What Should You Do the Night Before You Take the CPA Exam?

Looks like we’re back in the swing of CPA exam testing as you guys have been loading me up with great questions (thanks, it means Caleb doesn’t have to fire me this week) so let’s get right to it. Today’s question comes via Twitter and if you have one, email me or toss an @ my way and I’ll get to it.

@adrigonzo What is your rec for the night before an exam section. Study till you drop that last night or get some rest? #cpaexam


This is an excellent question because for many of you who are taking the CPA exam fresh out of school, you might be used to slacking off for weeks or months on end and making one last final push at the end of the semester to get through finals. While that may have worked in college (and can also work in life if you play your cards right), it’s important to keep in mind that the CPA exam doesn’t work the same way.

Your brain learns in layers and with the exam, it’s best to digest smaller pieces of information over a longer period of time than it is to try and cram it all in there in a few days. That’s why accelerated or otherwise last-minute CPA review programs aren’t a good idea; your brain needs the layers to dig into come exam day.

Think of it like making oatmeal cookies: you start with the basics; butter, sugar, eggs, flour and oatmeal. In an exam context (we’re using FAR because it’s easiest in this example), this would be the framework of financial accounting and any heavily tested areas like bonds, pensions and inventory. Once that’s mixed up, you add in your flair: raisins, chocolate chips, chopped nuts, whatever you like. Side note: I made white chocolate chip, craisin and pecan oatmeal cookies the other night and they were absolutely fantastic. Anyway, your flair would be the lighter-tested or unfamiliar areas like some of what’s covered in advanced accounting, inflation accounting, dollar-value LIFO, etc. You use a cup and a half of flour but only half a cup of chocolate chips and regardless of how much the recipe calls for, if you sit down and eat the entire bowl of dough in one night you’re going to get sick. Got it?

I always recommend bringing your note cards or textbook to Prometric with you so you can do a last-minute review in the car and it’s absolutely appropriate to do some studying the night before but don’t overdo it. Get to bed at a reasonable hour but try not to upset your routine too much – if you’re an night owl, there’s no reason to go to bed at 8pm unless you have scheduled your exam for first thing in the morning (what were you thinking?!). As we all know, accountants don’t deal well with change so the more you can make taking the exam feel like “normal”, the better you’ll feel on exam day.

Be sure to nourish your hard-working brain with the right foods, avoid alcohol (trust us, you can get absolutely obliterated when you actually pass, first one’s on us) and, if you smoke, try to stop (nicotine withdrawal can impair cognitive performance and you aren’t going to be able to take a break at the exam to go grab a smoke) or at least create an exam-day plan to get your fix (you might want to avoid gum at Prometric).

And remember: you may never actually feel “ready” to take the exam. Focus on preparing and remind yourself that you’ve done everything you can (hopefully…) to get to ready, even if you never actually feel that way.

Looks like we’re back in the swing of CPA exam testing as you guys have been loading me up with great questions (thanks, it means Caleb doesn’t have to fire me this week) so let’s get right to it. Today’s question comes via Twitter and if you have one, email me or toss an @ my way and I’ll get to it.

@adrigonzo What is your rec for the night before an exam section. Study till you drop that last night or get some rest? #cpaexam


This is an excellent question because for many of you who are taking the CPA exam fresh out of school, you might be used to slacking off for weeks or months on end and making one last final push at the end of the semester to get through finals. While that may have worked in college (and can also work in life if you play your cards right), it’s important to keep in mind that the CPA exam doesn’t work the same way.

Your brain learns in layers and with the exam, it’s best to digest smaller pieces of information over a longer period of time than it is to try and cram it all in there in a few days. That’s why accelerated or otherwise last-minute CPA review programs aren’t a good idea; your brain needs the layers to dig into come exam day.

Think of it like making oatmeal cookies: you start with the basics; butter, sugar, eggs, flour and oatmeal. In an exam context (we’re using FAR because it’s easiest in this example), this would be the framework of financial accounting and any heavily tested areas like bonds, pensions and inventory. Once that’s mixed up, you add in your flair: raisins, chocolate chips, chopped nuts, whatever you like. Side note: I made white chocolate chip, craisin and pecan oatmeal cookies the other night and they were absolutely fantastic. Anyway, your flair would be the lighter-tested or unfamiliar areas like some of what’s covered in advanced accounting, inflation accounting, dollar-value LIFO, etc. You use a cup and a half of flour but only half a cup of chocolate chips and regardless of how much the recipe calls for, if you sit down and eat the entire bowl of dough in one night you’re going to get sick. Got it?

I always recommend bringing your note cards or textbook to Prometric with you so you can do a last-minute review in the car and it’s absolutely appropriate to do some studying the night before but don’t overdo it. Get to bed at a reasonable hour but try not to upset your routine too much – if you’re an night owl, there’s no reason to go to bed at 8pm unless you have scheduled your exam for first thing in the morning (what were you thinking?!). As we all know, accountants don’t deal well with change so the more you can make taking the exam feel like “normal”, the better you’ll feel on exam day.

Be sure to nourish your hard-working brain with the right foods, avoid alcohol (trust us, you can get absolutely obliterated when you actually pass, first one’s on us) and, if you smoke, try to stop (nicotine withdrawal can impair cognitive performance and you aren’t going to be able to take a break at the exam to go grab a smoke) or at least create an exam-day plan to get your fix (you might want to avoid gum at Prometric).

And remember: you may never actually feel “ready” to take the exam. Focus on preparing and remind yourself that you’ve done everything you can (hopefully…) to get to ready, even if you never actually feel that way.

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