1. Not looking at sample materials before making a purchase
We talk, email, and chat with a lot of exam candidates, and too often we hear from students who spent a lot of money – sometimes over $1,000 – on a competitor’s course only to find out that the materials are not easy to understand, not complete, or don’t come with teacher support. Fortunately, there is a very easy solution to this problem: thoroughly review the sample materials that each provider offers on their web site. Don’t just sign up and flip through the book, but sit down and read a section of the textbook, answer practice questions, and watch some of the videos as if you had purchased the materials and are using them to prepare. Ask the provider some questions, and evaluate if the answers are prompt, complete, and professional.
What should you do if a provider does not provide free samples? If a provider does not want you to see their materials, I would assume that it is because they know that they are not very good, and therefore you should not consider that provider. Here at HOCK, we are proud of our materials and want candidates look at them before buying because we are confident in the quality of our materials.
2. Overestimating what they already know
While relevant work experience and education are very helpful for passing the exam, many candidates assume that the questions on the exam should be answered the same way that they would be at work. This is not always the case, however, because usually the exams have to simplify the real world in order to make questions that can be solved in the time frame allowed by the exam. In the real world, almost every decision must consider quantitative and qualitative factors and everyone will assess those factors differently. On the exam, there is a correct way to make a calculation and a correct decision. Candidates with a lot of real-world experience still need to answer the past exam questions to understand how it is that the exam asks the questions and what the examiners consider to be the correct answers.
3. Underestimating the value of practice questions
Answering practice questions is critical to preparing to pass an exam, for a number of reasons:
- “Practice makes perfect.” While the goal is not perfection, practicing the questions will absolutely increase your understanding and therefore your exam score.
- You learn how the examiners have asked questions in the past.
- There is a learning curve in the amount of time that it takes to read and answer a question. For candidates who are concerned about running out of time (which is most candidates) taking the exam, you need to go through this learning curve months before the exam, not during the exam.
- You do learn from your mistakes. Learning from missed practice questions should not be your primary learning tool, but making mistakes can reinforce concepts and also show common mistakes and pitfalls. Again, it is best to learn these lessons while practicing and not on the real exam.
4. Underestimating the benefit of asking questions
If there is something that you do not understand after reading the textbook, answering the practice questions, and making a reasonable effort on your own, there are three things that you can do with that topic:
- Research the topic and teach it to yourself.
- Hope that you will not be asked about that topic on the exam (a risky strategy).
- Ask your provider for help.
Not only is it more effective to ask an exam expert, it is also the most efficient use of your time. Most likely your provider will be able to answer the question quickly, or let you know that the question you are asking is outside the scope of the exam. In either case, you have received an answer without spending a lot of your time trying to do the job of your provider, or perhaps trying to learn something that is not on the exam.
5. Starting too late to prepare
One of the most common questions that exam candidates ask us is “How many hours should I study?” Your material provider should give you a suggested number of hours. Of course, this is only a starting point and depending on your background, you may need to adjust the number of hours.
Let’s say that the recommended number of study hours is 100. On one hand, this is a simple math question: if you need to study 100 hours and you plan to study 5 hours a day, you theoretically will be ready in 20 days, or three weeks. On the other hand, there is a limit as to how many hours you can effectively study in a day or week on a long-term basis. Even if you can study all of the hours in a short period of time, some topics require additional time to “sink in” beyond just the hours you spend studying. So, not only is a certain number of hours required, but there is also a minimum amount of time for understanding.
Overall, most people have in mind 3-4 months to prepare for an individual exam, and that is a good rule of thumb to use. Yes, some people can prepare for an exam in 1-2 months, but for the vast majority of people, 3-4 months is a good amount of time to be able to prepare comfortably and pass confidently. You cannot cram 3 months of learning into 2 weeks, no matter how many hours you study per day.
Occasionally, a student will contact us asking about a different way that they have to calculate an answer to an example or question in our CMA, CIA, or CPA materials. While these alternative ways are sometimes valid, a professional exam is not the place to try out a new theory, disagree with the syllabus, or experiment with an alternate method.
