Saturday, June 14, 2014

My Journey to the CPA

My Journey to the CPA

By Michael P. Griffin

June 2014

Although this blog is devoted to the topic of internships, some students might find this posting interesting and helpful.  It focuses on my work to become a CPA and even if you don't want to become a CPA, you might want to eventually work on other certifications or designations such as the CMA, CFP, CLU, ChFC, CIA, or CFE or you may want to take the insurance or investment exams (Series 7) and perhaps what I have learned about this process could help you.

I recently worked to pass the CPA exam and to meet the requirements of the Massachusetts Board of Accountancy to obtain my CPA certificate.  The story is a bit untraditional. I am an older guy - 55 years old and I am a professor not a practicing an auditor or tax accountant.  However, my story might be instructional to students who aspire to get the CPA or as I stated in the first paragraph, any professional designation that could open some doors for you and launch you into a good career.

As you may know, most people who achieve the CPA do so while working in public accounting.  I have not had such a career.  For the past three decades I have been a full-time professor teaching accounting and finance courses, mostly at the Charlton College of Business at UMASS Dartmouth. I had some work experience many years ago working for a CPA. We did mostly personal financial planning and some basic tax work but we never performed audits and did not perform other traditional accounting services.  We were almost strictly personal financial planners - a world somewhat different from public accounting.  As far as my teaching experience goes, for accounting I have mostly taught principles, cost, and accounting information systems - all helpful when studying for the CPA exam but certainly not enough to make passing the exam easy or even manageable.  I certainly need a good review course to help fill the gaps.

 My other work experience was in the financial services field - mostly in banking and investment banking but that was a long time ago - back in the mid- 1980's and it was quite different from public accounting. 
In years past, I did achieve the CMA (Certified Management Accountant) and the ChFC (Chartered Financial Consultant) designations but they are quite different from the CPA exam and I passed those exams more than 20 years ago.   What those designations did teach me was that I had the ability to pass professional exams if I worked hard enough and put in the hours.  So it was with that mindset that I started in on the CPA exam.

You might wonder why  I would start in on the CPA exam so late in my career. For one thing, I have always wanted to get the CPA but it wasn't until recently that Massachusetts allowed individuals to become CPAs without external auditing experience - experience that I lack.   In Massachusetts, if you have the necessary accounting courses and an MBA (or other business related graduate degree), you can become a CPA by passing the 4 part test Uniform CPA Exam.  If you want to read about the Massachusetts requirements of the CPA exam, I suggest you visit the Massachusetts Society of CPAs (MSCPA) site at:  The MSCPA site is very informative.

About two years ago, I decided apply to sit for the first section of the exam – Business Environment and Concepts (BEC).  I choose to take BEC first because it covers some areas that are strong for me - Cost Accounting and Business Finance.  Since you can take the sections one at a time, I suggest you start with the section you think you can master the easiest - the one you have the greatest odds of passing.  That way you can pass it, build your confidence and that will create a positive momentum to launch into the other sections.  I sent in my paperwork into the National Association of State Boards of Accounting (NASBA)  ( and was given my Notice to Schedule - the document that allows you to schedule a date for the exam.
For about 4 months I studied for BEC using the Gleim Publishing CPA Review system (, a combination of study manuals and online resources that I highly recommend.  I also used Gleim 20 years earlier to study for the CMA exam and I find self-study the best option for me. Other CPA candidates swear by the face-to-face courses like Becker's.  However, for me Gleim was great and less expensive - something I have to manage because I have 3 kids in college (tuition bills!).

In my free time, I read the Gleim study outlines, did hundreds of practice questions, and watched dozens of narrated PowerPoint lectures on all the topics covered on BEC.  The BEC is a 3 hour exam and I took the exam at the Prometric Testing Center in Warwick, RI as it was the closest testing center to my home in Swansea, MA. To make a long story short, I passed the BEC exam with a score in the low 90s and was encouraged to continue on to the next exam Auditing and Attestation (AUD).  The passing score is 75 for I felt pretty good about things - especially in light of the fact that just about 50% of the candidates pass BEC.  I was very pleased not to be in the 50% that didn't pass!

I chose AUD as my second exam because I had some auditing (internal auditing) and bank examination experience (very similar to auditing) in past jobs that I had held.  I actual spent a couple of weeks assisting a Big 8 (there were 8 big firms in the 1980s) in an audit of a bank department back in the 1980s.  I was an internal auditor and the bank "loaned" me out to Peat, Marwick and Mitchell (now part of KPMG).  However, my short tenure helping Peat, my internal audit and bank examination experiences were in the 1980s and they were different from external auditing - a main focus of the exam. 

