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Over the years, I’ve generally suggested to CPA exam candidates that they should spend 2 – 3 hours studying homework per hour of review lecture they watch, which means most candidates will spend about 300 – 400 hours total studying for all four sections. That formula must not be too terrible as it somehow helped thousands of future CPAs find success. Of course, not all CPA exam candidates are created equal and some need more while some need less.
So when I was trolling the CPAnet forums last night and came across a thread entitled “The definitive number of hours to study,” I definitely had to check it out. Maybe things have changed since I walked away from CPA review forever, gotta keep up with what the kids are doing.
I’ve seen many posts that ask how many hours to study. I’ve come up with the following guidelines that I believe determine the amount of time to devote. I’m using Becker with Wiley for supplemental questions, so I’ll use them as a basis. I’m studying for REG, so I’ll use that as an example.
First, watching each video takes about four hours each. Seven videos times four hours is 28 hours. Second, reading each chapter is mandatory. Each chapter should take 6 hours each, if it is read carefully and slowly. So 6 hours times 7 chapters is another 42 hours. For each question, I think you need an average of fifteen minutes each. This includes understanding everything in it, reading the textbook for information regarding that question, and doing each one three times. Between Becker and Wiley, there might be 1500 questions. 1500 questions at 15 minutes each comes to 375 hours.
The grand total is 28 + 42 + 375 = 445 hours.
Is that too much? Probably….but I bet if you follow those guidelines, you’ll pass.
OK, hold the fuck up. 445 hours? For Regulation?!
It would take a full 30 days of studying for nearly 15 hours a day to meet that. And who on Earth has that kind of time? Besides, your brain turns off after the first 3 or 4 hours of a constant task (unless that task happens to be playing hooky with the one you love in bed all day or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3), so studying any more than 4 hours at a time a day is pretty much useless – this is explained by the crash many of us feel at work around 2pm.
While it is important for candidates to know their own study ability enough to figure out how much time they actually need to study for the exam, 445 hours is DEFINITELY overdoing it. It should never take 6 hours to read one chapter of a review book, even if you are a slow reader and need a lot of time to actually comprehend the material. This is why most review courses advise their students to watch the videos first and then read the chapters, you should have enough of a base after watching the video to get the concepts. And while it might be a good idea to spend 15 minutes on each question you get wrong, it should not take you 15 minutes to review the answers for each question. In fact, you’re smart to do time drills that allow 30 – 45 seconds per MCQ so you can train yourself to breeze through them on the actual exam.
Will you pass if you study for 445 hours? Probably. But you can also pass if you study for 90 hours, so why overdo it four times over?!
Sometimes, the answers come easy:
Hello. I am taking the REG and AUD sections of the CPA exam during the latter part of the Oct/Nov testing window. In your opinion, how much “rote memorization” is required to successfully pass the two sections referenced above.
Thank you for your assistance.
For every hour of CPA review lecture video you watch, you should do 2 – 3 hours of homework for that section. If you rewatch a lecture, I would still do an additional 2 – 3 hours homework (MCQ or practice simulations) for each subsequent viewing. There is no such thing as practicing too much but don’t tell that to people who have scored in the mid to upper 90s.
Rote memorization? I wouldn’t call the effort you put into studying for these sections “rote memorization,” though you will be engaging in repetition (to the point of nausea) to really indoctrinate the concepts into your head.
In order to actually learn the concepts you need to pass, you will need to know why the answers are right and wrong, not just what the answers are. That’s why you don’t hear about people smuggling answers out of Prometric (they could if they really wanted to), it wouldn’t do anyone any good.
You will need to memorize certain concepts (don’t bother remembering every single tax form and SAS) but generally speaking, your most effective strategy is going to be to get in as much practice as you can. That means plowing through questions but thinking about the answers as you do so. Use the guide above to figure out just how many hours you need to put into each section but the “magic number” varies wildly for each candidate, you may need more or you may need less.
We swear we don’t mind answering the same question over and over and over, so if you have a question for us, please don’t hesitate to pound it out and get it to us.
Here’s our latest CPA exam quandary from the mailbag:
I am just beginning to study for the CPA exams. I am in an MBA program and I will graduate in December. I was not an accounting major (poli sci) so I have also been taking the necessary required accounting classes in order to sit for the CPA exams, hopefully in January. I am taking an MBA-level auditing class in the Fall. I just finished a corporate income tax class this Spring, so I am a little confused as to which exam I should focus on now and take first, in January: REG as a lot of tax info is still fresh in my head or Auditing, as it will be most fresh by January?
Let’s all keep in mind that the CPA exam is not a test of your ability to be a good accountant, nor is it at all representative of the depth of your knowledge but the breadth. In other words, it’s a huge inch-tall puddle as opposed to a small, 9-ft deep pool. Your job is to jump across the puddle without getting your ankles wet, ya with me?
If it’s going to help your confidence, you can start with the section that will be easiest for you – in your case, that may be whatever you studied last. Keep in mind, however, that what you study in college and what you see on the CPA exam may not necessarily align. The CPA exam changes twice a year and with CBT-e changes, the AICPA Board of Examiners is now testing material that you are expected to know as a new CPA but may not have covered in school. Professors tend to favor the same material year after year, so unless your school is incredibly progressive and you’ve been learning IFRS (unlikely), it may not matter what you studied most recently.