It is true that there are some things on the exams that can be calculated in more than one way. I know that there are different procedures and different ways to calculate a number or ratio that vary from company to company. However, for a professional exam, there is one way to correctly calculate a ratio and usually one way of how a process should be completed. For example, there may be dozens of ways to do a capital budgeting assessment in practice, but for the CMA exam, there are only a limited number of ways that are acceptable.
So, when you are studying for or taking the exam, remember that the questions will be asked from a certain perspective and will use specific processes and calculations. If you have questions about the “right” way to do something for the exam, remember that the “right” way is the way in your materials, because that is the way that the correct answer will be calculated on the exam.
Brian Hock, CMA, CIA
A US CPA license is the most widely recognized professional accounting certification in the world. However, that does not mean that it is always the best choice for accounting professionals outside of the United States. There are issues connected to the content of the Exam, eligibility, taking the Exam, getting your license, and the investment of time and money, all of which need to be carefully considered before deciding to pursue becoming a CPA.
I have been teaching candidates outside the US to pass the CPA Exams since the year 2000, but I always want to make certain that each candidate we help is taking the CPA Exam for the right reasons. The five most important questions that a candidate from outside the US needs to ask and think about before deciding to pursue the US CPA are:
Is CPA the right certification for you?
Before starting any professional certification, you need to be certain that it is the right professional certification for you. This question is even more important for individuals outside the US who are considering the US CPA Exam because of the potentially large investment of both time and money that is required given the additional difficulties of qualifying and taking the exam from outside the US (discussed below).
Determining if the US CPA is right for you revolves largely around the question of why you are taking the CPA Exam, i.e. what is your goal in becoming a CPA? If being a CPA is required for a specific job that you would like to have in the future, then you will need to become a CPA for that position. However, even if the position you want requires being a CPA, if you are not eligible to take the Exam or get your license (discussed below), then you will not even be able to become a CPA.
One specific issue in assessing whether CPA is the right certification for you is the fact that the content of the CPA Exam is US-oriented. The FAR Exam covers US GAAP. The REG Exam covers US tax law and US business law. The Audit Exam covers US audit standards. If you will not be working with US GAAP, US tax or business law, or US auditing standards, then the CPA Exam will not be preparing you for your job. If you are studying topics that you will not be using in your career, it also becomes harder to study these topics because you are not motivated by the practical application to your work.
Are you eligible to take the Exam?
If you have determined that the US CPA is the right certification for you, the next step is to determine if you will be eligible to take the Exams.
While every state has its own requirements for eligibility for the CPA Exam, most states require the equivalent of a Master’s Degree in Accountancy from a US university. In addition to the education requirements, some states also require US citizenship and/or residency.
Even though most states require a Master’s Degree in Accountancy, there are a handful of states that do not have this requirement. These are the states that most foreign candidates register in. Some of these states require the equivalent of 5 years of university credit to be eligible and some require only 4 years. Most states also have requirements about the minimum number of accounting hours, non-accounting business hours, and auditing or business law hours that must be completed in order to be eligible.
All of this is to say that if you do not have at least a 4-year Accounting degree, it will be very difficult to be eligible to take the CPA Exam.
Will you meet the experience requirement to get your license?
In addition to making certain that you are eligible to take the Exam, you also need to confirm that you will be able to get your license after you pass the Exams.
Most states require 2 years of experience under a licensed CPA in public accounting (external audit or taxation). Some states allow non-public accounting experience, but usually more than 2 years, and some states do not require that all work have been supervised by a CPA.
The state in which you plan to apply for your license must be the same state in which you registered for the Exam. You cannot register for the Exam in one state and then apply for your license in another.
Where will you take the Exam?
Assuming that you qualify to take the Exams and be licensed, in order to calculate how much it will cost to take the Exams, you need to identify where you will be able to sit for the Exams.
The CPA Exam is available in only a few countries outside of the United States: Japan, Brazil, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates.
Additionally, only citizens and long-term residents of certain countries are eligible to take the Exam in these locations. You can see who is able to take the Exam in each of these countries here: https://nasba.org/app/uploads/2011/02/InternationalTestingChart.pdf. If you are not a resident of the countries listed, you will have to sit for the exam in the US.
