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NextGen Magazine


I Failed the CPA Exam

Published Date:
Jan 2, 2014

It is the stuff of nightmares, the scenario every would-be CPA dreads: You watch the lectures, sit in on the review classes and join a study group. You skip out on the family vacation and put your on-again-off-again relationship on hold just so you can focus. But after weeks of preparation and hours spent in a stuffy room, you’re hit with the bad news: you’ve failed the CPA exam. Maybe you just barely came up short or maybe you bombed big time; either way you don’t get to sail off into the sunset.

The truth? This happens to more of the test’s takers than you might think; a sizable number of CPAs have, at one point or another, failed the exam. According to the National Association of the State Boards of Accountancy, only about 1 in 5 people who take the Uniform CPA Examination pass all four parts on the first try. Indeed, last year, as the AICPA reports, the passing rates for each of the four individual sections of the test typically hovered below 50 percent; just one, Business Environment and Concepts, regularly climbed above that mark. However, failing is just one part of the story; what comes next, according to CPAs who’ve been there, depends on both your willingness to get back in the saddle and your readiness to learn from your mistakes.

Joseph Viola, a member of the NYSSCPA’s Nassau Chapter, was certified in October 2012, after spending two years trudging back and forth to test centers. “I sat a total of 17 times before I passed all the sections,” he said. For Viola, part of the problem was that he underestimated the exam—and overestimated how well he’d prepared for it. (Walking out the door after his first section, auditing, he felt pretty good, he said; that feeling dissipated when he learned that he scored a 67.) Looking back, he also realized that he had been distracted by major life events that were competing for his time and energy: in addition to studying for the CPA exam, he was also planning a wedding and buying a house. Viola’s original plan was to take the four sections back to back, over the course of six to nine months and, once he became certified, move on to the next level of his career. But whenever he got a bad grade, he said, he was tempted to give up.  “It was so discouraging,” he recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘this is it,’ and ‘at what point do I say I can’t afford this anymore?’ I was done and I wanted my life back.”  Still, he tried to remind himself of the light at the end of the tunnel: the piece of paper, his CPA certification, that would carry him through the rest of his career. The thought of it spurred him on.  In examining what worked and what didn’t when it came to study habits, Viola saw that he had been taking “a very high school or college approach” to exam prep, meaning that he would confine his efforts to sitting through classes. But after failing the first time, he knew that he needed to do much more self-study. This meant that, instead of simply watching lectures, he took practice test after practice test, grinding away at the multiple-choice questions. “Self-study was the thing for me,” he said. “I think I did 100,000 multiple choice questions over time.” It also helped that he took a job closer to home, which gave him more time each night to study. When he finally did pass, “it was such a weight lifted off my shoulders,” Viola said. “I knew I needed my certification—and that I couldn’t stop until I got it.” Like Viola, Justin Francis, a Rockland County CPA who took the test 10 times before passing it, realized he would have to change his study methods if he wanted to see improvements. “The first time around, I watched a lot of lecture videos,” he said. “I think that’s where I went wrong.” Francis, too, found that practicing with multiple-choice questions was an effective method. He also joined a review class. “When I first walked into the exam room, I didn’t feel like I was prepared enough,” he said. “I realized that there was no way I could do this on my own, from a self-study standpoint.” He also knew, he said, that by shoring up the weak spots in how he prepared for the test, success was in reach. “I knew I was just making some mistakes and my study habits needed to change,” he said.

Missed by a hair Magda Reyes, a Mid Hudson Chapter member who earned her certification in September 2012, said she didn’t take the exam seriously enough in the beginning—and even after she did decide to buckle down, she missed a passing score on her first section, business environments and concepts, literally by one point. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “That one point.”

Reyes said that, for her, scheduling was a big issue the first time she sat for the test: she had arranged to take the four sections on dates that were “way too close together.” In addition, she said that her main mode of studying, listening to lectures, simply wasn’t working for her, since she didn’t seem to be retaining the information that she was supposed to be picking up.

“I don’t know whether it was because I was overly tired, but listening to the CD-rom lectures was ineffective for me,” she said.

In the end, what worked, she said—like Viola and Francis—was doing sample multiple-choice tests over and over. Though she too felt discouraged at points, she was already seeing how the lack of certification was affecting her work, and it provided the motivation she needed.

“The first year [at my job] I didn’t have any of my parts done, so I didn’t get a promotion,” she said. “The second year, I got one, because I had three parts, but they were still a little hesitant because I didn’t quite have the fourth finished,” she said. When she did finally pass, she said, “it was the best feeling in the world.”

A success story in the making

Not even NYSSCPA President-elect Scott Adair, who was certified in 2000, was immune to CPA-exam blues; he failed some 12 times, a fact he shared at the NYSSCPA’s Young CPA conference last June. “Every May and November, I would trudge off to Buffalo, sit in the convention center all day, drive back home that night and go, ‘I don’t know what I just did,’” he said. This went on for four years, until he reached a point where, “I thought to myself, ‘I love accounting [but] I’m probably never going to be a CPA,’” he said.

As a result, he stopped trying. Though he remained in the profession, he spent his time working in areas that didn’t require certification. Still, he could see how it was costing him career-wise. He said that while he had the core competencies that were required for the job, his lack of a CPA designation meant that “I missed out on promotions and watched younger people pass me by.”

“I knew I could be supervising these people and doing the same work they were doing, but I just couldn’t get this exam out of the way,” he said. It wasn’t until a close friend intervened two years later that he made a breakthrough. That friend, who was preparing to take the test herself, urged him to retake the exam, bringing him into her study group and giving him the push he needed.

It was then that Adair, who had initially relied on self-study to prepare for the tests, realized that he needed the more guided study that classes can offer. He took the test a few more times before acing the exam. Adair recalls his passing as a proud moment that ultimately became a launch pad for his overall career: as soon as he told a partner at his firm that he’d passed, that partner immediately made some calls to promote him to manager, “and everything’s been wonderful as far as career progression goes since that moment,” he said.

The Takeaway
Is there another form of study that might work better for me? 

Some of the CPAs we talked to benefitted from self-study and sample tests; others needed the formal atmosphere of a classroom, or a combination of both. If your preferred method hasn’t been getting you the results you need, perhaps it’s time to consider another route. (FYI, neither the AICPA nor the NYSSCPA endorses any one review method or course, but they do suggest that test takers ask faculty members or colleagues for recommendations.)

Have I given myself enough time to prepare?

As a general rule of thumb, the AICPA recommends 400 hours of study time to prepare for the exam, or about 100 hours per section.

Am I taking the test seriously enough? 

The thought of the exam shouldn’t send you into cold sweats, but your approach should be purpose.