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CPA Exam Tips For the Overambitious, Impending Graduate

Way back in my CPA review days, right around this time of year I'd start getting calls from overambitious college students ready to tear up the exam before the ink had dried on their pretty new degree. For most of these eager beavers, I had the honor (read: joy) of destroying their unrealistic ambitions and firmly planting them back in reality. I'm going to attempt to do the same for you here now, soon-to-be CPA exam candidates.

Here are a few things to keep in mind before you start applying for the CPA exam:

You aren't going anywhere until your transcripts are available. For some schools, this can take WEEKS. Now, in California (and I'm not sure if this works in other states or even if it still works in California though I'd assume it does), a way around this wait would be to apply early when you are not yet eligible to take the exam, wait the 8 – 10 weeks to get rejected, and then submit your transcripts once they are available, wait just a week and get approved. People who did this would be able to take the exam weeks or even months earlier than their friends from college who waited until they had all the necessary education before they even applied to take the exam. If you haven't already done this by now, however, don't bother unless you know for a fact your school is not going to have your transcripts for you until well into the summer.

Read the terms BEFORE you commit to a CPA review course. Often, we'd get students ordering a full review course before even applying for the CPA exam. That's ambitious and all but if you've got 9 months to use the course and it takes 3 months to get through the entire application process from application to ATT to NTS, you've either got to cram in all four parts in the last six months or re-buy the course once it expires. Don't do that. Find out from your state board how long it takes for applications to be approved and, just in case, check with forums like CPAnet to see how long it actually takes – the state boards do what they can but they aren't always accurate when it comes to predicting their application load.

When planning out your exam schedule, keep in mind you have to wait for an NTS. Some candidates would look at the "4 – 6 week" application time promised by their state boards but didn't realize the actual application is only one part of the application process. Once you've actually been approved to take the exam, you still have to wait for an NTS and in some cases this can take a few weeks. If you've plotted out a tight schedule that involves an unrealistic plan like applying for the exam on graduation day (can't do it if you don't have transcripts), getting approved in 2 weeks and sitting for two exam parts before the June blackout, think again.

Familiarize yourself with the exam now. I know, you're anxious to get started. That's awesome but your first step should be trying out the sample test on the AICPA's website. You can find that along with many more exam preparation resources here. While most review course materials are pretty close to what you'll actually see on the exam, review course providers are not allowed to completely simulate the AICPA's proprietary exam format. Because the sample test comes directly from the AICPA, you know it is an accurate simulation of the actual exam environment.

Don't get butthurt when your plan doesn't work out. Just as common as calls in April from ambitious college students ready to graduate would be, calls from those same candidates around June or July complaining that their exam plan had been completely ruined by the state board, time, colleagues, family, you name it. Even your best intentions don't always work out so prepare yourself now for a change of plan if necessary. It's great when candidates prepare but don't allow a wrench in said plan ruin your entire goal. Believe me, I saw it happen. A lot. And I was in the business long enough to talk to these same candidates two or three years later when they got over being butthurt and realized they still had to take the exam or would be stuck at staff accountant for the rest of their lives.

Looking for more resources? Check out this list of five you need from the AICPA.