The main issue of the location of the Exam is the additional cost. If you will need to travel to take the Exam, you will have the costs of travel and hotel each time you go. If you plan to take one Exam at a time and you end up failing 2 Exams, you would have 6 trips associated with passing the CPA Exam.
Have you calculated the financial and time investment required?
The investment required to earn your CPA license is not only the financial costs of registration, preparation, and potentially travel, but also the investment of your time to prepare.
- The cost of registration varies by state, but $1,500 would be a reasonable average (for all four exams).
- The cost of preparation can be between $500 and $5,000, depending on how you prepare.
- The cost of travel will depend on a number of factors, but can become very expensive depending on where you live and where you need to go.
While these costs will be different for each candidate, it will probably cost at least $3,000 to prepare for and register for the Exams, not including any necessary travel expenses.
In terms of time, you should expect to spend at least 300 hours studying for the Exams. Depending on your educational background and experience, it could be as many as 500 hours.
It is difficult to put a financial value on 300-500 hours (or more) of your time, but you need to remember that in order to get the benefit of being a CPA you must pass all of the Exams and get your license. If you pass only two of the Exams, run out of money, or cannot retake an Exam that needs to be retaken, the time and money that you invested in passing some of the Exams will be wasted.
While the financial and time investment that you will need to make to become a CPA is an essential part of the decision, only you can determine if the CPA Exam is what you need, if you will be eligible to take it, if you will be able to get your license, and where you will be able to take the Exams.
Choosing the correct professional certification is always a difficult process. As detailed above, for candidates outside of the United States, there are significant questions to be answered before making a decision to pursue the CPA Exam. First, make certain that the CPA will help you achieve your personal and professional goals. Then, make certain that you will be able to prove eligibility, that you will have the required experience, and that you will be able to travel to take the Exams, if needed. The final step is the cost/benefit analysis of the required investment to pass the Exams. If you do not have confident answers for all of the questions discussed above, then the US CPA Exam is probably not the best professional certification for you.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask us. At HOCK we want to help make certain that you pursue the best exam for your personal and career goals.
Brian Hock, CMA, CIA
When we talk about professional certification exams, we generally think of people with jobs taking the exams to advance their career and increase their earnings potential. However, if you are a university student in accounting or finance, you should seriously consider taking a relevant certification exam while you are still a student.
If you would like to be an internal auditor, you should take the Certified Internal Auditor Exams (3 exams). If you would like to work in management accounting or finance, you should take the Certified Management Accountant Exams (2 exams). If you would like to go into auditing, you should take CPA or ACCA (or other similar certification), depending on the required certification for auditors where you live.
No matter which exams you take, there are three reasons that you should start your Certification while you are still at university:
- You save money. Registering for the exams is cheaper if you do so as a student. For example, the costs of taking the 2 CMA Exams as a professional is $1,325, but the cost of taking them as a student is only $849.
- It is easier to study. While you are a student, you probably have studied many of the topics on the exams in your classes. This means that your studying for the exams is more of a review of these topics, and you can prepare more quickly while everything is fresh in your mind.
- It will help you get a job. It is a very competitive market for graduates in accounting and finance, and anything that you can do to differentiate yourself will help you get a better job and/or the job that you really want. By taking the exams (even if you have not passed them all yet) you are showing a prospective employer that you are serious about your profession and that you are also making a positive distinction between yourself and everyone else who graduated but did not take any exams.
We welcome any students (or professionals) with questions to contact us and we will be glad to discuss certifications and how to prepare to pass the exams. The sooner you start your professional exams, the sooner you will benefit from them.
Brian Hock, CMA, CIA
There are several well-known international certifications for accounting and finance professionals, including CMA, CPA, CIMA, ACCA, ACA, CIA, CFA, and others. The first step for you as a professional seeking a certification is determining which one will be the most beneficial. This requires looking not only at your current job, but also what you would like to do in the future. By looking ahead, you can be certain that you have the needed skills, experience, and certification(s) for your career.
I have been involved in professional certifications in accounting and finance since 1998 and through all of these years, the certification that is generally the most valuable is the CMA. Of course, if you want to be an internal auditor, you become a CIA and if you want to be an investment banker, you should become CFA. However, if you are looking for a career in accounting or finance, are looking to start or operate a small or medium-sized business, or want to have a certification that will provide the most flexibility and most options for you in your career, the CMA is the best certification for you.
