18 Proven Strategies on How to Study for the CPA Exam

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Around half of all those looking for tips on how to study for the CPA exam will fail the first time. This is one of the most important accounting statistics that the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) hopes to improve as they advise CPA candidates on how to prepare for the new CPA exam.

Using their guidance while drawing from the collective wisdom of seasoned CPAs and those currently in the trenches of exam prep, I’ve distilled a list of 18 CPA exam prep tips. These tips go beyond just studying the CPA exam blueprints; they help you figure out a plan that will work for your schedule, learning style, and, most importantly, what works.

Crafting a study strategy for the CPA exam can feel overwhelming, but learning from those who’ve successfully navigated this journey can provide invaluable insights. Below are CPA exam tips based on firsthand accounts from CPA candidates and those who have passed already to guide you through your CPA exam preparation:

Key Takeaways

  • Strategic Planning is Crucial: Schedule exam sections early to set clear study milestones and allocate sufficient preparation time.

  • Effective Study Techniques Enhance Retention: Utilize iterative study cycles, highlighting, and summarization for deeper understanding.

  • Practice Exams are Key: Mock tests familiarize you with the exam format and help you manage time effectively during the actual test.

  • Discipline and Focus Matter: Implement a social media detox and create a distraction-free environment to sharpen study focus.

  • Support Systems Boost Success: Leverage the encouragement and assistance of friends and family to navigate the preparation journey more smoothly.

Planning and Scheduling

1. Strategic Planning with Testing Windows

“I planned the dates of each CPA exam section as soon as the testing window opened,” reflects a successful CPA candidate. This foresight sets clear milestones, ensuring you know your study targets well in advance, like scheduling FAR first to allocate ample time for its extensive material.

This strategic approach allows for a structured study plan, minimizing last-minute cramming and maximizing coverage of the vast syllabus. Early planning and scheduling of the Uniform CPA Exam accommodate unforeseen events, ensuring that your study schedule remains flexible yet focused all the way up to test day.

2. Maximizing Early Morning Hours

Another candidate shares, “I started getting up at 4 AM... getting up early gave me at least 3 hours every day.” Adjusting to an earlier bedtime can help accommodate this change, leveraging the morning’s distraction-free hours for productive study. This strategy taps into the quietude of dawn, often cited as the most productive time of day.

It’s a testament to the saying, “The early bird catches the worm,” where those precious morning hours can lead to significant progress over time. Moreover, this routine instills discipline, a crucial trait for CPA candidates juggling multiple responsibilities.

3. Setting Short-term Targets During Travel

Utilizing travel time effectively by setting specific study targets, such as reviewing a set number of MCQs or a chapter, turns travel downtime into valuable study opportunities. “I always used to keep smaller targets that I had to work on during the travel week,” a consultant on the move recounts.

This approach not only keeps the momentum going but also makes large volumes of material more manageable. It demonstrates how flexibility in study habits can turn even the most challenging schedules into opportunities for advancement. Additionally, it underscores the importance of adaptability, a skill that proves invaluable in both exam preparation and professional life.

Study Techniques and Material Engagement

4. Iterative Study Cycles

“I planned to go over the course material, sample questions, etc., at least four times before the exam,” a diligent student explains. This phased study approach ensures deep familiarity with the content through repeated exposure. Each iteration not only reinforces knowledge but also builds confidence, reducing anxiety as the exam approaches.

This methodical repetition is akin to layering paint; each coat adds depth and richness, ensuring a flawless finish. It’s a strategy that rewards patience and persistence, qualities that are indispensable for those wanting to become a certified public accountant.

5. Effective Highlighting and Marking

“I kept highlighting and marking the course material while studying so I wouldn’t miss an important piece during revision,” says a candidate. Using different colors to differentiate between frequently forgotten points and well-understood concepts aids in quick navigation during revisions.

This tactile interaction with the material engages more senses, enhancing the memory retention of test takers. It’s a personalized approach to studying, where the physical act of marking and highlighting serves as a mental bookmark, guiding quick reviews and efficient study sessions. Furthermore, this strategy transforms passive reading into an active study session, making each review more productive.

6. Summarization and Quick Reference Guides

Creating bullet-point summaries for each chapter and using sticky flags for essential pages facilitates quick reviews. “I noted important bullet points for each chapter in a Word document,” a candidate preparing for a last-minute review shares. This concise distillation of complex topics into digestible points simplifies revision, making it less daunting.

It’s a creative exercise that not only aids in retention but also in understanding, as the process of summarization demands a deep engagement with the material. Moreover, these summaries become invaluable resources during the final hours before the exam, offering a lifeline to the most crucial information.

7. Tackle Task-Based Simulation Questions Focused Practice

“Task-based simulations always seemed harder to me, especially with the shock of multiple exhibits in each sim,” shares a candidate reflecting on their experience. This sentiment highlights the complexity and the often unexpected volume of information presented in simulations. To navigate this challenge, reinforcing tough areas through targeted practice is essential. Engaging deeply with practice exams that include both multiple-choice questions and simulations can help build familiarity with the format and improve your ability to analyze and apply information under exam conditions.

