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Common Traps CPA Exam Candidates Fall Into and How to Avoid Them

With the exception of a few freakishly talented Elijah Watt Sells Award Winners, most candidates find the path to CPA licensure to be one of the bumpiest roads they have ever been on. Failure on the CPA is a more common experience than is success, as evidenced by the 49.5% cumulative CPA exam pass rate in 2014. As a result, a large number of candidates become so discouraged that they give up on their dream of becoming a CPA.

Then there are those who don’t quit, no matter how many times they fail and how trying the experience may be. I have a lot of experience with struggling candidates, who hire me to coach them to licensure success. Coaching CPA exam candidates is one of my favorite areas of coaching partly because the CPA exam nearly broke me. I failed more CPA exams than I ultimately passed and my last visit to Prometric entailed an employee asking “You have been here before, right?” While I might find it flattering to be recognized at an accounting conference, being recognized as a repeat candidate at Prometric was certainly not a highlight of my career!

In my work as coach, I have observed some common challenges people face when struggling to pass the CPA exam- none of which are related to their technical abilities. You see: most often if a person or their firm hires me to coach them to pass the CPA exam, they are performing well in their jobs and are committed to a career in accounting. There is just something else in the way of their performance on the exam. The following are the common pitfalls I see and ways to understand overcome them.    

They Are An At Risk Candidate
I define at-risk candidates as those who had a non-traditional path to the exam. Maybe they came from another industry or discipline and completed an accelerated accounting program that provided the right academic units in a short amount of time. Guess what? Learning intermediate accounting in two weeks isn’t going to help you to pass the CPA exam. Candidates like these will need to put in a lot more study hours than the average candidate.

The same is true for those who wait to take the exam until years after their graduation date. The obvious problem here is the material becomes harder to remember the further one gets out of college. But the real underlying issue I see is that people tend to take on more responsibility as they age- in life (e.g. marriage, kids, care for family members) and in the workplace. This results in less time for studying and requires one to scale back on other commitments to create the time to study.  

The final at-risk candidates are those who start working during busy season. These people tend to get swooped into work responsibilities quickly and become overly focused on short-term career goals (e.g. the deadline du jour, the client one is currently staffed on) instead of their long-term goal of passing the exam.  This type of candidate will become the afore mentioned candidate, who puts off the exam for years, unless they are intentional with their action and focus on the long-term goal.

They’ve Never Failed Before
The accounting profession attracts people who are goal-oriented, over-achieving problem solvers. Their whole life, up until the CPA exam, entails setting goals and achieving success. The pattern to success looks like this: they see a challenge, set the goal to overcome the challenge, do the work, succeed, reap the reward. They then repeat the cycle to achieve the next great thing. Repeat to earn a high GPA. Repeat to get an internship and/or full-time job. Repeat to get a promotion.  

When it comes to the CPA exam, with its passing rate of 49.5%, most candidates get slapped with the ugly stick of failure — a brand new experience completely foreign to them. Failing an exam is a statistical norm; however, when one has never failed before it can feel like a much bigger deal than it really is. I have observed candidates, self included, who dig themselves into a psychological black hole at this point. You know you are in the hole if you hear yourself saying something like “Joe Staff Accountant is a total idiot and he passed. If I can’t pass, I must be really dumb.”  

To get out of the hole, one needs to take a step back and realize that failure is a completely normal part of this process. It doesn’t mean that you are lazy or aren’t smart enough to become a CPA. Instead, one needs to shift their perspective and see the failure as an opportunity to learn about perseverance and commitment.  Quitting the exam is easy. Committing to what feels like an insurmountable goal and overcoming it will provide far greater rewards than anything you may have experienced before.

All Work and No Play Makes For Poor Performance
Two pathways that lead to burn out are working hard in a deadline driven environment and studying for a rigorous exam. Combine the two and you have the makings of a Bon Jovi song- going down in a blaze of glory. Rest and renewal are just as important to passing the CPA exam as is cramming content in to your cranium. But as smart as accountants are, we forget that things like sleep, nutrition and exercise are critical to being successful knowledge workers. When I initially suggest this to candidates, common rebuttals are something to the effect of “Ain’t no body got time to workout when I am studying 20 hours per week and grinding out my billable hours.”

Yet making time to exercise might be precisely what a candidate needs to improve their technical performance. According to the book Brain Rules “We are not used to sitting at a desk eight hours per day. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains developed while we walked or ran as many as 12 miles per day. The brain still craves that experience. That's why exercise boosts brain power…Exercisers outperform coach potatoes in long-term memory, reason, attention, and problem solving tasks.” Making the time to take care for one’s self may be precisely what one needs to perform well on the exam.  

They Say Yes to Everyone But Themselves
A common pitfall for overachievers is to always be the one and say yes.  It starts of as fun and rewarding; you’re the superstar! People come to you and can always count on you to get the job done.  But this pattern can become problematic when others know they can always dump things on your plate, with little care for other commitments you may have or time constraints you may be under. All they know is what you have taught them- you always say yes and rise to the challenge.

Learning to say no is a critical part of the path to CPA licensure. If you are studying 20 hours per week, you are going to have to say no to others. This might be saying no in the workplace or saying no you can’t make it to happy hour. Some people don’t like to say no for fear of not being liked or losing their superstar status. But in saying no, you are really saying yes to yourself. You are taking a stand for what is if greatest importance to you — passing the CPA exam.