Jun 18, 2014

Are You Surrendering a Competitive Advantage?

By Guest Blogger, Mervisa A. Johnson

mervisajohnsonTop-performing accounting students with a desire to be successful in public accounting create a master plan that maps out the best path to take to fulfill all CPA Exam prerequisites by the time they begin full-time employment at a public accounting firm. Four years ago the emphasis was on graduating with a bachelor’s degree and having the requisite credit hours. The law has changed, and today a strong plan is attaining 150 hours, with 36 credits of accounting and business-related coursework.

I was fortunate. My university, The University of Scranton, offered a combined program that allowed me to finish my bachelor’s degree in four years and spend a fifth fulfilling my 150-credit-hour requirement for CPA licensing while attaining my master’s degree. A growing number of schools are providing combined programs that allow students to achieve a bachelor’s degree — including the CPA Exam-required 24 hours of accounting related coursework — in the fourth year, and spend a fifth year in school gaining the remaining required 150-hour credits and a master’s degree.

I have found that taking and passing all parts of the CPA Exam in the final year of a combined program will be the best choice you can make at the beginning of your career. I stand as your witness: passing all four parts before starting at a public accounting firm should be a self-mandated personal requirement.

Some students may use these combined programs just to complete the 150-credit-hour requirement and then spend the summer to passing one or two parts of the CPA Exam. I propose that this is not enough.

I have witnessed the struggle among those who did not complete all parts of the CPA Exam before joining their firm of choice. Some people begin their careers without having sat for or passed a single CPA Exam section. During training, when the facilitator asks those who have at least one part passed to raise their hands, you may suddenly realize that you are starting off behind your peers, the competition. Those who begin their careers having passed one or two sections may feel relieved, but not for long. The relief is quickly smothered by stress and the realization that they should have at least taken one more part before starting. Those that start working after having passed three parts have an advantage, but if their CPA completion plan is not strictly pursued, they could face even greater disappointment.

Working at your first full-time job is all-consuming. Having to study for the CPA Exam adds an additional layer of stress. In public accounting, particularly in financial services, the hours can be very long, which diminishes study time. It becomes a constant struggle to put 100 percent effort into their job and 100 percent effort into studying for the CPA Exam. I have too often seen studies suffer against the demands of work. Many people rationalize that they will put off studying until more time becomes available. But what really happens is they delay scheduling their exams until they absolutely must because the Notice to Schedule is about to expire. Being focused on work compounded by ill-preparation due to a lack of energy and limited study time, causes many people to fail exam parts multiple times during the year, which breeds discouragement.

Much of the heartache and stress could be avoided if students took a smarter approach to the CPA Exam and capitalized on a combined program at their schools, if available. If students tackled one or two exam parts during the fifth year in school (having received a bachelor’s degree and the required 24 semester credits in accounting subjects after year four) and then the final two parts during the summer before they start their careers, they will have an immediate competitive advantage. Although the prospect of spending the summer cramped at a study desk with Peter Olinto is daunting, it will be worth it in the end. Even better, if students planned well, they may even be able to complete all four parts of the exam before graduating and thus reclaim their last summer of absolute fun and limited responsibility. This is the optimal choice with the highest reward.

Further, not having to study for the CPA Exam while working provides greater opportunity for success from day one. Those who already passed their exams can focus on developing technical skills in their free time, including mastering technology and enhancing their accounting knowledge and industry-related guidance. More importantly, new hires that don’t have to study have the time to network and attend team-building events. They can even take the time to get closer to key co-workers by tactically engaging in activities that those people love, such as biking, zumba, marathon training, kickboxing, etc. New hires without exam worries also have more time for community service and getting involved with organizations that promote causes that they support, which also gives them the chance to build their brand in the community.

Finally, passing the CPA Exam before the pressures of work will give you more of the all-important “me” time: freedom to travel, explore the city you relocated to, visit family, work on building friendships, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and everything else that’s remarkable in life. With all the advantages to be had in the workplace and in one’s personal life, who wouldn’t work hard for a few months while still in school to gain the CPA competitive edge?

For more information about gaining the CPA credential, visit the PICPA CPA Exam & Licensing Web page or download the free guide, “Becoming a CPA in Pennsylvania.”

Mervisa A. Johnson is an auditor with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in New York City. She can be reached at mervjohnson07@hotmail.com.

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Statements of fact and opinion are the authors’ responsibility alone and do not imply an opinion on the part of PICPA officers or members. The information contained in herein does not constitute accounting, legal, or professional advice. For professional advice, please engage or consult a qualified professional.
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