Being a CPA requires ambition and motivation. As you're hearing this, I bet you're confident that you'll fit right in. But be aware that getting a CPA license is no easy feat. You must pass a rigorous four-part test, the CPA Exam. The four sections – Auditing & Attestation, Financial Accounting & Reporting, Regulation and Business Environment & Concepts – must be completed within 18 months of passing the first part. According to some national statistics from the American Institute of CPAs, also known as AICPA, only about 45% to 50% of those that take the CPA Exam pass it.
Sound hard? Don't worry. The Pennsylvania CPA Foundation is here to help. I’m Mylin Batipps Jr., and welcome to our podcast series, “Work Your Way to CPA.” This series will walk you through the journey of becoming a CPA and we encourage you to follow along. I'll be talking to CPA Exam providers about how students can use their prep programs. Recruiters and educators will share insight into how CPA candidates can choose what field to go into as well as job interviewing techniques. And of course, I will talk to successful CPA candidates themselves to learn about their journey from taking the CPA exam to landing that first job. Stay tuned.
At the PICPA, one of the most popular questions we receive is, “What is the best way to prepare for the CPA Exam?” There is not one way to successfully prepare to pass the CPA Exam. In this first episode, we'll talk to several recent successful candidates as well as representatives from Becker CPA Review, UWorld Roger CPA Review, Surgent CPA review, and Wiley CPAexcel. Through these providers and others, candidates can learn from top-notch instructors about how to solve problems that will be presented on the exam.
Each provider prides itself on designing unique approaches to fit students' individual needs. This discussion will help potential candidates answer the question: What is the best CPA Exam review course for me? The CPA Exam has evolved over the years and so have the review courses. Gone are the days when 120-person classrooms were sold out and potential candidates would call providers crying and begging for a spot in the class. This is not an exaggeration. It actually happened! Mary Patterson, regional director for Wiley CPAexcel, recalls these instances.
[Patterson] When I first started working in this industry about seven-eight years ago, the classroom was very popular and students would call me up and sometimes be crying if they couldn't get into the classroom that they wanted to for the CPA Exam. I even used to have parents emailing me about getting their students in the class.
In today's data-driven world, it's not surprising that CPA Exam providers are looking at how data can improve their services. Providers have developed tools to identify areas of strength and more importantly, areas of weakness. Tools can help determine how much time to spend studying in certain areas and can drive you to specific sections of this study guides and videos to provide background information on specific CPA Exam test questions so students understand the concept behind the correct answer. UWorld Roger CPA Review has developed SmartPath Predictive Technology and Roger Philipp, CPA and CGMA, explains how it improves student efficiency.
[Philipp] Our company's mission is basically to change the way CPA candidates learn so they can maintain a work-life balance while passing the exam quickly and efficiently. What I'm trying to do here is change people's lives, make a difference and help them accomplish their goals which in this case is passing CPA Exams. This year, earlier this year, we launched a product called SmartPath Predictive Technology and it's basically a data-driven platform and it provides targeted recommendations on how they should focus their study efforts. And what it does is it compares each individual's progress and performance to that of other students using the same product that have passed the exam. Instead of, for example, saying, “Here's 15,000 questions, do them all twice,” we can say, “OK, let's do these 4,000 questions and we'll focus you in on the key information we're seeing through our predictive technology how you're doing. And with the SmartPath what it's done is it makes the study more effective, more efficient. And we've seen our pass rate increase to up over 91 percent based on our mid-year performance. What it does it helps the students pass the exam faster and reach their career goals sooner. So we're really proud of that.
Alia Hussain recently passed the CPA Exam and is now a business assurance associate with Moss Adams in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She recalls UWorld Roger CPA Review’s SmartPath Predictive Technology and how helpful it was for her.
[Hussain] It'll tell you exactly like as you're running questions and you get your results from the practice questions whether you are making progress towards that target or if you need some improvement. And then there is different levels of how well you're doing within that. So it will tell you this one needs like a lot of improvement. Make sure you go back and watch the lectures. Reread the book. This one's getting a little bit better. Or your score is high but not enough questions. So it's really interactive in that sense and it really does a good job of telling you exactly where you're sitting with each of these different topics.
