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As much as I hate stereotypes, I am writing a blog post for an accounting website. I am going to go out on a limb and make an assumption that my audience is type-A, loves making lists and organizing information (guilty, as charged!). As such, I am organizing some CPA exam study tips in a list form. These are tips that I wish I would’ve known when I first started studying, or nuggets of advice I feel contributed to my success.
1) Take breaks!
Do not study for more than 90 minutes straight. It is scientifically proven that your brain’s ability to retain information is severely impaired after 90 minutes. This was a difficult concept for me to grasp because in grad school I would spend hours writing, researching and putting together presentations. This was fine, I did not have to retain information, I just had to get things done. This was a crucial mistake I made the first time I failed the CPA exam. I would hole myself in the library for 4-5 hours Saturday and Sunday. When I was taking the exam, I remembered seeing the information, but I didn’t remember the details. During a video lecture, one of the CPAExcel professors told us about the 90 minute rule and I wondered if that could help me. The second time around, I put more emphasis on retention. For example, on the weekends I would study first thing in the morning, run errands, ride my bike, or see friends as my “break” and study again in the afternoon. I re-took an exam after embracing the concept of breaks and I improved my score… by 15 points.
2) Do not underestimate your lunch break.
I rarely, if ever, go out to eat for lunch. I am trying to trim my budget and whenever I go out, my eating habits are atrocious. I pack my lunch bag full of leftovers (don’t judge, I’m cooking for one!), and after I eat, check my personal email and twitter, I have 45 minutes. This is great because my work is quiet and free of distractions (our internet blocks all social media websites). Since I am only studying for 45 minutes, I am well within the 90 minute rule (see #1) and it is easier to retain information.
When I first planned to take the exam, I set up rules for myself; no going out, no seeing friends, no TV, no alcohol, study, study, study. I was miserable and I still failed. I learned everything is fine, in moderation. Study during the day, but get dinner with friends (you gotta eat!). Drink wine and watch TV, after studying for a few hours when you get home from work. Don’t forego your hobbies, do them to relax during a study break (see #1). Set daily/weekly goals on what lessons you will cover, and as long as you can meet those goals, go have fun!
4) Take advantage of little bits of time
I am lucky that my course provider has a mobile app where I can throw together a quick 10 or 20 question MCQ test and take it whenever I have a few free minutes. I’ve used this while waiting at the dentist, waiting for a friend to meet up with me, when I get stuck at a railroad crossing on my way home from work, or while my boyfriend is driving us around. Flashcards are also great to use during moments of time like that to help build retention. I even wrote 1-2 page outlines and taped it to the wall of my bathroom to look at when I brush my teeth or blow dry my hair. My old roommate teased me by saying “I love using your bathroom because I could pee…and learn financial ratios at the same time!”
5) Treat studying like a part time job
For the past 10 years, I’ve always went to school full time/worked part time (high school and undergrad) or went to school part time and worked full time (grad school). Before I started studying for the CPA exam, I was in a part-time MBA program and working full time. It was relatively easy to transition from my MBA program to studying for the CPA exam; the time commitment was about the same. I could not imagine going from having free time, after work to studying for the CPA exam 15-20 hours a week. Oh the temptation! Put together a syllabus, and stick to it! Just like you did (or should have done) in school.