There are five main reasons that the CMA is the overall best accounting and finance credential:
1. The CMA Syllabus is practical and relevant to your job.
Everything in the CMA syllabus is something that a business does or should do. Such a practical syllabus provides a lot of benefits to you:
- It makes studying easier. It is a lot easier to study and learn something when its relevancy to a business is easy to understand. Also, by being practical, there is a greater chance that you will have some experience or exposure to the concepts before you start studying.
- The content you learn is useful for your current and future jobs. Ideally, studying for your certification will help you perform your job better. Whether you are in accounting, finance, budgeting, management, or operations, what is covered on the CMA Exam is what a company does or should be doing.
- The knowledge does not limit you to a specific department or career path. With topics ranging from financial accounting to management accounting, to planning and budgeting, to internal controls, to ethics and decision making, CMA prepares you for any job that is connected to management of a small or medium-sized business, or the accounting and finance functions in any size company.
2. You only need a Bachelor’s degree and two years of relevant work experience.
While some accountants have advanced degrees, there are many accountants who started in a different career and may not have a business degree or number of hours of accounting courses. For the CMA exam, as long as you have a 3 or 4 year Bachelor’s degree in any subject, you meet the education requirement.
Furthermore, as long as you have two years of relevant work experience, you will meet the experience requirement. Your experience does not need to be with any specific position nor does your supervisor need to be a CMA.
3. You only need to pass two exams to become a CMA.
While it may seem at first that only two exams are not enough for a professional certification, the two CMA exams cover a wide range of topics that are all tested in depth. This means that you get a rigorous exam that covers everything it needs to cover, but without a multi-year time commitment. With only two exams, you will be able to earn your CMA in around a year (average), and you will actually have a certification. While there are certifications with many more exams, if you don’t complete them all there is no benefit to you.
4. Your CMA certification is internationally recognized.
In all likelihood, you will have a number of different jobs during your career, which may include working for a multinational corporation, or in another country. Because the CMA certification is internationally recognized, it will help you get a job anywhere in the world. Having a CMA will also show to others in your organization that you are committed to your profession, which will help with promotions.
5. The CMA Syllabus is practical and relevant to your job.
Yes, this was also #1, but it is so important that it needs to be listed twice. An international syllabus (without country-specific details such as US Tax law) allows you to learn what is needed in today’s international accounting and finance marketplace.
For all of these reasons, I strongly recommend CMA as the best international certificate in accounting and finance. Of course, when you have a particular career goal, or your company requires a specific certification, then you need to pursue that required certification. If, however, you are looking to develop and expand your career prospects and possibilities within accounting and finance, then I strongly recommend the CMA Certification.
Brian Hock, CMA, CIA
In my twenty years of helping candidates pass their certification exams, I have come across many myths and misconceptions that can cause candidates to spend more time and/or more money than they need to. These myths are often perpetuated through the marketing that companies use to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Unfortunately, this marketing can be very misleading as you research the best materials to use to study.
Myth #1: More material means better material
There are not a lot of materials that you need to prepare properly; all you need is a way to learn and way to practice. Usually, this means a textbook (but can also include videos if the videos cover the entire syllabus) and practice questions from past exams. The quantity of pages, number of questions, hours of videos, etc. is not as important as whether or not that material is complete, relevant, and prepares you to pass the exams. You generally do not need multiple question banks, either, because the question banks from each provider are usually very similar, including the same previously-released exam questions.
Myth #2: More expensive material means better material
While it is usually true that “you get what you pay for,” it is true only if what you are paying for adds value for you. When a material provider pays to receive “status” from the examiner or has an affiliate agreement with another site that “recommends” them (more on this next), these are costs that are passed on to you but do not add any value. If someone “approves” or “recommends” certain materials, be certain to find out the criteria for that recommendation. Any non-quality-based recommendation adds no value to you.
