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What we can all learn from this 17-year-old who passed the CPA exam

By:
Jason Wong
Published Date:
Apr 9, 2015

Seventeen-Year-Old CPA ExamYou may have known at 13 that you wanted to pursue a career in accounting one day. But when Santa Clarita, Calif., resident Belicia Cespedes was that age, she was already on her way. The second oldest of five siblings—each of them homeschooled—she graduated from high school at 14, became certified in bookkeeping at 15 and started pursuing her bachelor’s in accounting—while working part-time for a CPA firm—before she was allowed to drive. Last fall, at the age of 17, she passed the CPA exam. [To put that achievement in perspective: According to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), for the past seven years, the average age of CPA exam candidates has been 29.] Now, with license in hand, she’s considering job offers and weighing the possibility of an advanced degree.

Though on the face of it, Cespedes sounds like the rare child prodigy, she’ll tell you that if she’s atypical, it’s not because she’s “more advanced or smarter.” The true trump card, she says, is her family’s philosophy about success. For one thing, while Cespedes and her siblings were allowed to work at their own pace and in a way that suited their strengths, they could only move on from a particular subject after they had mastered it. As a result, Cespedes said, they don’t back down from difficult tasks.

Could her strategies work for other aspiring CPAs? We asked Cespedes about the tactics she used to beat the CPA exam and compared them to test-taking advice we got from Mitchell Franklin, CPA, Ph.D., an assistant accounting professor at Syracuse University. Here’s how they match up.

Tactic No. 1: Study intensely, but don’t psych yourself out


How she did it:
Though Cespedes took test prep seriously, clocking between 12 to 14 hours of study time a day for six months, she tried not to let the thought of the exam overwhelm her. “I knew that if I took it step-by-step and did everything the prep courses asked of me, I’d be OK,” she said. What’s more, she carried that positive-but-not-pressured attitude into the testing center. “The first time I sat for a section, I wasn’t really nervous, because I went in thinking of it as a practice exam,” she said. By giving herself room to “feel the test out” rather than make it an all-or-nothing game, she ended up scoring much higher than she thought she would.

What the expert says: You don’t necessarily need to lock yourself in a room for half the day to study; according to Franklin, what matters most is that you be consistent, setting a study schedule and sticking to it. “My rule of thumb is to set aside two to two and a half hours a day to study without distractions, in a quiet room,” he said. “If you have a schedule and stick with it, you’re going to make progress.”  That’s even more important, he added, if, unlike Cespedes, you’ve been out of school for a while and are out of practice at studying. However, he does agree that it helps to “go into the test psychologically strong and to walk out saying, ‘I’ve done the best I can.’”

Tactic No. 2: Bounce back from failure


How she did it: 
Like most people who take the CPA exam, Cespedes didn’t pass all four sections the first time around, failing Regulation, as well as Financial Accounting and Reporting. (The exam has a passing rate of about 50 percent per section.) But rather than let the low scores discourage her, she doubled down on the areas that tripped her up. It helps to go in with the understanding that “the first time you take the exam, you may not pass it,” she said. At the same time, if you do fail, be prepared to snatch victory from defeat, paying attention to the kinds of questions the test asks and the specific areas you need to review, she said.

What the expert says: According to Franklin, it does pay to be realistic about the pass/fail rate and to have a plan for either outcome. “You’re probably afraid that if you do fail, your coworkers or bosses are going to think less of you,” he said. “But you have to realize that only a minority passes each of the sections right away.” Like Cespedes, he suggested that test takers try to “figure out why they failed and get it right next time,” rather than focus on the failure itself.

Tactic No. 3: Get in the habit of taking practice tests


How she did it:
As a lifelong homeschooler, Cespedes was used to independent study, and her strategy for preparing for the CPA exam reflected that: She relied on an online program and review guide to go over practice exams, questions and lessons.

What the expert says: Whether it’s solo or group study, there’s no one way to prepare for the exam; it essentially boils down to finding a routine that suits you best. But there is a benefit to answering as many practice exams as you can over and over again, Franklin said. Primarily, it helps you to get familiar with the test’s format and wording, which is half the test-taking battle.

Tactic No. 4: Find things to get excited about


How she did it:
Though Cespedes describes herself as self-motivated, she said she gets an extra boost from having some sort of treat to look forward to at the end of a journey. “My family celebrates everything,” she said. For example: They organized a flash mob performance when she passed the CPA exam and a party when she got her license. “Who doesn’t like a party?” she added.

What the expert says: While partying after you pass all four sections isn’t a bad idea, there are also other ways to keep your spirits up before you pass. To get your confidence soaring, Franklin suggests rethinking the order in which you take exam sections, and conquer the easiest first. While some experts argue that it’s better to get the toughest parts out of the way, Franklin said that by giving yourself a high probability of passing the first leg of the race, you’ll build up your ego, see that passing is possible and want to keep going.

Additional reporting by N. Sheree Saunders