly. Those who have a plan of attack are much more likely to get that 75 or higher the first time than those who do not. Hence another one of Roger’s most famous quotes: If you study, you will pass!

Research. Another common error is failure to do research. If you’re an accounting major, there will be topics on the test that you did not cover in class. And if you’ve been out of school for a bit, there will definitely be topics you’ll have to revisit to remember on top of the new ones you have to learn. Research what is covered on the CPA Exam in order to better prepare yourself for what to expect and how many extra hours of study time you’ll have to put in in order to master old or new concepts. This way, you won’t be surprised or stressed about having to rearrange your study plan, especially if you’ve already scheduled your test or need to meet a deadline in which to take the whole Exam. Plus, it’s just plain good for your soul.

Miscellaneous. Some other general unpreparedness is not bringing the correct documentation with you to the Prometric Test Center on test day; not leaving early enough for unexpected traffic delays; or not looking up information regarding location. Make sure you have everything ready and correct to take with you on test day. You smile now, but it happens!

2. Intimidation

It’s understandable that sitting for each part of the CPA Exam is nerve wracking. You’ve invested time, money, and countless other things that all lead up to test day. Don’t let that get the best of you. We know it’s not the easiest thing to do, but don’t let fear or intimidation side track you from all your hours of hard work and preparation. It’s like the little devil on your shoulder; ignore it! Many candidates allow doubt and frustration to creep into their systems during exam day. They will spend too much time on trying to figure out questions they don’t know the answers to; begin to think that they’re not doing very well based on the level of difficulty on their testlets; or execute overall poor time management, leaving them with not enough time to complete the entire exam or completely skipping a task-based simulation, written communication, or multiple choice question(s).

Intimidation is a powerful force, and if you let it sit on your shoulder during test day, it can end up swallowing you whole. There will be questions you’re not 100% sure about; there will be some that you may have to guess on; and there will be moments where you’ll doubt yourself. The only thing that is certain on test day is how much time you have to finish the exam; therefore, use time management effectively. Give yourself a set amount of minutes for each multiple choice question and written communication or task-based simulation section. Read each question carefully, paying attention to the dates, numbers, percentages, or small nuances that can cause you to respond incorrectly. Answer the ones you know, guess on the ones you don’t, and move on. If you enter the exam with confidence in what you know and don’t give in to fear or anxiety, you’ll do just fine.

3. Lack of motivation

It’s hard enough to get through the work day, let alone spend the remainder of the evening with a CPA review book in one hand and some flash cards in the other. Most normal people get to go home and relax after their 8 hour shift; but unfortunately for CPA Exam candidates, this is not the case.

It’s easy to fall into a “study rut,” in which you just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and it looks like you’ve barely made a dent in your FAR book. During these times, students are tired, drained of energy, and lack motivation when they’re restricted to such a strict schedule for weeks and months on end. As a result, they fall behind in their study plan, are easily distracted, and don’t absorb the material very well. Having a lack of motivation is an especially dangerous pitfall and can very easily lead to self-deprivation that domino effects into bad study habits and a non-passing score.

It’s perfectly normal to feel this way sometimes—especially when you haven’t seen your family and friends as much as you’d like to and you’re constantly opting out on, well, life. But where there’s a will, there’s a way! If you find yourself in such a study rut, get out as quickly as possible! Take a break; go watch The Avengers; go to that dinner party and then get back on track ASAP. It’s also always a good idea to reach out to others who may be feeling the same way on forums and to remind yourself of all the amazing benefits you will reap once you pass all the exams. In retrospect, these 400 hours of studying are trivial in comparison to the remainder of your life as a CPA.

So, if you’re a first time test taker, thinking about becoming a CPA, have already failed a couple of times, or are registering for the last part of the entire exam, keep in mind the amount of preparation, confidence, and motivation you’ll need to do well the first time. And even if you don’t, that’s okay! It’s a learning experience that will help you improve and pass the next time around.

Happy studying!

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