There is an implicit level of respect you receive in earning the CPA designation — not just from the public at large, but also from your fellow CPAs. We may take the other requirements for granted: the years of experience, college course credits, yearly CPE credits and compliance with other standards, but all of us remember what a CPA had to go through during and in preparation for the Exam.

There is a major personal cost involved.

The CPA Exam takes a significant amount of time, discipline, energy and courage to obtain the knowledge necessary and to apply that under a test-taking environment to achieve those “75s.” You never forget about that cost, whether you are currently preparing for the Exam, you passed last year or you passed 50 years ago.

We all have that common experience, that common “journey” in our life to remember. The CPA Exam might be the “mother” of all tests you will take in your career, but it’s a lot more than just a test. That journey, if you reflect on it and build from it, represents a tremendous growth building block for the rest of your career.

So, let’s reflect on what preparing for and passing the Exam teaches us. And let’s explore some techniques that are useful for those currently on the CPA Exam journey.

We Learn About: Setting Goals and Measurable Milestones

You set the goal — pass the Exam. Sounds simple. In some ways, passing the CPA Exam is one of the most easily measurable goals you will achieve. You need to score a 75 or greater on each of the four separate sections within a certain time frame.

However, you have to create milestones related to that goal. That is where it gets more complicated. You need to consider:

  • When to schedule the tests: There are some blackout periods and limitations on when you can take certain sections.
  • How much to study: How much time will you need to study for each section based on an assessment of your knowledge gap? How much do you know versus how much do you need to know in the respective sections?
    • When and where to study: What are your best studying times and what study place will allow you to be free from distractions?
    • How to juggle job responsibilities: How do you concurrently excel in your career? Your current job responsibilities and potential busy times don’t go away during your study time.
    • How to maintain your health and high energy levels: How do you maintain a healthy lifestyle when there doesn’t seem to be time to do that?
    • How to be accountable: What needs to be done to ensure you stay on track so you meet your milestones and eventually achieve your goal?

You need to plan. You need to create a strategy. Much like a CPA firm’s or private company’s succession or exit strategy, when creating your plan, it is important to think about the END.

This is where there may be tremendous value in utilizing visualization techniques in your overall preparation. Visualization techniques are a tool to use when planning to achieve a grand goal, such as passing the CPA Exam!

We Learn About: Visualizing Success

Before you get started all together, or before you resume studying for one section you perceive to be difficult, take some time to relax, escape to a private place and close your eyes.

Visualize all the hard work you are going to need to put in to study and prepare. Now, think about what can go wrong and all the outside forces that can distract you. Visualize taking the actual Exam and how stressful the test-taking process might feel. Visualize coming up short on one or more sections and having to re-take them. Visualize the anger you will feel when you do come up short.

What have we just described? If you are a candidate, we may have just described what you are already doing! It can be easy for many of us to spend time thinking about problems, frustrations, limitations and yes, even failing. The results are fear and stress.

If these are thoughts that are creeping into your psyche, you are already utilizing a visualization technique. You are visualizing failure.

That’s the voice inside you that focuses on what you “can’t” do, the voice that reminds you about potential future failure, the voice that reminds you of your self-imposed limits. We all have a voice like that, our own personal “limiteur.”

The problem is most people do not progress or excel at near the same rate as their potential when they allow their limiteur to control their thoughts and actions. Your limiteur does not just bug you during the CPA Exam. Those limiting beliefs will be a continual challenge for you during your career when facing major uphill battles and challenges.

How can it benefit you if you take a much more positive perspective on your future and start to utilize visualization techniques that focus on your future success?

Try this technique: Visualize the most positive desired outcome in as much detail as possible. Visualize the specific day you find out you have passed the last section. You are finished.

  • How will you be notified? Where will you physically be when you find out you pass?
  • How will you celebrate? Will it just be a call to a family member or friend? Why not talk to them now? Tell them what you plan to do. Describe to them how you plan to call them once you have passed so you can celebrate over the phone. Will it be a party where you invite friends? Create the list of people you will be inviting. Visualize where you will be celebrating. Create the invitations now!
  • How will you feel? Visualize the goal being accomplished. Allow yourself to “feel” successful before you start. Success breeds success. Success cannot be defined; it must be felt. Passing the Exam is an achievement. But how will you FEEL once you have passed? That is what success is, your specific feelings. Only you can define those. Visualize that feeling now, and be specific.

