I'm Taking the CPA Exam

Want to Pass the CPA Exam? Consider Hiring a Coach

By Amber Setter, CPA, PCC

The Uniform CPA Exam is one of the most, if not the most, rigorous professional exam. According to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy’s 2015 Candidate Performance on the Uniform CPA Examination Jurisdiction Edition, California candidates had an overall average pass rate of 49.8 percent. In other words, on average, more than half of all California candidates failed exam sections in the past year. 

Failing the CPA Exam is expensive both in terms of actual costs and the significant investment in time. But perhaps more insidious: it can take an emotional toll on candidates. This is where coaching can make a real difference in candidate performance.

I’ve had the pleasure of coaching many people to pass the CPA Exam. As a CPA who works with hearts and not numbers, my work as coach never entails tutoring of technical topics. So what do people get coached on? Here is a sampling of common obstacles facing CPA Exam candidates: 

Overcoming Failure

In general, people who chose to pursue the CPA license are goal oriented, high performers. They are accustomed to setting a goal, working hard and achieving that goal. As a result, they aren’t practiced at failing and learning how to overcome it.

When people come to coaching with this issue, the first thing to do is normalize their experience: look at the data, many people fail. The next steps are to look at ways to reframe the situation. What can they learn from the failure, whether it be opportunities to fine-tune their study habits or figure out what they are learning about themselves in the process. They also can examine what got in the way. Coaching is not like consulting, where an expert gives advice. Part of a coach’s job is to ask thought-provoking questions. This helps people see how they are getting in their own way and identify opportunities to change their behaviors and improve their results.

Managing Your Energy and Your Time

I often encounter candidates who are exhausted or on the edge of burnout. They are overwhelmed with work, studying and other life responsibilities. Candidates struggling with managing their energy may have a limited belief that the more study hours they put in, the better their results will be.

It is true that one needs to invest hundreds of hour to pass all four sections of the CPA Exam. But study hours should not trump self-care. Human brains are not computers. We don’t perform our best when we run on high speed for long intervals of time. To manage your energy effectively, build in renewal activities like exercise, sleep or time with family and friends. While these activities take time away from studying, they refuel candidates. Performance improves when you shift your study regimen from solely a quantitative experience to one that also recognizes hours invested in studying have an important qualitative aspect.

Being Accountable to a Realistic Study Schedule

The final common area is the creation of a customized study schedule. The initial part of this process is fairly straightforward: co-create a schedule that balances the recommended study hours along with the commitments in their life. To ensure the schedule is realistic, I invite candidates to be honest with themselves about what they can and can’t take on.

For example, a candidate may initially create a best-case scenario study plan, but life often doesn’t work like that. If you truly work more than 40 hours a week, be honest with yourself and plan your study schedule around your predictable 55-hour workweek instead.

Challenges arise when trying to be accountable to the plan. Each week my coaching clients report to me the hours they said they would study and the actual amount they studied. We track these metrics for the week and also cumulatively for the CPA Exam section at hand. And if they miss the mark, we explore what got in the way.

For example, it’s easy to say I didn’t study because I had to stay late at work. The greater challenge is to look deeper: what did I do or not do that had it turn out this way? It may be something harder to admit or see in one’s self: I’m a people pleaser and can’t say no. I procrastinated or overestimated my skills. I’m afraid to ask my employer for support. Ultimately, when one does not study the hours they said they would, they come to see how they are sabotaging their long-term commitment of becoming a CPA in favor of creating short-term wins.

If you’re struggling to pass the CPA Exam, rather than buy another review course or invest hundreds of dollars in another exam section, consider hiring a coach. The coach can support and help you to pass the exam once and for all—and encourage you to become the best version of yourself in the workplace and beyond.

Amber Setter, CPA, PCC is the chief opportunity officer at Intention Setter: Leadership Coaching and Consulting. You can reach her at intentionsetter@gmail.com.

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