That being said, I always tell candidates to start with the part that will be hardest for them simply because your 18 month timeframe starts from the time you sit for and pass your first part.
Here’s the deal: any review course will give you what you need to fill in the blanks in your education, even if you go the self-study route and pick up a set of CPA review textbooks from Amazon. In my professional experience, those who don’t have as rigorous an accounting background actually do better on the CPA exam as they come into it fresh instead of relying on what they were just taught in their accounting program that is no longer relevant for CPA exam purposes.
You’ll be fine either way, just pick one, study, and pass. It really is that simple. Or so I hear.
From the mailbag:
Hi Adrienne – I have been “attempting” to pass the CPA exam for a few years now – and I must say I’ve never taken the exam or the goal to pass the exam seriously…up until now.
Hold it. Before we get to the second half of this question, we need to address the quotation marks. Obviously OP is trying to make it clear that studying has not been high on the priority list and we recognize this tactic as a CPA exam candidate trying to repent for non-studying sins. This isn’t the confessional but we’ll accept the confession nonetheless; it shows a desire on the candidate’s part to acknowledge what they have done wrong up until this point, which is halfway toward fixing it.
I took BEC on 4/4/2011 and REG on 5/14/2011 (today). I am registered to take FAR on 7/9/2011. My question is: Should I start studying for FAR now and try to take in July, or should I wait until I get my BEC/REG scores and if I score below a passing grade, try to take those in the July/Aug testing window? What should be the plan of attack – retake a recent exam, or jump to the next section? Considering I wont be getting my BEC/REG scores until the end of June, I feel like precious study time will get wasted if I just wait around for those scores…
In a follow-up with OP, we discussed how he felt when he was done. “I can’t say I felt on top of the world when I left prometric – I had more of a numb feeling than anything else. The sims were ‘interesting,’ and the MCQs were pretty challenging too…I put a solid six/seven weeks for this exam following Bisk’s recommended study plan.”
With scoring a little jacked up through the end of this year, you should probably move on to the next section as if you passed. If you did, you made the right decision. If you didn’t, you’ll just have to go back and study it over. You don’t necessarily have to start from scratch but let’s not think about that, let’s assume you passed.
You don’t mention Audit so I don’t know what your 18 month timeline is but if you have the flexibility, you should usually try to plan for the strategy that costs you the least amount of time so you actually have the time if you need it.
You’re right not to wait and just go on to the next section.
Today’s CPA exam question from the mailbag has to do with a familiar topic to many of you: failure.
I slaved for an HOA audit firm and our busy season just officially ended. I found out last week that the very last day I can schedule to sit for REG is on 5/27 so that give me approximately 3 weeks to cram for the materials. I sat for that section in January and failed at 71. I am planning to spend 4 hours studying during the week and 8 hours to cram on Saturday and Sunday so I can study at most 36 hours per week. Should I go try for 5/27 or postpone the exam until July when I am more prepared?
Also, I am using both Becker & Gleim to review. In the past, I watched the Becker lectures, completed MCs and simluations on both Becker & Gleim and using Becker book to review. Due to not having enough time, should I just work on MCs and simluations and forgo re-watch the lectures?
Your advice is greatly appreciated.
Our candidate has also sent in her score report, included below:
We should point out here that our candidate admitted in a follow-up e-mail after very little badgering that she had, in fact, done poorly on the simulations as she suspected, telling us “I went into Regulation knowing that I was weak on simulations and as you can see on my score report, not making an effort reviewing and re-doing the simulations led to my failure.” And yes, it’s pretty clear to us that’s exactly what happened here.
With only three weeks to study before the new test date, it wouldn’t make sense to spend much time reviewing lectures or even entire chapters as a 71 shows an excellent command of the information and her score report confirms that suspicion. Unfortunately, the days of “kind of blowing the simulation part of the exam” are over with the advent of CBT-e, meaning you’re obviously going to have to do better in that area if you want to pass.
The good news is you get it, overall, except maybe for that federal tax process area. Check the CSOs (page 25 of the PDF) for more detailed info on what is tested in that area (naturally it has a lot to do with federal taxation) and practice problems in those areas. If you feel particularly lost in any one area, go ahead and read the chapter or watch a lecture over again but since time is of the essence, try not to use the lectures at all. Don’t get too focused on your one weak area, though, since you presumably haven’t studied any of this stuff for months. You’ll need a good once over (that means all your MCQ at a minimum) before exam day, so try to set aside at least three hours a day, more if you can fit it in. If you have more than three hours a day to study, try not to study for more than three hours at a time, break it up to some in the morning and some in the evening if you can.
As for the simulations, practice working through simulation problems while timing yourself. Set your cell phone alarm or an old school kitchen timer to work out 10 – 15 minutes per problem and start blasting through them on whatever software you still have access to in hour-long intervals. Work towards finishing each simulation in no more than 10 minutes as that will allow you time on exam day to review your sims once you have finished.