Compare how you might feel when utilizing similar success visualization techniques versus allowing the limiteur inside you to visualize failure visualization techniques. Under which set of feelings will you be more motivated? Which techniques will help propel you to work harder and smarter toward your goal?

We Learn About: Managing Our Time and Discipline

When you are in “study mode,” you develop a pretty ferocious focus on passing the Exam.

There will be days while studying when you feel unmotivated, unfocused, lacking in priorities and generally unproductive. That is okay! We all have those days. Tomorrow is a new day. Use that as an opportunity to reflect on why that happened and reflect upon your current time management tendencies and how they might be improved.

Everyone struggles with time management. It is an art, not a science. Your time management will “evolve” as you become more experienced, and the CPA Exam will no doubt have you improving your time management techniques as you go.

We Learn About: Failing

Some CPA candidates pass each section the first time they take them, but that is pretty rare. In fact, based on the latest compilation of test results, more people fail three of the four sections than pass them. So for the majority of us, the Exam can be very taxing mentally.

On one section or more, and maybe multiple times, we spent significant time preparing for something and we failed. This represents new territory for a lot of accountants accustomed to achieving good grades, landing good jobs and receiving warm praise.

Failure is not easy to handle, especially when it is not expected. But why is failure considered so unacceptable the older we get? If you want to revisit the power of failure, spend some time watching a toddler learn how to walk. Do they just all of a sudden “get it” and then walk without help? No. They spend a lot of time falling on their faces, butts and every other body part. They persist and focus on the walking; not the falling, and eventually, they prevail.

Maybe they know something inherently that we adults tend to forget: The more you fall down and most importantly, learn to get right back up, the closer you are to achieving your goal.

Failure is a big part of life. It is a big part of everyone’s life. Failing is an opportunity to become stronger by forcing yourself to get right back up and learn valuable lessons. Nobody wants to become “comfortable” in failing, but nobody learns and grows as much as they can without it.

It’s exciting to see someone who has failed one section of the Exam eventually muster more resolve. It may not happen instantly, and nor should it, in some cases. Some need to take the time to come to terms with a failure before moving forward.

Learning to come to terms with failure can be a realization that transcends the CPA Exam. It is an Exam of your resolve. Falling down is okay. Getting up and learning from failure is empowering.

We Learn About: Balance

Most candidates will tell you how “out-of-balance” their lives feel while they are in Exam mode. If you know what out-of-balance feels like, you are indirectly uncovering what is important to you in your life.

What are the areas of your life that you feel you neglected during those study times that bothered you the most? What are the roles you are most excited about getting back to fulfilling (friend, mother, father, etc.) once you are done with the Exam? What were the roles and routines that you honored even during the most intense study time because they were so important to you?

Feeling out-of-balance helps you understand what balance means to you personally. What are the routines and roles you serve in your life that allow you to feel more balance and feel more fulfilled, even during time famines?

We Learn About: Saying No

So maybe it is easier to say no to others because you can point to your Exam. Most people understand. You are singularly focused on a specific, important goal, and you do not allow other distractions and requests to tug at you in achieving it.

Many conscientious accountants struggle in the art of saying no in their careers, and one of the many reasons they do is because they don’t practice! The CPA Exam gives you that time to practice.

A Lifetime of Learning

Which of these learning opportunities described are only applicable to the CPA Exam? The “muscles” you develop while studying for and taking the CPA Exam are transferrable to all aspects of your future career.

Creating and focusing on an important goal and creating related milestones, managing your time, maintaining discipline, accepting and learning from failure, maintaining balance in your life and the discipline of simply saying no are very critical skills that can be building blocks to reach new heights in your career — no matter your job or occupation.

See you in the DoP (Dimension of Possible),

Original article published in the Sept/Oct 2009 issue of Virginia Society of CPAs’ Disclosures Magazine.

The CPA Exam might be the ‘mother’ of all tests you will take in your career, but it’s a lot more than just a test. That journey, if you reflect on it and build from it, represents a tremendous growth building block for the rest of your career.”