Surgent CPA Review implements ASAP Technology, similar to Roger’s SmartPath platform in that it contains algorithms that manage each individual student's experience and provides customized resources based on a student's progress through the course. According to Liz Kolar CPA, this piece of technology helps students feel less overwhelmed about the amount of material that is covered in the exam.
[Kolar] There's an overwhelming amount of material that's tested on the exam and what students tell me is that they don't know how to study all of that material. They don't know how long they should study. And also as they progress through their studies, they don't know if they're actually prepared to sit for the CPA Exam. The goal of Surgent is to really help the students identify what they don't know and to create a unique study plan that's unique to them to guide them through their studies in the most effective and efficient way possible. '
How do we do this? Well, we offer at the beginning of the process a comprehensive assessment. The assessment contains 450 questions in each section of the exam. We use the results of that assessment along with matching it up with the content weightings on the actual CPA Exam to determine what we call a student's baseline ReadySCORE. In other words, if they were to take the exam today based on the results of the assessment, what would they get?
In addition to the baseline score, Surgent also provides a diagnostic report for students which outlines what their strengths and weaknesses are. Kolar explains.
[Kolar] What we want to identify for the students very early on is where they have knowledge gaps. Typically, students are drawn towards content that is easier, content that they're comfortable with, and that's what they typically want to study first. They avoid the pain points. They avoid the hard material. We flip that completely on its head. We are encouraging students to focus in on their knowledge gaps, on their weak areas, and to leave the easy stuff, the stuff they're most comfortable with, until the end as they approach their exam day.
Wiley CPAexcel offers an exam study planner for the students which allows them to let the provider know what their schedule is like so that they can respond by creating a study program that aligns with the student's work schedule. Customization isn't just about what technical strengths and weaknesses you have, but actual time constraints. Wiley CPA prides itself on developing resources to accommodate a busy student and young professional, according to Patterson.
[Patterson] if you know you're a student, you're studying, you know what days you have a lot of classes, or if you're in an internship when you're most busy, you can actually pick what days you want to study and then the exam planner will work around that to make sure you're on track for the date that you're scheduled for your exam. I also use the example with students – and I call them all students – but students who are in an accounting firm, they know what days they might have a longer commute from home or that they're traveling. You can customize that in the study planner.
While each of these review providers bring something unique to the table for their students, they are all responding similarly to a shift they noticed in the way students learn. We surveyed successful CPA candidates in Pennsylvania, and many indicated “classroom learning” was the least popular learning method. Students are moving away from visiting a classroom and sitting in a lecture for hours, and are migrating toward a style that's more “on- demand,” which allows them to take a class from wherever they are at any time that works for them.
That is not to say that live classroom learning isn't one that resonates with some students. According to CPA Exam review providers, it's the style of that students are most familiar with—having an instructor talk through concepts in a lecture format. However, students are just looking for a more convenient way to be on the receiving end of the information.
Becker CPA review has been around for more than 60 years and has been able to adjust to changing needs. Moira Gordon, an account manager with Becker, talks about their webinar experience.
[Gordon] Essentially there is an instructor who's teaching live nationally through a Webinar and let's say the classes are Mondays and Thursdays from 7:00 p.m. till 10:00 p.m. Students will still need to be sitting down and logged in and ready to learn then. It does give the structure of set times to learn, but they can do it from home, from school, from work. They don't have to drive to a classroom to watch the live webinars. There are TAs that are signed in online also, so they're able to live chat with the students one on one answering questions that they may have and helping them along the way.
Like Becker, other CPA Exam review providers have responded with learning products that combine both the traditional lecture format and the technological on-demand format. Mary Patterson explains how Wiley CPAexcel integrates both styles.
[Patterson] One thing that Wiley has is we have a virtual classroom. It's not something that a student has to drive to a campus, park, take all of their materials in. They can actually attend the virtual classroom from their home, their IPAD, wherever that may be. What students seem to be looking more towards now is having that convenience of popping the headphones in, watching the lectures, doing their questions at their own time.