Myth #3: Review comparison sites are really unbiased
For many professional exams, there are websites that claim to offer unbiased reviews of the different providers. What is not very well known is that most of these sites receive commissions from the material providers listed on them, meaning that the reviews are not objective. Usually, the company that is rated the highest is the one that pays the highest commission to the review site. On some sites this relationship is disclosed (though often not very prominently), but on many sites it is not disclosed at all.
As an example, one of the review sites for CMA materials used to list HOCK as their #1 provider with five stars. When the owner of the site asked HOCK to join an affiliate commission program but we chose not to participate, we lost 2 stars overnight and went from first place to third place in their rankings. The change had nothing to do with the materials, but rather the review site could make money recommending other providers who would pay a commission.
Besides the undisclosed financial relationship, these sites often have incorrect and/or outdated information because they write a review and then it sits online, unchanged sometimes for years. These sites also give no mechanism for the course providers to provide updated information or to respond to the reviews if there are inaccurate or incorrect statements.
You may have noticed that there are a lot of these review comparison sites for CMA, CPA, and CIA materials that do not include HOCK. This is usually because we refused to pay a commission to the person who runs the site. I am certain that we have lost business over the years because of this decision, but I also know that it has allowed us to keep our prices more affordable for you, because we do not need to include a 20% or 25% commission mark-up in our price. What you pay for HOCK materials goes to value-added activities, and not to expensive marketing relationships.
Myth #4: Pass rates are accurate and honest
Many course providers post a pass rate for candidates who use their materials. I have written about this in the past (https://www.hockinternational.com/why-pass-rates-useless-why-we-dont-publish-them/), but these pass rates mean almost nothing because there is no straightforward and consistent way to calculate them. Which candidates are included? Or excluded? How do we determine a “pass?”
For example, if a candidate buys materials from Provider X and fails, but after purchasing Provider Y materials they pass the exam, is that candidate a “pass” for Provider X, Provider Y, or both? Does Provider X still include the first failure in their pass rate? Provider X could claim a 100% pass rate for that one student because they eventually did pass, but a 50% pass rate would be more accurate and honest.
Or, if a candidate uses materials from three providers and passes on their first attempt, who claims that “pass?” One way that you can see the inaccuracy of pass rates is by looking at all of the providers who publish pass rates. Every company claims a pass rate that is significantly higher than the exam’s published pass rate by the examining body. If these claimed pass rates were true, the real pass rate for the exam would as high as the claims made by the providers.
Myth #5: You must attend a class
For many years I taught live classes, and I know that a good class can be very helpful. However, the materials that a company sells should be sufficient to pass the exam with self-study. If you are going to study in a classroom, please make certain that the class will be value-added. See this post that I wrote previously listing some questions you should ask a classroom provider (https://www.hockinternational.com/questions-live-taught-classes/).
In addition, pay attention to the number of hours in the class. Some classes (including online classes) can include a large number of hours of instruction, which may be used to “justify” a higher price. No matter how good the teacher is, however, you need to spend time yourself studying and practicing questions. Not all of your study hours need to be instructor-led and if the class goes on too long, you are not getting any value from many of those hours.
For the CMA exam, both HOCK and the ICMA recommend 150 hours of study per part, and our videos are currently only 24 hours for Part 1 and 25 hours for Part 2. I have been teaching CMA since 2000 and we use those videos as the basis for our “You Pass or We Pay Guarantee.” If I am able to teach the content that you need in 25 hours per part, you do not need to be in a classroom for 100 hours per part.
Myth #6: Personal counselors are personal and needed
Some companies offer a personal counselor or similar service. While this sounds good, we believe that personal counselors are of limited added value to your studies. There is a specific syllabus for the exam, and every candidate must learn the material on the syllabus. You are able to determine in what areas you need additional study by looking at the statistics in your practice questions. If you have 94% for a topic, you know that topic well. If you have 43% for a topic, you do not know that topic well and you need to keep studying it. Maybe the counselor helps keep you motivated because they contact you every one or two weeks, but a good study plan can also keep you keep on track.
Besides statistics, only you know how well you understand a topic, regardless of the statistics. Are you guessing on the questions a lot? Are you confident in your knowledge as you read questions and answer them? Those are indicators about your preparedness that only you know. The counselor can’t tell you what your understanding and confidence level is.