8. Scheduled Mock Tests

Taking sample exams to familiarize yourself with the exam format and pace is one of the best CPA exam tips. “I took two mock tests for each section—a week before the exam and a day before,” a candidate aiming for pacing perfection mentions. This practice not only demystifies the exam experience but also highlights areas needing further study.

It’s a proactive approach to exam preparation, where each practice exam serves as a rehearsal for the actual exam date. Additionally, these tests offer a realistic assessment of readiness, providing a benchmark against which to measure progress and adjust study strategies accordingly.

Focus and Discipline

9. Social Media Detox

“I stopped using FB, Twitter, Quora for those 6 months,” a disciplined candidate recalls, highlighting the importance of cutting out distractions to reclaim hours for studying or engaging in relaxing activities that don’t involve screen time.

This self-imposed isolation from digital noise sharpens focus, directing energy towards more productive endeavors like CPA exam prep. It’s a testament to the power of sacrifice, where temporary withdrawal from online social spaces can lead to significant gains in personal and professional development. Moreover, this period of detox can foster deeper connections with the material, allowing for a more immersive study experience.

10. Creating a Distraction-Free Study Environment

Finding a quiet study space and using apps like Forest to limit phone usage ensures focused study time. “When it’s study time, it’s study time” emphasizes the importance of a dedicated study environment. This sanctity of space and time, free from interruptions, is crucial for deep work, where complex concepts can be explored and understood.

It’s about creating a bubble of concentration where the outside world fades away, leaving only you and the material. This deliberate setting of boundaries around study time respects the gravity of the task at hand, acknowledging that mastering the CPA exam content requires undivided attention.

Revision and Memory Techniques

11. Track and Learn from Mistakes

“I attended MCQs and simulations and made a note of my mistakes in Excel and highlighted it in red,” a methodical student describes. This active engagement with the material helps turn weaknesses into strengths. It’s a strategic approach to learning where errors are not seen as failures but as opportunities for growth.

This meticulous tracking of mistakes ensures that no lesson is lost, building a foundation of knowledge that is both broad and deep. Furthermore, this is one of the study methods that encourages a mindset of continuous improvement, where each study session is an opportunity to refine and expand understanding.

12. Leverage AICPA-released questions and Practice Tests

Dedicating time to AICPA-released questions and practice tests offers insights into the exam’s structure. “I did the same for AICPA-released questions and for the tests available on the AICPA website,” a candidate said, focusing on real exam conditions. This exposure to official materials bridges the gap between theory and practice, offering a glimpse into the examiner’s mindset.

It’s a strategic alignment of study efforts with exam expectations, ensuring that preparation is as targeted and efficient as possible. Additionally, this engagement with official resources can alleviate exam-day anxiety by familiarizing candidates with the format and style of questions they will encounter.

Health, Well-being, and Support

13. Balanced Breaks and Stress Management

“I still went on my 3-week-long international trip... and still managed to get 6 hours of sleep on average,” a candidate balancing study with life experiences shares. These breaks are crucial for maintaining mental sharpness and preventing fatigue. It’s a holistic approach to exam preparation, recognizing that mental and physical well-being are integral to cognitive performance.

These planned pauses are not just escapes but essential components of a sustainable study regimen, ensuring that the mind remains agile and receptive. Moreover, this balance between work and play reinforces the importance of well-being in achieving long-term goals.

14. Build a Support System System

“My gf fully supported me during those 6 months,” a grateful candidate acknowledges the importance of having a supportive partner or network to share household responsibilities, allowing more focused study time. This collaboration extends beyond mere logistical help; it’s a psychological booster, knowing someone believes in your goals and is willing to make sacrifices for your success. It underscores the role of emotional support in navigating the pressures of CPA preparation.

The journey to passing the CPA exam is not just an individual endeavor but a collective effort, where the encouragement and understanding of loved ones can make all the difference. This support system becomes a pillar of strength, offering motivation and comfort while trying to pass the CPA exam.

Resource Selection

15. Choosing the Right CPA Study Materials

Selecting CPA prep courses that fit your learning style is crucial. “Also, I won’t do justice to this answer without mentioning Becker course materials that I used,” a candidate grateful for the right resources shares, emphasizing the difference the right materials can make. The selection process involves evaluating content quality, teaching methodologies, and compatibility with personal learning preferences. It’s about finding resources that not only cover the exam syllabus comprehensively but also resonate with your study habits.

Whether it’s through video lectures, interactive simulations, or extensive question banks, the right study materials can transform the daunting task of CPA exam preparation into a manageable and even enjoyable journey. Furthermore, investing in quality resources is investing in your future, setting the stage for not just passing the exam but excelling at it.