A lot of times students, and this might be of the millennials, they make very good use of their time. So if they have a commute, let's say it's on the train or the bus, they want to be flipping through flashcards on their cell phone, their iPad.
Allison Greenfield recently passed the CPA Exam and is now an associate with Forensic Resolutions Incorporated in Westmont, N.J. She used Becker’s and Roger’s review programs, specifically the online lectures because it gave her the ability to playback and relisten to anything that she didn't understand initially.
[Greenfield] For me, doing the online lectures helped a lot more than being in person because I could control the speed of it and take notes. If I didn't understand a section or I knew I'd have trouble with it going forward, I would be able to rewind and listen again instead of in person where you can't really stop the professor and be like, "Hold on, you need to re-say all of that from the last 20 minutes."
Ryan Messina from Delaware County, Pa., also recently passed the CPA Exam. He is now a law student at Widener University with the goal of becoming a tax attorney. He used both Roger’s and Becker's online components for the convenience aspect, but he explained that he did also take advantage of Becker's in-person option.
[Messina] I had the opportunity to take one section, the financial accounting section, because it's the hardest section. I took that in addition to doing just the online. I did an in-class portion with that also. I would just say from any candidates experience, they learn better if they're like me and they just learn better by themselves and they can have the discipline, and it does take a lot to sit down in a secluded area and watch the videos and continually practice the multiple choice questions and everything. That would be great.
I'd say probably any CPA Exam review course will provide that. If you're looking for more of an in-class personal teaching type thing, then I would say probably Becker would be the primary provider of that. But I found to me personally – and both courses did this: walking through the material and just making sure that you know it – I found very helpful.
Regardless of in-person or online learning, most students would say visuals are crucial to helping them process the information presented. In our survey of successful CPA candidates in Pennsylvania, most indicated “visual learning” as the most popular learning method. CPA Exam review providers have integrated visuals into their live classrooms and prerecorded lectures. Becker, in particular, launched SkillMaster videos in response to student feedbacks stating that simulations are what they need to help with the most, Gordon says.
[Gordon] They’re basically different videos that they can launch straight from their course. Some of them are eight minutes long, some of them are 12 minutes long, and it actually works them through how to answer these simulations. The instructors will open up Excel as a tool and do a lot of highlighting, circling, showing them key information and where they're going to find the answers.
I know that that helps students relax a little bit and feel more comfortable about it. If they don't need to watch the videos if they know that simulation, they can skip ahead. But if it's something they need an extra coaching with, that's where these videos come in. There is just a ton of animation that comes along with it. The instructors are always highlighting and underlining and writing little notes to decide for the students, a lot of circling keywords, just a lot of animation and graphics to keep their attention visually.
Messina recalls the format of Becker's videos and how the instructor’s highlighting was helpful for him.
[Messina] There would be very few headshots at the beginning and the end of the person speaking. If you wanted to make a point, it was outside of the book. That's typically when you would see the individual and he would just be sitting at his desk and almost speaking into a laptop-type thing. The rest of the time it was the book, and basically what would happen was you would hear the instructor’s voice and if he highlighted something, you would see it on your screen.
It's helpful in the fact that … I think some of the books were a thousand pages long or at least a couple hundred, and that can be quite daunting. To be able to narrow that down was helpful to see exactly what was highlighted.
Philipp and his colleagues at UWorld Roger CPA Review seek to captivate their students visually right from the start—not only when they're inside of a course, but also as soon as they sit down and log into their account.
[Philipp] The students log in to the course dashboard and they're greeted with a visual snapshot of the target points that are integrated in the course platform. It informs them of where they stand in comparison to previous students that pass the exam. They're looking at that and saying, "Oh, you know what, I'm a behind here," or "I'm ahead in this area." Students visually know immediately how they're progressing within our course so that way they can quickly decide where they need to focus their study efforts.
