When Should You Take the CPA Exam?

By Brandon Vagner, CPA, Ph.D. & Former KPMG Manager

This is one of the most asked questions.  When should you take the CPA exam?  Well, there is definitely strategy in it.  Don’t let anybody tell you differently.  The last thing you want to do is just randomly schedule the CPA exam without really thinking the timeline through.

It is going to depend whether you are still in college or out in the work force already.  I’ll walk you through both cases.

CPA Exam Timing For the College Student

Let’s assume you are still in college.  Alright, the first thing to know is that, depending on which state you are in, you are more than likely going to be eligible to sit for the CPA exam during your graduate year whether you are pursing your MAcc or MBA.  Eligibility to sit is an entirely different article that i’ll be writing soon.

My advice is to NOT sit during the Fall semester of your graduate year.  You will be swamped with school related assignments during that first graduate semester and you will be getting used to a graduate level class load.

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The ideal time to schedule your first part is immediately following winter break.  Most universities give you 4 – 5 weeks off for winter break.  Treat the CPA exam like it is a job during those winter break weeks.  If you have a job, then treat it like your second job that requires more time!

You should take your second part during your Spring semester also.  By that time you will be used to the graduate load and will already have one CPA exam part under your belt.  The studying process should come easier, and it’s definitely when you should take that second part if you feel comfortable doing so with your class load.

The third and fourth parts should be scheduled during the summer following graduation.  Many graduates will not have an official start date at their accounting firm until the following Fall.  So, it is a perfect time to knock out the remainder of the CPA exam.  Trust me!  Get it done before you start work full time!

CPA Exam Timing For the Working Accountant

I know there are many of you out there who are working full time, and don’t have any parts passed yet.  That’s ok!  No matter what your situation is or why does not matter.  All that matters is that you pass your CPA exam as soon as possible.

You need to make sure you strategically think through planning out what months you will study and when you will schedule to take the official parts.  It’s going to be different whether you are on the audit or tax side of things, but the general rule of thumb for both is to know when your busy seasons are.  Not when the typical busy season is, but when is YOUR busy season.  At all costs, avoid studying or taking a part during your busy season.

The key for you is going to be utilizing your vacation time strategically.  If you are big-4, then you likely have 5 weeks of vacation.  I will say too that some accounting firms are going to unlimited vacation.  If you are lucky enough to work at a place with unlimited vacation, then have a discussion with your performance manager and tell him/her that you want to utilize that to your advantage to get the CPA exam passed quickly.

No matter how much vacation time you have, it ALL needs to go toward studying for the CPA exam.  Yes, I know it’s going to suck not using that time for actual vacation, but once you get it passed, it is over for good and you can go enjoy life again.  The key is to not let it drag out over years.  The one thing that will drastically better your chances of passing is to use that vacation time to study.

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