In the end, interacting with a personal counselor adds time to your study process because the time you take talking to them or trying to meet specific administrative reporting tasks is time that you could be studying and learning the material instead.
Myth #7: There are shortcuts to passing the exam
Occasionally, a company will claim to have materials that reduce the time that you need to spend studying or have a shortcut to focus on “the right topics” for the exam. While that would be nice, there are no shortcuts! There is a syllabus for the exam and you need to learn all of it. Some common shortcuts include mnemonic devices or memory tricks, which may seem like they are working when you practice with questions that you become familiar with in the practice software, but on the exam you will have questions that you have never seen before. If you have only memorized a handful of key terms or phrases, you will not be able to answer questions on the exam that are different than the practice questions.
Using such shortcuts may reduce the amount of time you spend preparing for your first attempt on the exam, but you will spend the full amount of time later when you need to prepare to take the exam again. Not only do the shortcuts not save you any time, they cost you money as well when you don’t pass on the first attempt.
I hope that it is not too late for you to avoid some of these myths and misconceptions that could make your studies more expensive or take more time than necessary. You won’t find any shortcuts or marketing gimmicks at HOCK; instead, we will prepare you effectively and efficiently to pass the exams on your first attempt with comprehensive materials and support that give you all of the tools that you need – no more, and no less.
Brian Hock, CMA, CIA
The Theory of Constraints addresses the issue that, in any process, there is a step that has a lower capacity than the others. No matter how many units are produced in the other steps, the process is always limited by the step with the lowest capacity. Therefore, when planning a process it is important to make certain that the slowest step will be able to produce quickly enough to meet the production schedule.
I can also apply this concept to my classes. Every class will have one student who is the weakest. As the teacher, I need to identify and work individually with that student, after which there will then be a different weakest student. I need to keep identifying the weakest students and working with them until the weakest student in the class is going to pass the exam. If the weakest student will pass the exam, then the group pass rate will be 100%, which is always my goal.
This same idea can also be applied to preparing for an exam outside of a class. When you are studying, you need to work so that you know 70% of your weakest topic. If there is a topic you don’t know at least 70% of, go back and study it again, until there is another weakest topic. Then study that topic. When you know at least 70% of every topic, and some topics at 80% or more, you are ready to pass your exam.
Remember that you do not need to know everything about every topic that is covered on the exam; knowing everything is simply unrealistic. But, what you need to do is make certain that your understanding of your weaker topics is enough to allow you to pass. Furthermore, it is not possible for every topic on the syllabus to be tested. This means that you can occasionally take a small topic and just accept that you will not know it. Of course, you can’t say that about 25% of the exam topics and still expect to pass.
When you have a topic that is difficult for you, try to identify the main and/or basic elements of that topic. Looking at the past exam questions will help you see what has been tested in the past. Make certain that you are able to get the basic questions correct, even if some of the advanced elements are unclear to you.
For exams that have essays or problems on them, it is critical that you know at least enough to get some points on each problem. You never want to get a 0 on an essay or problem, even if it is only 5% of the exam. Every point counts, so even getting a couple of points out of five on one problem could be the difference between passing and failing the exam. Even for complicated topics, you can usually get partial credit for showing a basic understanding of the concepts or process being tested.
If you have used a similar method in your studies, please feel free share your strategies in the comments. I hope that you will be able to use the Theory of Constraints and similar strategies to help you prepare to pass your exams!
Brian Hock, CMA, CIA
When it comes to passing certification exams, every candidate has to learn the same content. Whether you prefer to prepare by reading, listening, or watching, you must learn the content and be able to answer the questions that are asked on exam. Unlike preparing, there is only one testing method for the exam regardless of how you prefer to learn or communicate.
There are three stages of preparation that you must go through in order to pass the exam: learning, practicing, and passing.
As long as you are learning what you need to know, how you learn is not as important. You may choose to use a textbook as your primary learning tool, or you may prefer videos or audios. But, no matter what method you use to learn, you need to use materials that are designed specifically for your exam. There are a number of different providers for most exams, and every provider has the same knowledge and information about exam content (regardless of what some companies may claim or advertise). While any materials from these exam prep providers should be geared specifically to the exam, it is always good to have a copy of the syllabus that you can refer to as you study. On the other hand, if you use materials that are not exam-specific, you run the risk of studying a lot of things that are not on the exam, or not studying important topics that are on the exam.
