How to Choose a CPA Exam Review Course

As many of you who have been reading Going Concern for some time already know, I used to be in CPA Review. I ditched that gig months ago to pursue my dream of writing full-time (so far so good) and can finally write a completely unbiased post on choosing a review course. I won't name names here just for the sake of equal opportunity but let's talk about how to pick a review course - and more importantly, whether or not you actually need one.

First and foremost, if you are broke, you need to know that review courses are expensive. Like new car expensive. Ok, maybe like used Ford Focus expensive, either way, if you're fresh out of school or still looking for work, you probably don't have $2,000 lying around. It's fine, you can get by on cheap textbooks but you're going to have to bust your ass a tad harder than the guy who got his flashcards and full review paid for by the firm.

Keep in mind: the CPA exam is an investment of not just money but time. If you put $2,000 into it but still don't study, you're going to fail miserably. Unless you pay some brainiac $2,000 to take the exam for you but that would be illegal.

If you've got the cash for a full review, the first thing you'll want to do is your homework. No, not practice MCQ, we're talking research. A simple Google search will give you plenty of options (hell, there are less than a dozen CPA review providers so it's not like you have to slog through pages upon pages of results). Remember: every candidate is different and what works for the stock photo chick on the company's website may or may not work for you. Before you start looking for a course, take a personal inventory of your own needs and think up some questions to ask. Try these if you're really stumped:

Is there an instructor or teacher available if I have questions about homework or content? And if so, how long should I expect to wait for a response?

How long from purchase do I have to access the material? Will it expire? Can I renew after that period and if so, are there any limitations on when?

Are there any discounts available?

Am I limited to one format or can I have the flexibility of combining online/live courses?

What is the policy for students who fail a part? Is there a repeat or discounted option?

Will I have access to updates as they are released and is there a cost and/or time limitation for this?

Those are a start. Most of this information is available on CPA review courses' websites but sometimes it helps to get a real person on the phone and ask. You can quickly tell what sort of operation you are dealing with by the way the company's phone staff handle your questions. The exam is a commitment and so is your choice of review course so be sure you are comfortable before you commit.

If you have already committed to a course that isn't working for you, call around and ask if there are discounts available for students who have taken other courses. Most CPA review companies offer this.

Keep in mind that review courses - like all businesses - are still interested in making money above all else. Some will push full programs with all the bells and whistles while others rely on materials that look like they were made at Kinkos; at the end of the day, it's not how shiny your review book is but how effective the instruction style is in teaching you the concepts that will help you pass.

And you will, as long as you put in the effort.

Adrienne Gonzalez is the founder of Jr. Deputy Accountant, a former CPA wrangler and a Going Concern contributor . You can see more of her posts here and all posts on the CPA Exam here.