Want to Pass the CPA Exam? Consider Hiring a Coach

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 hours 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 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 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 oneself: 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.

Managing Your Time as if It Was Your Money

Members of the accounting profession are driven by the notion of time. This is true if you’re in a public firm measuring billable hours or in industry with filing and reporting deadlines. The regulatory environment is such that CPAs can’t help but pay a lot of attention to the clock. While each of us wakes up each day with 24 hours to “spend,” most professionals will tell you they often feel like they don’t have enough time. There’s an opportunity cost that comes from looking at your time as if it was fixed. It makes the status quo too easy to accept versus seeing the possibility for a new relationship to time. 

CPAs know there are ways to grow money when it comes to actual dollars. So why not apply that same principle and identify ways to expand your energy by managing it as if it was money?

Time As Energy 

Like money, time is a currency that can be measured in units. Similarly, you can begin to think about how your energy available to complete tasks is also measurable. Energy management may be a new concept for you. The simplest way to shift your mindset to a new direction is to think about how you can begin to monitor your level of energy—just like your cell phone monitors the life of its battery. Are you at 100 percent, feeling charged and ready to go? Or are you at 10 percent, feeling like you need to plug in or switch to power saving mode? 

The ability to assess one’s level of energy is a valuable tool for knowledge workers like CPAs. Consider how the quality of your work would improve if you took on the critical thinking tasks when your battery was charged versus when you brain is tired and operating at a dangerously low level. So, how do you learn how to assess your energy? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had thermometers that read our body temperature and our energy levels? The good news is you don’t need a gadget to read where you are. With practice, you can learn to assess your energy levels and gauge the impact of your daily activities on those levels. It’s all about getting to know yourself and noticing when you’re in the zone and when you aren’t. 

To start, pay attention to what tasks excite you versus those that drain you. The tasks that drain us are usually things we don’t like doing because they are routine, monotonous or misaligned with our interests. Draining tasks have a lot of potential because they often are things we should stop doing or delegate. An easy way to grow as a leader is to free yourself of tasks you have mastered so you can take on higher level work, which in turn is often more engaging, rewarding and energy giving. 

Moreover, noticing your energy will create better results. If you complete high-level tasks with a low level of energy, it’s likely the quality of your work won’t be as good. It will contain errors, which in turn will require you to expend more energy later in the process. This mismatch creates an inefficient use of your time. 

As you build your awareness of what activities drain or charge your battery, you will be better equipped to see the opportunities to manage your time as if it was money. This understanding will allow you to look at how you’ve been spending your time and identify strategies that will yield a higher return on investment for your time (and energy). 

What’s Your Actual? 

A core tenant of the work I do coaching clients is to help them distinguish between facts and interpretations. If a client says to me, “I didn’t have enough time to …,” their statement is an interpretation. The fact is they had 24 hours in a day and chose to spend their time elsewhere. To get the facts on how your time is being spent, consider accounting for where you spent your time in the last week. Just like with money management, consider setting up an Excel spreadsheet that starts with 24 hours and then deduct all your expenditures of time, such as: 

  • Hours at work: This includes hours in the office and what you do remotely, like checking email from home. 
  • Daily living: Think of these like operational expenditures. They represent the hours it takes to simply take care of ourselves: sleeping, eating, and organizing our homes. 
  • Children: If you have children, think of them as a subsidiary account. How does their time roll into you, the parent company?
  • Transportation: This is the time spent going from one place to the next, whether commuting to the office or client. 
  • Miscellaneous: These are all the things we have to do in life, such as doctor and dentist appointments, maybe taking a vacation or going to get a haircut. Once you have the facts about how your time is being spent, you can then ask yourself: Am I balanced? Am I investing my time wisely? If not, what needs to change? In other words, what do I want my budget to look like instead? 

What Do You Want Your Budget To Be?

