In case you aren’t already familiar with the four different sections of the CPA exam, take a look at my post on CPA Exam Sections to learn more about them. This information is important in order to make the best decision!
Your decision on which section to take first can hugely impact how well you do on subsequent sections. Choosing the right section to take first will give you the highest probability of passing all four sections.
Myth: You Should Take the Hardest Section First
The CPA exam is a long affair, closer to a marathon than a sprint. It’s common to hear people say taking the most difficult section first is ideal because once it is complete, the rest of the exam will be smooth sailing. While well intentioned, this is a bad idea for a few reasons.
First of all, there is no guarantee that the section you believe is the most difficult will actually be. You may be thrown for a loop when you anticipate the FAR as the most difficult section, only to find yourself with the highest score in that section due to a greater than anticipated affinity or ability.
Secondly, do not expect any smooth sailing, even after the initial exam. Each section of the CPA exam is designed to be challenging and test your discipline as much as your knowledge. In contrast to the above example, signing up for the BEC exam and expecting it to be a cakewalk will result in a lower score on that section. This is a common pitfall when underestimating any section due to preconceived notions, so be careful!
No single section of the CPA exam is going to be harder or easier than the others; it’s just not how the test is designed. Even with a particular skill in one area, you will still need to devote the same dedication and hard work as any other test taker.
Choosing the most difficult section could actually increase your chance of failure, setting you back countless hours and costing you money.
Reality: You Should Take Your Strongest Section First
For your first exam, the section that you feel most confident about passing is your best bet. If you’re fresh out of an audit class and still know the terminology, start with the Audit section of the CPA exam.
For test takers that have been out of college for a while, the section most relevant to your current work is ideal. A bookkeeper would want to start with the FAR section, someone experienced in tax returns would want to start with REG, and someone with experience in the finance sector would have the best results starting with BEC.
If you recently finished college, take a section that relates to a class that you excelled in or have a healthy interest about. If that doesn’t apply to you, choose a class you recently took; the information will be fresh in your mind.
Alternatively, you can try starting with one of the shorter exams. BEC and REG are only 3 hours long, with smaller study materials as well. These smaller chunks can enable you to absorb information better and can be an excellent stepping stone for one of the longer sections. Anyone less accustomed to longer tests like AUDIT and FAR would benefit greatly from this strategy.
Why This Is The Best Strategy
It can be a major confidence boost to pass your first CPA exam, and you can ride the momentum from that success for the remaining tests. All of a sudden, what may have seemed like an insurmountable obstacle has become just a bit easier, and you can see light at the end of the tunnel. Becoming a CPA, once a simple pipe dream, becomes that much more attainable.
It will be easier to turn down social obligations like parties and other fun activities in order to focus on passing subsequent exams once you get that momentum going. With more energy, motivation, and focus, you can easily put aside other things for the near future, safe in the knowledge that parties will come and go, but CPA certification is a true milestone within your reach.
Don’t make the CPA exam harder than it needs to be, it’s hard enough as is. Play to your strengths by taking the section you feel most confident about passing, and the resulting wave of energy you get from passing your first section will carry you to the end. Build the right momentum early on by choosing one of the best CPA exam courses that fits your needs.