How many hours you need to spend learning will depend on your background, education, and experience. You may find that different topics require different amounts of time to learn. Do not let yourself get locked into a specific number of hours. If you think you have learned a topic a bit faster than you expected, that is OK. Similarly, if it takes a bit longer than expected, that is OK too. The key is to learn the content, not stick rigidly to a time budget that may not lead you to success on the exam.
Of course, keep in mind that for any exam that the passing mark is usually 70-75%, so you do not need to learn 100% of the details about 100% of the topics on the syllabus. You just want to make certain that you are closer to 100% coverage than 75% coverage so that you have a margin of error.
After you have learned the material, you need to “activate” it with practice.
In order to pass the exam, you need to make certain that the knowledge that you learned is “activated” for the exam and the way that exam questions are asked. The best way to do this is to practice past exam questions, which will enable you to learn how the questions have been asked in the past and the language that is used in the questions. This practice will also help you see what the examiners have thought are the most important questions within a topic. For example, on the CMA exam, process costing is a big topic, but in looking at past questions you will see that the calculation of equivalent units produced has the most past exam questions about it.
When you are practicing questions, here are a few things you should keep in mind:
- More questions is not automatically better. The questions that you are practicing need to be on-topic and similar to the questions that are asked on the exam. It is easy to do a lot of multiple-choice questions that are just definitional in nature, but if the exam does not ask definitional questions, then those questions will not help you pass the exam.
- Do not memorize questions or answers. Ideally, your software will change the order of the answers when it repeats a question, but even in that case, you do not want to memorize that the question about Johnson Co. is $600,000. What you want to be able to do is understand why the correct answer is correct. On the real exam, the questions will be different than what you practiced. If the real exam question is changed in what it asks from a similar practice question, unless you truly understand the topic, you will not be able to get that exam question correct.
- Use the incorrect choices as a learning tool. Just as you need to understand why the correct answer is correct, in many questions you can also practice by being able to understand why the incorrect answer is incorrect. In some cases, changing just one word in the question would make one of the incorrect choices correct.
While you are practicing the questions, using flash cards (whether you prepared them or they were provided with your materials) is also a good way to practice what you learned.
Sometimes when you are practicing, you may realize that you did not fully learn a topic or two. This normal, and not a problem. When you do not understand the questions for a topic, just go back and look at the textbook or watch the videos for that topic to make certain that you have learned it. Many times, when you re-learn a topic after doing some questions you can learn it much better because you have an understanding of what you need to know having answered some of the practice questions.
After you have completed your learning and practicing, it is time for the third stage. But, before you take your real exam, you need to pass your mock exam. The mock exam should resemble what will be on your real exam, and you will want to complete the mock exam in the same time limits as the real exam. If you have 3 hours to complete your exam, you need to take your mock exam in 3 continuous hours all in one sitting. You want to go through the process of sitting for three hours answering exam questions so that you know what to expect when you take the real exam.
A very common question we get is what score on the mock exam indicates being ready for the real exam. We suggest that you want to be at least 5-10% above the pass rate for the exam, which usually works out to 80-85%. Higher is better, but keep in mind that repeating the mock exam to get a better score is probably going to be counter-productive due to memorization. Instead, use the mock exam as a final assessment of any weak topics that you still need to go back and review.
Once you have learned the material, practiced what you learned, and passed your mock exam, the last step is to pass the real exam. Think of the real exam as being the final step in your success. Having prepared properly, you can go into your exam confident and relaxed, rather than stressed. You are ready to pass!
Brian Hock, CMA, CIA
Written essays or problems on exams are a source of anxiety for many exam candidates, but having proper time management strategies will help reduce your stress level and earn the most points possible on these questions.
Candidates usually have one of two problems when writing answers on essays or problems:
- You know the topic very well, and don’t have time to write everything that you know.
- The question requires a lot of calculations or preparing a financial statement, and you need more time to finish it.