If you discover an organization is operating at a loss, you have two choices to get out of the red: reduce expenses or increase income. Opportunities to reduce expenditures of time are usually easier to identify: What needs to come off your plate? Again, notice what tasks drain your energy so you can spend those hours on tasks that are more meaningful and energizing. This might require you to get outside support, such as requesting help for things you normally do yourself or delegating tasks to others. 

Increasing income within your time budget is a little trickier. With your life, you can’t create more hours in the day by increasing sales. But you can create more energy by making sounder investments. One of the most common shifts people desire is making time to take better care of themselves, especially when the new year and busy season are upon us. While self-care is paramount to peak performance, it usually falls to the bottom of the list  

when we are short on time. As you create your ideal schedule, consider adding in investing activities. Investing activities are actions that produce dividends and interest by leaving you feeling more energized. They increase your happiness, help you to feel balanced and ultimately enhance your productivity. 

Here are four different types of investing activities to consider:

  1. Physical: exercise, nutrition
  2. Mental: reading, learning
  3. Spiritual: religion, meditation, time in nature
  4. Emotional: time with family, friends

Putting It in to Practice 

Effective change is the result of insights plus action. While clarity on how to better spend your time is helpful, it won’t create value in your life unless you actually change your behavior. To earn a higher yield on the time you’re spending, with your budget-to-actual in hand, keep the following in mind:

Focus On Futures

Don’t spend your energy worrying about poor investments of the past. Unlike financial statements, you can’t restate time that’s been spent. Worry, frustration, and negative thoughts about what is not possible will all drain your energy. Focusing on the future is energizing in and of itself. 

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

No one loses 100 pounds overnight. That type of change requires slow and steady results. When working with your budget, consider taking on one area at a time. For example, spend a month eliminating low yields and the following months layer in one new investment activity at a time. 

Monitor Your Energy As You Go

It may take you time to build this muscle of awareness, but it will be worth your time. The better you become at matching your energy levels to the appropriate tasks, the better your performance will be. 


We are often unrealistic about how we spend our time. We plan for the best-case scenario and don’t account for the unexpected. We dive into work without taking a step back and asking ourselves if the work energizes and excites us or noticing where we’ve made inefficient uses of our time. By budgeting your time and getting real about how your time has been spent, you will have the awareness to create a powerful budget for how you better invest in your future. 

Take the Work Out of Networking

Networking is viewed as a must have professional skill. It’s one that can be essential at the earliest stages of our career, because we learn of employment opportunities by meeting other professionals at networking events, and it continues to help us as we progress into new areas of expertise. Yet as valuable as networking can be, in all my years of coaching professionals and job candidates, I rarely hear people describe networking activities as enjoyable.

In fact, I often hear just the opposite: people find networking events to be uncomfortable and some individuals even dread them.

This is why I encourage people to reframe networking and instead think of connection. Connecting with others is a fundamental human need. Relationships with others provides us a sense of belonging. So how does one shift their way of thinking to connection?

Choose the Right Events

Some people feel more connected in smaller, one-to-one interactions, and others are energized by a large group setting. Take time to think about where you know you show up confidently and align your activities to your preferences. Also, choose events where your genuine interests or passions will be showcased.

For example, I love mentoring students coming into the profession. This is why I attend local CalCPA events targeted to students and candidate members. You won’t find me, a CPA who works with hearts and not numbers, networking at a technical roundtable discussion because I won’t show up excited, engaged and as my best self. By choosing carefully, you can position yourself to connect with less effort and have a more positive impact.

Push the Boundaries of Your Comfort Zone

There may be times when you will need to get out of your comfort zone so you can connect with the people that can support your career progression. Maybe you prefer more connecting in small groups, but you need to attend a large job fair. Consider how you can get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you are going to attend a job fair, are there opportunities to meet the professionals in attendance before the event (e.g., an office tour) or pair up with a friend so that you aren’t in it alone?

