By Michael P. Griffin
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.
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: http://www.cpatrack.com/cpa_exam/exam_regulations. The MSCPA site is very informative.
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!
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).
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 (www.cpaexam.com) 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!