We also cater to visual learning methods through our hundreds of hours of exciting, dynamic, energetic video. And then the visual and auditory nature of the videos appeals to students and allows each of these people to process the information in whatever way is best to them, because everybody learns differently.
Diminishing attention spans is a trend that CPA Exam review providers need to address. While some studies indicate that teenagers have an eight-second attention span that rivals that of a Goldfish. Young adults can only maintain sustained attention to a task for about 20 minutes. To combat the diminishing attention span, a trend in education is nano-learning. Patterson explains how Wiley incorporates this concept.
[Patterson] Wiley really tries to do bite-size lessons in giving the material in little chunks. And that's supposed to be the best way for someone to retain the information. Instead of giving you a lot at once, you're chipping away at the information. Within a lesson when you're talking about visual learning, there is a video of a professor teaching you the material.
The video, depending on what the topic is, could be as short as five and a half minutes to about 28 minutes. There might be one that's 40 minutes long. And for that, students can then watch the video. They also have their textbook where they can be highlighting at the same time, and they can take notes as well, in the program.
Short videos are also a staple of Surgent's program, Kolar explains.
[Kolar] Surgent was one of the first companies to offer, what we call, nano-sized lectures. We took what may have been a four-hour topic like a topic on inventory. I would cover everything you'd ever want to know about inventory in four hours. On Surgent, we broke that down into nine separate nano-sized lectures where we cover each individual topic and each individual lecture. There we tried to keep them less than 22 minutes obviously, but some of them are five minutes, seven minutes.
Everyone learns differently, and while each review provider has integrated visual components in a variety of ways, students aren't obligated to stick to every single kind of learning style that is provided. For instance, Allison Greenfield explains that she is a kinesthetic learner more than anything and even after looking at videos, she still feels the need to apply the information that was provided.
[Greenfield] I am definitely a kinesthetic learner, which is someone that needs to do it to understand it. When I would see something and they would be like, "Oh, this is an example,” for me, even basic journal entries I’d write that out in so I could see it and go like, "Okay, this is what they're getting at."
Becker's Gordon explains that students should not go into a CPA Exam review course thinking that they have to use all components that are provided. Students should really think about how they absorb information best and then take it from there when it comes to choosing your review provider and figuring out a study plan.
[Gordon] A lot of students think of studying for the CPA Exam is like a one-size-fits-all concept and it's really not. You talked about visual learners before and a lot of these students—they’re right out of school. Some of them need more structure in their life than others do. Some of them aren't able to hold themselves accountable and do the self-study format. For this part, I really just think people need to know their own strength, know their own weaknesses, know how they study best, and work from there.
If someone's working full time or they have three kids and they're the soccer coach and their life isn't as flexible, they need a study plan that's more flexible so they're able to do self-study and study when the time would work best for them.
Going back to Alia Hussain who we met at the beginning of this podcast, she passed the CPA Exam, but she says she wishes she took a little more time to research the options for review courses and to understand the kind of learner she is.
[Hussain] I think probably the only thing that I wish I would've done differently is maybe before starting the entire process spend a little bit more time researching prep courses and I probably would have taken advantage of the free trials. I think most of the prep companies do have a free trial of some sort, whether it's for a few days or up to a week. I wish I would have done that. And I would also say that it would have been helpful to really understand my learning style before just jumping right in and just starting to study, because if I had had that understanding of my learning style then, again, it probably would've made the whole process a little bit more efficient for me.
When picking a CPA Exam review course, you need to start with an analysis of what best motivates you and how you learn successfully. Prepare to prepare, plan to succeed, and if you are not having success with the provider you selected, first, do a self-assessment. Ask yourself, “Did I follow their lesson plan and it didn't work for me, or did I not follow their plan?” Then, talk to the review provider. This will help you determine if you need to seek a different approach. Don't be afraid to make the jump to another provider if you determine that their coursework didn't help you understand and retain the material. Your professional success could depend upon a change.
In our next episode, we'll explore study techniques on how to pass the CPA Exam. You will hear great tips on developing your success strategy.