Remember We’re All Humans

Sometimes I’ve seen people get hung up on what to say at a networking event. We want to demonstrate that we’re smart and we want to come off as confident. But if we get too caught up in our heads, people don’t experience who we are and see what’s inside of our hearts. True connection occurs when we allow others to really see who we are and have them feel truly heard. Yes, you can talk about accounting principles if it’s something you are truly passionate about, but don’t be afraid to ask others about other domains of their lives beyond careers, such as their family and their personal commitments (like running a marathon or being involved in their community.

By focusing on how to truly connect with others, you not only take the work out of networking, but also you will prepare yourself to show up with impact—and you may even enjoy the experience!

Where’s the Love?

There’s an Emotional Side to Passing the Uniform CPA Exam

Love is a word we typically reserve for areas of our personal life. We may use it to describe aspects of our professional life such as loving our vocation, our colleagues or our clients. But, in all of my experiences with the Uniform CPA Exam—including my own arduous journey and coaching others on the path to licensure—I never once heard a person associate the word love with the exam. I offer that love is exactly what one needs during the journey to becoming a CPA.

Love For Oneself

Having love for oneself includes care of your body and mind. Most of us understand the essentials of how to care for our bodies through proper nutrition and exercise. However, we aren’t as adept at caring for our minds by living a balanced lifestyle. Time is always scarce during the path to CPA licensure, so we lose our balance and run up against burnout and exhaustion. Activities that promote balance are rejuvenating and fill up one’s emotional tank. Think of them as investing activities: you initially pay something and later reap interest and dividends. 

Activities that support one’s mental wellbeing may include quality time with loved ones, exercise, being outdoors, listening to music, spiritual practices or good old-fashioned rest. Activities that engage the creative, emotional side of the brain are especially valuable because the analytical side of the brain is often in overuse at this time. Another key consideration for candidates is to have a clear mind—specifically regarding why they want to become a CPA. 

Their reasons should be greater than doing it because of the opinions of others. Rather, candidates should be able to articulate the importance and value the designation will create for them. Without that, candidates run the risk of being overwhelmed by external pressures instead of being energized by internally generated motivation.

Love for the Profession

A profession, by definition, is more than a job. It is a vocation—a calling—and connects us to a larger purpose in society. Just like with marriage, love and commitment go hand in hand. A love for the profession is a commitment to something greater than any single individual’s work. Candidates who can get altitude on the bigger picture—beyond the immediate career pathways that exist and seeing where the designation will ultimately take them—will be better equipped to see how short-term tradeoffs will reap a lifetime of rewards. 

To see the bigger picture, one might ask:

  • Who are the clients I will be able to serve as a CPA?
  • What unique gifts can I bring to these clients and the profession?
  • Once I am a CPA, what will I be entrusted to do that I can’t do now?
  • What does my legacy look like and how does becoming a CPA fit into that vision?

Becoming a CPA means joining an elite group of individuals who are viewed by others as trusted advisers in the business world, as well as within their families, communities, churches, organizations, and society as a whole. Having altitude on the higher purpose one is committed to will create the most empowered action and greatest results.

Love From Others

An incredible amount of love and support from others is also needed to pass the Uniform CPA Exam. Because it takes so many hours of preparation to successfully pass, candidates are left with little time do anything beyond working and studying. Therefore, the best support structure for a candidate includes an understanding of the tremendous amount of strain they are under.

At home, candidates who feel the love have supportive partners who pick up the slack with child and pet care, cooking and cleaning. Families and friends show an understanding that a candidate might not have time for play and fun. And perhaps, most important, loved ones are there to provide much needed emotional support when one fails a section or is feeling overwhelmed.

Candidates also receive support from their employers. Financial support is a good start, and alignment of their exam schedule and workloads are important. Supportive employers give permission to take time off and unplug from work during the days or weeks leading up to an exam. Once again, emotional support is key. Having a space to talk with other CPAs and candidates about their experience can be cathartic and allow them to see that others also struggle. The hardest journeys to CPA licensure are often the most inspiring. The integration of the heart and mind creates tremendous access to power and heightened performance. Love may not be all you need, but it can get you farther than you may think.

Learn more about The Initiation– our professional coaching experience for CPA exam candidates.