Why YOU Cannot Pass the CPA Exam

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

Understanding common mistakes can go a long way in figuring out why you just can’t seem to pass the CPA exam.  I struggled with passing REG.  REG was the only section I failed, but it taught me a lot.  Also, as a CPA, I have TONS of friends who struggled with passing the CPA exam.  From my experience, those experiences I witnessed my friends go through, and experiences learned from my students, i’ve been able to put together this listing of likely reasons why you just can’t pass.

1) Don’t have a study blueprint – This one is HUGE, because so many people go into the CPA exam thinking that they will just get in the prep course software everyday and they will be fine.  This is the absolute wrong way to approach the CPA exam.  Your CPA review course certainly has its role, and finding a CPA review course that meets your learning needs is one of the most important things you can do, but it’s going to be up to YOU to lay out a monthly/weekly/daily study plan.  Make sure you do this BEFORE you start day one of studying for whichever section you plan to study for next.

2) Don’t have a quality support group – The CPA exam is a looooong process that is difficult for many.  It’s difficult for various reasons, but one of those is that it consumes your life and many people just don’t have a great support system.  When I was taking the CPA exam, I had many friends who had either already taken the exam or hadn’t even started studying yet.  Not to mention, I only had a handful of really close friends from my accounting program.  So, even if my close friends had been taking it at the same time I was, I was extremely limited with the amount of feedback and support.  Does any of this sound familiar to your situation?

So, what do most people immediately do?  They hit the online CPA exam forums.  I seriously caution you to do this though, and i’m a firm believer this is a major reason why many people actually fail the CPA exam.  The majority of online CPA forums are extremely negative from a comment perspective, and who the heck wants to use a standard forum based platform these days.

You’re probably wondering what the best option for you is then.  You need a group of people CURRENTLY taking the CPA exam who are extremely motivated themselves and want to help you succeed.  You also need this community of like minding people to be hosted on an engaging platform that is easy to use.  Your options for this is extremely limited, and that is why I started the CPA Exam Success Mastermind Group (Members Only).  For more information on this great resource, head over to the CPA Exam Mastermind Group informational page.

3) Were never taught key planning strategies – Yes, they REALLY matter!  I’m going to keep this one brief, because there are so many strategies involved with taking the CPA exam, and I cover them in detail within my email newsletter, which you can subscribe to below.  The bottom line is that there are many factors at play, and it is critical for you to approach studying for the CPA exam with the right strategies.

4) Don’t have a CPA exam prep course that fits your learning needs – You might be one of the many people who just buy the prep course your CPA firm or friend recommended.  If you haven’t made this mistake yet, good!  Don’t simply go with a prep course without really understanding all the course options.  An extremely important factor that most don’t even think about are the instructor personalities.  The market has quite the assortment of CPA exam review course instructor personalities.  If you think they are all the same, then it’s a good thing you stumbled across this article.  You have to find a personality that meets your learning needs.  Check out my review of the best CPA review courses, and learn about the different options on the market.

5) You are not focusing on improving your weaknesses during the heart of the prep course – Whatever you do, do not skip sections within your CPA exam prep.  Just please don’t!  Avoiding your weaknesses during the primary prep sessions is EXTREMELY easy to do, but it is also going to be a habit that will seriously reduce your chances of passing.  Make sure you are putting the time in for areas of study that you just don’t like or aren’t that good at.  You have to learn them too, and it’s going to cut it by briefing over those areas at the last minute.

6) You are focusing too much on your weaknesses during the final prep week – This point has a perfect relationship with the #5 above.  People have a tendency to try and cram for their trouble areas at the last minute.  More specifically, during the final review process.  The final review days or week is not the time to focus on your weaknesses.  The immediate days leading up to your section exam should be spent reinforcing your strong areas and relaxing before the big day.

7) You don’t even pay attention to your prep course dashboard results – Most CPA exam prep courses have good user dashboards that provide you with high level and detailed information outlining your strengths and weaknesses.  Some people think that by just moving through all the material, they will, by some miracle, pass the CPA exam.  This just isn’t true guys.  You have to proactively monitor how you are doing, and give attention to weak areas.  It is just apart of the CPA exam game.

8) You don’t time yourself during your practice questions and exams – When you take any part of the official CPA exam, you are timed.  It’s a completely different experience than sitting at your kitchen table and moving through questions with no timer.  You don’t have 7 minutes for each question.  You HAVE to be able to move through each question in under a couple minutes, and you HAVE to be able to notice when you are taking too long so that you can get an answer marked and move to the next question.  So many find themselves in trouble on the official exam because they don’t practice timing themselves.

RELATED: What CPA exam success feels like

9) You don’t try to understand why the incorrect answers are incorrect – If I took a poll of how many people are guilty of this, my guess would be that a large percentage of you reading this do not go through the incorrect answers in detail.  Put yourself in the shoes of an exam writer.  To mix things up, you simply approach a question from a similar but different angle.  If you really want to get the most out of your prep course, make sure you understand why the incorrect answers are incorrect.