Incorporating Personal Insights

16. Incorporate Regular Study Breaks

“Breaks will give your mind a rest and make you fresh and ready for more content,” a candidate who values balance advises, suggesting that short, scheduled pauses can refresh your mind. These moments of respite are not merely pauses in study but opportunities for the brain to process and integrate new information. They serve as mental resets, preventing burnout and enhancing overall productivity.

By strategically incorporating breaks into your study schedule, you’re not just resting; you’re optimizing your brain’s ability to learn and retain information. This disciplined approach to rest underscores the science of learning, where quality often trumps quantity.

17. Prepare Mentally Before Each Session

“Before every study session, stop for a second and get your mind right,” a focused student recommends, highlighting the importance of mental preparation for enhancing concentration and study effectiveness. This mental alignment can involve visualization techniques, setting specific session goals, or simply taking deep breaths to center oneself. It’s a ritual that signals to your brain that it’s time to focus, creating a psychological threshold that separates study time from other daily activities. This preparation is akin to an athlete’s warm-up before a race, ensuring that you’re mentally primed and ready to take on the challenges ahead with full concentration.

18. Stay Motivated

“Remind yourself why you are studying,” suggests a candidate who kept pushing through. Motivation can ebb and flow, but keeping your eyes on the prize—whether it’s career advancement, personal satisfaction, or financial rewards—can help maintain momentum. Setting up a vision board, celebrating small victories, or simply reflecting on your progress can reignite your drive during moments of doubt or fatigue.

It’s about connecting the hard work of today with the dreams of tomorrow, making every study session a step towards realizing those aspirations. Motivation is the fuel that keeps you moving forward, turning obstacles into opportunities for growth and learning.


Preparing for the CPA exam demands a strategic and disciplined approach, integrating effective planning, study techniques, and a focus on creating a conducive learning environment. Adopting proven strategies such as early scheduling, iterative study cycles, and practice exams, alongside establishing a distraction-free study space, significantly enhances a candidate’s chances of success.

Furthermore, personal insights, managing well-being, and leveraging support from friends and family are essential in maintaining motivation and focus throughout the study process. The journey to CPA exam success is a clear reflection of a candidate’s dedication, resilience, and commitment to achieving both personal and professional growth.


How early should I start studying for the CPA exam?

Start as soon as you decide to take the exam. Successful candidates often begin their preparation 6-12 months in advance, depending on their schedule and the exam sections. Early planning allows for a structured study plan and accommodates unforeseen events, ensuring flexibility and focus.

Is it better to study for one section of the CPA exam at a time or multiple?

Focusing on one section at a time allows for deeper concentration and understanding, especially given the vast amount of material covered in each section. This approach minimizes confusion and ensures you can dedicate your full attention to mastering each section before moving on.

How can I effectively use mock exams in my study plan?

Schedule mock exams at strategic points in your study plan, ideally one a week before the exam and another a day before. This helps familiarize you with the exam format, pace, and types of questions, providing a realistic assessment of your readiness and areas needing improvement.

What’s the best way to manage distractions while studying for the CPA exam?

Implement a social media detox and create a distraction-free study environment. Using apps like Forest can help limit phone usage, and dedicating a specific quiet space for study can enhance focus. Communicate your study schedule to those around you to minimize interruptions.

How important are study breaks, and how should I incorporate them?

Study breaks are crucial for preventing burnout and enhancing memory retention. Incorporate short, scheduled breaks to give your mind a rest, using this time for light, relaxing activities. This disciplined approach to rest is essential for maintaining long-term study momentum.

Can the support of friends and family impact my CPA exam preparation?

Absolutely. Having a supportive network can significantly impact your preparation, offering both logistical help and emotional support. Sharing household responsibilities and having someone believe in your goals can provide motivation and comfort during challenging times, making the journey less daunting.

How do I choose the right study materials for the CPA exam?

Evaluate study materials based on content quality, teaching methodologies, and compatibility with your learning style. Look for resources that offer comprehensive coverage, interactive elements, and extensive practice questions. Trying free demos or samples can help you make an informed decision.

What strategies can I use to improve memory retention and understanding of complex topics?

Active engagement techniques like iterative study cycles, effective highlighting and marking, and making detailed notes of mistakes can enhance understanding and retention. These strategies turn passive reading into active learning, ensuring a deeper grasp of the material.

How can I stay motivated throughout the CPA exam preparation process?

Keep your ultimate goals in sight, whether they’re career advancement, personal satisfaction, or financial rewards. Setting up a vision board, celebrating small victories, and reflecting on your progress can help maintain motivation. Remember, every study session is a step toward achieving your aspirations.

What’s the most effective way to use the early morning hours for studying?

Leverage the quietude of dawn, often the most productive time of day, by adjusting your schedule to wake up early. This can provide distraction-free hours for focused study. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of discipline and the benefits of starting your day with progress toward your goals.