But I didn't worry too much about my experiences or lack thereof and pressed on.  That's an important point.  When you have any self-doubt - just press on.  I followed the same procedure as before - using the Gleim self-study system.  I practiced on over 1,000 exam questions and study for about 4 months - using my free time wisely.  The passing rate on AUD has run about 45% in recent years. I passed the exam with a score in the 80s - not as good as BEC but good enough to move onto the Regulation exam (REG). 
Regulation was a challenge for me.  I chose it as my third exam because I did have some tax experience and took a couple of good tax courses back in the 1990s.  At UMD, I took a tax course with Professor Helen LaFrancois, CPA.  Helen is retired now but she was a great professor and I learned a great deal from her.  I also had some tax return preparation experience and I do my own return and the returns of family members each year. REG can be tough though. I have a brother who was a CPA with a big 4 and he told me the same thing - REG was his toughest challenge.  It covers ethics and professional responsibility - areas I did feel comfortable as I lecture on those subjects frequently. However, REG also covers other tough areas: business law, federal tax procedures and accounting issues, federal taxation of property transactions, federal taxation of individuals and federal taxation of other entities such as corporations, trusts, and estates - all areas that I struggled with.  

With the REG exam there is content on the Uniform Commercial Code, negotiable instruments, contracts, and some of the federal tax laws gave me trouble.  At 55 years old, I started to doubt my memory and my ability to absorb lots of facts and figures.  My wife kept telling me that I had to be confident and press on.  Confidence is key.  You must have a lot of pep talks with yourself and when the negative doubts creep in, wipe them out with good thoughts. 

While studying for the REG section I decided to use supplement my Gleim materials with some other content.  I borrowed a business law textbook from one of our law professors and I obtained the Bisk CPA Review  system ( which I also recommend.  BISK is very good.  What BISK allowed me to do was to watch some excellent video lectures on some of the subjects that were giving me trouble.  The videos are usually about 15 minutes in length and are accompanied by a student workbook.  The combination of videos that I could play and replay and workbook problems that correlated with the videos was powerful and after a few months of study, I felt ready, took the three hour exam and failed - getting a 74 (keep in mind you need a 75 to pass).  I was stunned and very disappointed when I received my results.  The results are posted online at a date about 3 weeks after the exam is completed.  My confidence was a bit shaken.  Up till that point I had taken something like 16 professional tests - CMA tests, ChFC tests, a real estate appraisal exam, Series 7 for investments, CFM exam etc. and had never failed.  I missed it by 1 point but that 1 point seemed like a big gap.

Like all CPA candidates, I logged-on early on my score reporting date and refreshed the screen all day.  When I saw the 74 score pop up on the screen with the word "Failed" I was speechless and for and thought about how I was part of the 55% who didn't pass (AICPA Passing Rates on CPA exam).  But I eventually gathered myself and studied for another month, took the REG exam in January 2014 and passed with a score of  83.  I learned a great deal in that one month leading up to the re-take of the dreaded REG exam (I really hate that one).  One thing I learned was to manage exam time better and to use the research features of the simulation portion of the exam more efficiently and effectively and boosted my score by 9 points!
I was happy - maybe a better word is relieved - to have REG behind me and scheduled Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) for April 30, 2014 - the last date I could pass the exam and keep all my prior credits.  That was an added pressure but I also looked at it as a challenge.  You have to look at this almost like an athletic event. You are competing against a rigorous event - the CPA exam - and you have to want to compete well and beat it! 

April 30, 2014 was exactly 18 months since I passed the first exam REG and that is significant because if I failed FAR, I would need to re-take BEC.  I really wanted to bring closure to this process.  I used three months - February, March, and April of 2104 to study for FAR.  The FAR is the toughest exam; at least in my opinion.  It, like the AUD exam, is 4 hours and also like the AUD exam, it requires 7 simulation tasks and three sets of 30 multiple choice questions. 

The simulations on the CPA exam and especially the FAR ones can be very tough.  They range from questions that require some research such as locating relevant standards in the FASB codification of GAAP and performing accounting tasks such as preparing financial statements, worksheets, and adjusting entries.  If you mess up on the simulations, it could be a serious error as simulations are worth 40% of the FAR exam. To prepare I watched 100 video lectures (twice) within the BISK CPA Review System.  Without those lectures, delivered by a CPA named Bob Monette, (J.D., CPA), lead instructor for Bisk CPA Review, I would not have been able to pass FAR. Bob has a youtube video on how to pass the CPA exam that you might want to watch ( . Bob Monette is a great CPA review lecturer. I also had the good fortune of using a pilot product - a series of FAR lectures - within the Gleim review system that were also extremely helpful in my preparation.

You must adopt a process that works for you.  For FAR, I watched the videos, scanned over the outlines for areas that were confusing to me and studied those, took practice tests for every part (there are 20 content areas) of the FAR, and then watched the videos again.  After my second time through the videos, I started taking complete practice exams and kept notes on my weak areas.  I made index cards of troubling areas and started reading those before bed.
About three weeks before the exam, I started repeating to myself the mantras: "CPA May 2014" and "FAR Score 87".  I was trying to use these mantras to believe in myself and to achieve a score that would be easily above the passing grade of 75.  The exam was tough but I got through it with 7 minutes to spare.  The simulations were very tough but they seemed comparable to the practice exams I had taken in the week leading up to the exam and I did fine on those.  There are times when you are in the middle of taking these exams that you start to feel your confidence drop, but you have to fight that and I did.  I left the exam center feeling pretty good but you are never sure till you receive your final grade and that takes 3 weeks.

