How to Study for the CPA Exam

A Certified Public Accountant keying in numbers on a calculator.
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So you've decided you want to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), but that exam is waiting out there on your horizon to potentially trip you up. You have three basic options when you plan to take the CPA exam. You can prep for it in a traditional classroom structure, use an online or recorded class, or you can self-study. Each of these study options offers a structure that may be better suited for one individual over another.

CPA Exam-Prep Classroom Review

Classroom reviews are extremely popular, but they're also the most expensive. For example, the Northern Illinois University CPA review course is highly regarded, and it has an excellent track record of passing exam scores. But this success rate comes at a price—it costs several thousand dollars to take the review courses for all four exam sections. Many universities and colleges offer similar courses. Each will vary in their quality and the price involved.

If you have the funds available, classroom review courses are great as long as you do your research first to make sure the course has a good reputation. Many people find studying easier when they have an instructor to guide them through the subject matter.

Online or Recorded Reviews 

Online or recorded reviews are similar to a classroom setting, but the pace of the course is controlled by the candidate rather than the course schedule. These reviews have elements of both traditional classroom instruction and self-study. The courses have structure and format similar to that of a classroom, but the motivation and the time you spend studying lie directly on your shoulders.

A recorded or online CPA prep course is a good option for someone who desires a classroom setting but may not have the funds to attend a class. These options also work well for a candidate who can't commit to regular classroom hours due to work or other responsibilities. 

Self-Study CPA Exam Review

Lastly, self-study is basically what it sounds like—the candidate does all their studying on their own. There's nothing inferior about this method. The secret is to have the proper study materials, such as the Wiley series of CPA exam review books. They're very highly regarded, and they update the published edition every year. If you buy the most recent edition, you can be sure that the content matches what will be on the exam.

If you decide to study on your own, you can always take a course later if you're not successful on your first try. You'll also want to get your family or housemates on board with your study plan so you'll be able to devote the time and energy necessary to be fully prepared.

The Bottom Line 

Different review courses are available depending on where you live. A quick internet search will surely give you many choices. You might also contact your state’s CPA society for recommendations, as well as a college accounting program faculty member to see who or what they suggest. It's a big commitment and expense, so do as much research as possible. 

Regardless of what method you choose, one other resource should be added to your study plan: the CPA Review, available online. It's free, and it offers free practice questions with ​a full explanation of answers. There's some paid content here as well, but the free content alone should be an integral part of your exam prep.

And one final note—whichever option you choose, make sure you only use up-to-date materials to study. Don't rely on your college textbooks. Exam content changes every year. Studying dated materials from your textbooks, even something as basic as intermediate accounting, can give you inaccurate information and cost you points.