10) You are not willing to dig down deep into a concept – The average attention span of an adult is debatable, but some put the figure at 8 seconds.  Others put it at 20 minutes.  The short answer is that most of us have extremely short attention spans.  It is what it is, and we just have to be aware of this as we study for the CPA exam.  You cannot allow a short attention span to get in the way of digging down into a concept.

If you really want to help improve your attention span, don’t watch much television and don’t get on social media leading up to and during your CPA exam studies.  You’ll notice that most television shows and movies change camera angles every 6 – 8 seconds.  This is directly because of the attention span issue, but it also is directly impacting your attention span.  I use social media just like most of you, but it definitely does not help your attention span.  Try your best to limit your social media use during studying for the CPA exam.  Especially, limit use during your actual study sessions.

11) You are trying to study every day with a study partner – I’m a huge fan of finding a high quality mastermind group to be apart of, but i’m not a fan of actually sitting down and studying with somebody on a daily basis.  Everybody moves at their own pace, and it’s my personal opinion that having a daily study partner will significantly hurt your chances of succeeding.  Not to mention, you don’t want to deal with trying to work around somebody else’s schedule.  If they try to reschedule with you for whatever reason, it’s just too easy to fall behind.

12) People asking you for help is cutting into your study time – This is a tough one!  Helping others is extremely important, but you MUST be aware of how much time you are putting into helping others when you should be studying for your own CPA exam.  I get it!  You don’t want to say no to people, but you just have to when you are trying to knock out the CPA Exam.  Just to be clear, i’m not saying don’t help people out with their studies.  I’m just saying limit how much time you devote to it.  You’ll have the rest of your life to chip in and help others all you want.

13) Don’t understand the primary approach your prep course takes – Yes, some companies take drastically different approaches to the CPA exam prep process.  Some are designed to have you watch hours and hours of lectures before working practice problems, and others have you move through practice problems first to identify your weaknesses and reduce the need for you to watch lectures that you already likely have mastered.

14) You don’t know how to properly use flashcards to study – HUGE!  I think many people get it wrong when it comes to incorporating flashcards into the study plan.  70% of your flashcard time should be spent on your weak areas.  The other 30% should be spent reinforcing the strong areas.  This percent split should be applied during the primary weeks of your prepping.  Once you hit your final review week, most all of your attention should shift to your strong areas.

15) You are trying to study during a difficult semester – Just don’t do it!  Don’t try and cram for a CPA exam part during an extremely difficult semester.  You should be able to speak with students already in the program to get an idea for how difficult your semesters will be.

16) You are trying to study during busy season – Again, just don’t do it!  Your body needs sleep in order for you to operate at your max, and you need to operate at your max to pass the CPA exam.  Many people think they can handle it, but please take my word on this one.  It’s just not a good idea for most people.

17) You scheduled too many parts at once with little time between them – I get it that you want to get this darn exam done and over with, but scheduling all your parts at once is not going to help you pass.  The only time I scheduled two parts at the same time was during the summer.  I knew EXACTLY what my schedule was like and that it wasn’t going to change.  My recommendation is to start out by scheduling just one part and possibly a second.  Try and avoid scheduling any more than two parts at once.

18) You can’t get motivated – Whether you know it now or not, you have one of the greatest business degrees you can have and many people only wish they could get through an accounting program.  Your accounting degree, with a CPA license, will give you so many opportunities in life!  There are literally billions of people who would trade you professional life scenarios right now.

Some of you say to yourself, “well, i’m just not sure accounting is for me.”  That’s fine!  I support anybody who wants to go a different direction, but the majority of you will stay in some business related field.  Just trust me when I say that your CPA license will pay dividends in the future for you even if you don’t want to do accounting for the rest of your life.

19) Can’t focus when you sit down to study – For most people, this issue is nothing more than not wanting to fully commit to the fact that you have to forego having a lot of fun for a relatively short period of time.  For those people, you just have to commit and go at it full steam ahead.  Try and make it a game against yourself.  Try and better your practice question percentages every week.

If you truly cannot focus due to a possible medical reason (e.g. ADHD).  My advice would be to go see a doctor.  I have family members who suffer from ADHD, and I can tell you from observing it first hand that medicine can do wonders for you.  For those that know me, i’m definitely anti pharmacy, but you can’t let a focusing issue be the reason for not passing the CPA exam.

20) Haven’t put your family & friends on notice – The very first thing I did was tell my family and friends what my study schedule was, and that there was no chance of me missing a study block to do anything else.  It was one of the best things I did to help me succeed on the CPA exam.

21) You can’t let go of a past part failure – I almost got sucked into this mindset, but you just have to tell yourself that the past is the past and there is nothing you can do about it now.  The only thing you can do is try and learn why you failed so you can adjust your studying.

Even if you have failed all four parts, just forget about it!  That is NOT a reflection of your intelligence and certainly NOT a reflection of your career potential as a CPA.  There are many reasons why people fail, most of the time it comes down to simply not having the right prep course, support group, study plan, and commitment.  Pick your head up, and let’s get that CPA exam knocked out!

22) You don’t have a a good study environment – If you’re studying at the kitchen table every night with other people around, it’s just not going to cut it.  Especially, if those other people are kids. You have to figure out a way to get time to yourself for studying.

