I’ve been writing about the CPA exam for, yeesh, it’ll be 12 years this summer. TWELVE YEARS. I wish I could say that’s like half my life, but I’m old now so it’s more like a third of it, which is still a pretty sizable chunk of it, all things considered. In that time, I’ve been asked hundreds, if not thousands, of questions about the exam, and while a lot of them are repeats — which part should I take first, what part is the hardest — one of them has always been tough for me to answer: which review course should I buy?
I struggled with answering this in my early days on Going Concern back in 2009 because at the time, I was still on a CPA review company’s payroll. You can see my dilemma. As much as I’m sure my boss would have loved for me to answer that question with his name, I dodged the question and focused instead on helping people prepare for the exam with whatever tools they had.
Many years removed from that job now, I feel comfortable revisiting that question and offering some insight. Keep in mind, I’m not going to throw out company names here, there are plenty of websites (many of which get a cut when you follow their affiliate link to buy said course, not that there’s anything wrong with that) that can lay out the pros and cons of each course. No. What I’m going to do here is help you figure out which kind of candidate you are and then suggest the type of course you need from there.
See, Mister Rogers lied to all of us when he said we were special. Really we’re not. We all sort of naturally fall into a limited number of boxes. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be such a thing as marketing or advertising or insidious algorithms that somehow recommend something for us to buy on Amazon before we even realize we need or want it. Sure, we’re all technically unique, but at the end of the day, people and machines smarter than all of us can easily reduce us to a basic formula based on sex, age, race, income level, and likely some other digital footprint stuff that I shudder to think about knowing the weird crap I look up on the Internet. Moving on.
One of the most important things you can do as a CPA exam candidate just starting out (or one who has been on this journey for some time but not having success) is to take a long, hard look at yourself as a student and figure out how you learn if you don’t know already. Considering you’re a college graduate if you’ve gotten this far, chances are you probably already know what kind of learner you are, but just in case, it’s important to understand how you learn and what you need to learn best.
For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to break things down into five distinct personality types. You may find that you fall into more than one group, in which case feel free to mix things up, but if I’m as good at this as I claim to be, then whichever group resonates most with you is the one you belong in and will find the most success with.
A large majority of you are going to fall into this category simply because what kind of sick maniac can manage to get excited about the CPA exam? Of course you’re going to put this shit off, it sucks. The Procrastinator is marked by a distinct lack of time perception (“wait, how the hell did 18 months just pass me by?”) and a superhuman ability to accomplish a ridiculous number of tasks unrelated to the task at hand (your apartment will never be as clean as it is when you are studying for the CPA exam).
For you, the key is guided study. Avoid self-study at all costs unless you’re using it to supplement your main review course, as this is a surefire way to ensure absolute failure. Even better if you can join up with a few friends and study together. Most review courses offer a path through each section, so your job here is to find the least boring one since a dull, droning instructor is only going to turn you off even more than you already are.
The Smartest Kid in Class
Hey, smarty pants, why are you even reading this guide? You don’t need me to tell you what to do. You’re probably going to get an Elijah Watt Sells award just for showing up at Prometric so let’s not waste our time here. Your options are wide open but don’t confuse your overachieving for automatic mastery of CPA exam concepts. What you’ll want is a review course that offers more than just lectures but tips and tricks for scheduling, studying, and making the most of your experience. A smaller review course company may be able to offer you this somewhat personalized experience, though let’s be real, you could get your lectures from a bum in a dumpster behind 7-11 and you’d probably kill this thing. Throw a bunch of names into a hat and go for that, done.
You don’t even know why you’re going for your CPA. Maybe it was your dad or your eighth-grade Algebra teacher who suggested you major in accounting, and next thing you know you’re buttoning up your blue shirt for your first day as an intern at [Big 4 firm] and studying for the CPA exam.
I probably shouldn’t say this but when it comes down to it, all review courses are pretty much the same. They get the same info from the AICPA and the only real difference is in the delivery of information (after price, of course). So go ahead and take that “big name” review course everyone else uses, that’ll serve you just fine. Or go for the second- or third-biggest course. No need to overthink it, just like your chosen career path, just pick one of the popular ones and off you go.
The Perpetual Student
You’re that weird kid in school who always did extra credit, not because you needed it but because learning is fun for you. You’ve got three Bullet Journals and your IFTTT routines make my Echo Spot look like a lazy stoner who can barely manage to play the right Spotify playlist half the time.
Any of the major courses will likely work for you, but you’re going to want to look for the ones that offer the thickest books and the largest banks of practice questions to work through. Obviously you’re also going to want supplements when you inevitably run out of MCQ to race through, so feel free to add flashcards or a supplemental study guide. Don’t feel bad about mixing and matching different review materials, it’s totally fine.
The Shoulda Been a Lawyer
You, my friend, are going to have a rough time no matter what review course you use, so the best thing you can do is look for the most bang for your buck. You absolutely sucked at Intermediate Accounting and some days you can’t even remember which side debits go on. Honestly I don’t know why you’re even doing this to yourself at all, but if you absolutely insist, then your best bet is to look for a review course that offers the longest course time and, when available, optional extensions. While you’re at it, you might as well find a review course that offers a “past student of other CPA review course” discount since it’s likely you’re going to be bombing this thing long after your first course expires and a second delivery method might not be a terrible idea.
You’ll also need as much support as you can get, so find the course that offers many, many hours of lecture along with copious amounts of study materials for you to utilize both during lecture and as a study guide in your spare time. Good luck, I guess.
In closing, as mentioned above (but it bears repeating): ALL REVIEW COURSES ARE BASICALLY THE SAME. At the end of the day, they’re building study materials and lectures around the very same concepts that everyone is tested on, so it’s not like one course can be that wildly different from another. The main differences come in price, quality of instructor, quality of materials, and student support. If I’m being completely honest, a large majority of CPA exam candidates can pass with any materials if they’ve got the motivation to get it done. Sure, having a fun instructor or extra MCQ can help, but even the best CPA review course is garbage if you don’t have the drive to get through it.
You can totally overthink this and drive yourself crazy trying to pick the “right” review course OR you can just find the one that feels right to you and get started on a journey that ultimately comes down to you and what you’re willing to put into it. Your choice.