Two days before the scheduled exam score release, I read on a CPA Exam blog that the scores could be released a day early.  So I logged on a day earlier - at about 7 am and the scores were not showing.  I estimate that I refreshed the screen about 100 times before my score of 87 appeared at about noon time.  I let out a scream - "YES"!  And I thought to myself "I Got it done!"

The next step was to apply to the NASBA to have an evaluation of my education credentials completed.  NASBA checks official transcripts to assure that all the education requirements for Massachusetts are met including all the required accounting, business courses, 150 credit rule, and in my case, the graduate degree.  I received notice that the AECR (academic evaluation for certification report) had been prepared and transmitted to the Massachusetts Board of Public Accounting.  That transmission, which means my education credentials have passed the test, will now allow me to apply for an receive my CPA certificate!

Some lessons I learned from this process:
1. Take as much accounting as you can.  That is a mantra my Dad repeated when I was a young man in school and I didn't always take that advice till years later. There were gaps in my knowledge - even after years of teaching and after taking many accounting courses, attending seminars, and taking self study courses.  I was especially weak in corporate tax, tax administration and procedures, nonprofit and government accounting, and some of the business law content.  Having a "first pass" through that content is very important otherwise you will need to spend a lot of time in the review course learning new knowledge. It can be done but if you can get some of this during your undergraduate or graduate degree years - do so.

2. You must use a review course.  You can't pass without it.  The course will teach you content and successful techniques to pass the exam.  You will be tested on knowledge and your ability to pass the test.  If you go the self-study route you will save money.  It's much cheaper than the face-to-face courses however; it requires a great deal of dedication and discipline.  I had to steal time before going to work.  I got up at 6 am and studied till about 7 am when I would bring my son to school and go onto work.  I used my lunch hours, Tues. nights, and Saturday mornings to study in set time frames.

3.  Use a few approaches but decide on one foundational method.  I used the Gleim system as my primary review source - to take my practice exams, to diagnose my weaknesses, and to study outlines.  I used BISK for the videos and workbooks for REG and FAR.

4. In Massachusetts you need 150 credits.  Some people add 30 credits of undergraduate courses or get there with an accounting certificate but for me, my MBA did it and I believe my MBA helped greatly even though it was 30 years old!  Lessons learned in the Bryant University MBA program of the 1980s helped set a good foundation for both the CPA exam and the CMA exam.  I was a more well rounded person because of the MBA and you need that to pass the exam.  I also think a habit of reading the Wall Street Journal and other publications and listen to business related podcasts helps because even though the CPA is intense public accounting, it draws upon a vocabulary and basic business knowledge that MBA programs provide and the real world uses.

5. Learn to be a good CPA exam test taker.  Understand the issues of CPA exam time management.  Become comfortable taking practice exams.  I estimate that I took hundreds of 30 question testlets and saw over 5,000 different CPA questions over my months of study and those practice tests and practice simulations were key.  I got to the point where I could find any piece of research - be it tax or GAAP in a matter of a few minutes.  I actually timed myself to make sure I could do research and answer the simulation question quickly and therefore allocate the rest of the precious time on other simulation tasks.

6. Keep confidence high, think positive at all times.  I had to work real hard at this. Tell yourself you "can do this."  You will need to think positive during the exam.  Develop positive mantras while you study too.  Work hard and you can do it.   I had to stop myself on many occasions - such as when I would flunk a practice exam or when someone would comment that the FAR is a "bear" and remind myself that I would pass the exam.  Positive self-talk and the magic of believing are powerful tools.  It is very true that "if you think you can, you will."
7. Don't underestimate the support of family and friends.  My wife and daughters were great support - telling me I could do this and needed to do this!  My sons sent me encouraging and positive messages the mornings of the exams and messages like that help you enter the exam. Each time I took an exam and passed a friend of mine took me to lunch and that meant a great deal.  The support of family and friends provides a type of energy that helps with the stamina needed to get through the exam.

8. Exam stamina is a big factor. The exams are long - two are 3 hours and two are 4 hours.  You will get mentally fatigued.  Get in shape both physically and mentally.  Sleep well.
9.   Cramming is important.  Sometimes we tell students not to cram for school exams but I believe you have to cram for the CPA exam. Two weeks before each exam I ramped up the studying - putting in the most hours and pushing through a great deal of material.  I also studied for at least two hours before each exam at a local IHOP.  My exams were all at 9:00 am so I arrived at the IHOP between 6 am and 6:30 am and worked hard studying my notes until it was time to report to the testing center - 1/4 of a mile down the road.  I know I picked up a few things in those last two hours of cramming and reinforced a few others that helped me pass the exams.

10.  The process is worth it.  The CPA exam and any established review system are a good investment. You will learn more and earn more as a result of passing the CPA exam.  There is no doubt about that!

Professor Griffin
Accounting and Finance Department, Charlton College of Business
UMASS Dartmouth