The solution to both of these problems is budgeting your time. When you get to the essay or problem portion of the exam, briefly scan through all of the questions so that you know what is required, and then roughly allocate your time for each question. This will ensure that you can write something for each question because unlike multiple-choice questions, you cannot just quickly guess on the last questions and hope to get a few correct. Earning zero points on just one problem will significantly reduce your chance of passing the exam.
The budget will also keep you moving through the essays so that you do not spend too much time writing everything you know about a topic. There is usually a diminishing return with the more time you spend on a question. If you spend 20 minutes on a question that has 20 available points, it is likely that you will get 10 of those 20 points in the first 5 minutes. In the next 5 minutes, you might get 6 more points. In the last 10 minutes, you are working for only 4 more points. If you exceed the twenty minutes, you are maybe going to get 1 or 2 extra points, but you are giving up the time that you need to earn any points on another question.
To give an example, let’s say that a question requires preparing a short balance sheet and you felt very comfortable with your answer, but the balance sheet does not balance. Do not panic! You probably got (for example) 18 of the 20 points and only made a simple math error or transposed two numbers. If you spend 10 minutes trying to balance your balance sheet, you might get those 2 extra points. But, in those same 10 minutes, you could have started another question and earned a substantial portion of the points available on the next question. Of course, if you have extra time after answering all of the questions, you can go back and try to balance your balance sheet.
By managing your time and sticking to a time budget on the essays or problems, you can be certain to maximize the number of points you earn and therefore also be more likely to pass the exam.
Brian Hock, CMA, CIA
We all know that as we gain experience at work, our work becomes easier and we are able to perform our tasks more efficiently. Just as experience contributes to our success at work, experience also contributes to our success on an exam. This does not mean taking an exam just to take it and fail it; there are other ways experience can help you pass an exam.
1. Your experience with the topics on the exam
While most candidates want to pass exams as quickly as possible, you still need to spend time preparing for the exam. Even if you have significant experience with the topics that are on the exam, you still need to spend time learning how these topics are tested. A very good example of this is ratio analysis, because different companies may calculate the same ratio in different ways. What is included in “income” for ratios that use income? What is included as the amount of “investment” in the ROI calculation? As you can see, even if you have a lot of experience with ratios, you still need to learn how the ratios are calculated for the exam.
Additionally, some topics that are new require time to “settle” in our minds. For example, many candidates have difficulty with internal controls on the CMA exam. There are no formulas and no calculations, but there a lot of key ideas that can be applied to any part of a business. For internal controls, I advise candidates spend a bit of time each day going slowly the textbook and questions. You will be able to understand and retain a lot more by studying internal controls one hour a day for seven days than by studying five hours a day for two days.
2. Your experience answering questions
If you were to take a 100-question mock exam before you start studying, you would probably miss 15-20 questions just because you did not read the question correctly. As you practice answering past exam questions, you can be certain that you will be able to read and understand questions correctly on the exam. You will know to look for and how to react to words like “always,” “never,” “most likely,” and other similar phrases. It is much better that you go through that learning curve while you are doing practice questions than while taking your exam.
3. The experience of your teacher and/or materials provider
In the same way that you benefit from experience on the job or while studying, materials providers also benefit from experience, and that experience is something that good providers can pass on to you. The more a provider interacts with students, the more they know what topics are usually challenging. The more feedback that they have from students, the better the provider knows what changes need to be made to their materials and their classes so that they better prepare candidates for the exam.
For live-taught classes, the more experience that a teacher has preparing students for the exam, the more effective their classes will be. A teacher with a lot of real-world experience may not be able to effectively teach a course for an exam, because they could over-emphasize topics familiar to them or skip over topics that they are not as comfortable with. You want to be certain that the people who are helping you prepare for an exam are experienced in helping candidates pass that exam.
At HOCK, all we do is help people pass exams. Our team members are 100% working on exam-related issues – whether it writing, editing, or improving the materials, or answering your questions; everything we do is focused on helping you pass your exams!
In summary, while it is natural to want to take the exam as quickly as possible, you need to be certain that you spend the necessary time to get the experience needed – from studying, from answering questions, and from your materials or course provider – to pass the exam.
Brian Hock, CMA, CIA