If you’re single with no kids, figure out where you are least distracted.  It might be at your kitchen table, the local coffee shop, the library.  Wherever it is, just understand what works best for you and make sure you get there.

If you have kids, it does get a little more difficult.  I get that!  Have you every heard of the Miracle Morning?  If not, you should read it.  My guess is that your house is pretty quite from 4:30am to 7:00am.  If that is true, that’s going to be your time to study.  The family will be asleep, and you’ll be able to knock out some serious studying.  Now, if you’re married, your spouse needs to understand that they need to take all kid responsibility by 8pm, because you’re going to need a good nights rest if you’re going to be getting up at 4:30am.  Here is a PRO TIP.  Start this routine 1 – 2 weeks BEFORE you start studying for the CPA exam.  That way your body is used to it.

23) You aren’t attending the prep course lessons – If the prep course you purchased is grounded in a lesson based approach, you HAVE to attend the lessons whether they are in-person or online.  Just don’t skip!

24) You are working too much – Many of you reading this are either already working in public accounting or will be soon.  During your first few years you will be working a lot.  There is no getting around that unless you drop to part time, which for some people this might be necessary to get the CPA exam passed.  It’s not the greatest option, but if you can afford it, you might want to consider it.

For the majority, part time is not an option.  So, what do you do?  Take advantage of your vacation time.  You must sacrifice most all of your paid time off for purposes of studying for the CPA exam.  I understand all you want to do is go to the beach, but trust me that there will be tons of time for that once you get the CPA exam passed.

25) You are playing too much – This one can get you no matter how old you are.  We all like to enjoy ourselves, but you have to limit that fun when studying for the CPA exam.  If you are playing on the company softball team, a volleyball league, and attending trivia nights a couple times per week, then you are probably having too much fun for somebody trying to pass the CPA exam.  Limit yourself to just one fun activity per week.

26) You don’t have a weekly social activity / hobby – On the complete flip side of #25 above, there are people who literally don’t do anything except study.  This is not good if you fall into this category!  Make sure you are having some sort of fun each week.  We all need a break from time to time.  Let yourself have some fun, and it will surely help your studying.

27) You are trying to self-prep to save money – Review course costs are certainly high.  It’s not just CPA review courses that are expensive, but review courses across the board are expensive.  The first thing to keep in mind is that this is your professional career we’re talking about.  Some estimate that a CPA license translates to an additional $1,000,000 earnings potential over your lifetime.  With that said, a $2,000 review course doesn’t seem that expensive in the grand scheme of things.

If you literally don’t have $2,000, consider purchasing a prep course that offers a payment plan. That way, you don’t have to pay all that money upfront.  If that is not something you want to do, then you’re going to need to consider sucking up your pride and ask a close family member or friend to borrow $2,000.  A quality prep course is key to your success, and you just can’t ignore that fact.

28) You are not taking advantage of studying during holidays and breaks – Paid holidays and/or academic breaks such as winter break are massively important to your success.  These should be incorporated into everybody’s study plan.

29) You are not sacrificing your vacation time for studying – Cancun can wait!  It will be there next year!  What you don’t want to be lingering around next year is your CPA exam.  Use that vacation time to get ahead with your CPA studies.

30) You don’t take advantage of studying in the morning – I touched on this one above when I talked about your study environment.  The mornings are a wonderful way to knock out your CPA studying for the day, or at least a large portion of it.  The great thing about the morning is that nobody is going to bother you.  Not your family, not your work, not your friends.  Nobody!  It’s a time to yourself, and many successful people use the mornings to their advantage.

31) You dream too much about the jobs you can get IF you pass – Everybody likes to dream!  I’m guilty of it too, but most of those accounting related career dreams will never come true if you don’t get the CPA exam passed!  Plain and simple!  Don’t let your thoughts wonder off too far into the future.  Focus on getting the CPA exam done!

32) You simply don’t like to put the time in – Nothing worth getting in life is easy!  You just have to get used to the fact that putting substantial amounts of time into things like the CPA exam are just apart of achieving career success.  Don’t let yourself fall into a mindset of not wanting to put time in.  Putting time in is what separates losers from winners.

33) You are not exercising – The mind and body work together, and taking care of your body is extremely important for operating at your maximum.  I made it a point to workout every other day while I was studying for the CPA exam.  I’m convinced that working out was not only a stress reliever, but it also significantly helped my focus when I was studying.

34) You are not eating right – Nutrition is something I used to know nothing about.  I admittedly had an awful diet.  It wasn’t until I married my beautiful wife that I started eating healthy.  Her and her family take nutrition very serious, and it was eye opening how impactful your diet is on your overall health and ability to perform.  Make sure you are eating right!

35) You are dealing with a major family or health issue – I’ve seen health and family issues seriously impact people’s progression toward goals.  It’s life, and it unfortunately happens.  I hope you haven’t experienced this, but if you have just know that it’s ok to take a break from the CPA exam when things like this arise.  Do your best to get back into the swing of studying.  There really is not a perfect time to do so.  Keep your head up and striving toward your goals!

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