“Back when I took the exam, we had to take all four parts of the exam at once and it was on paper! These kids coming up have it easy.” Sound familiar? I’m sure someone in your firm has uttered these words or something similar. My advice – stop! CPA candidates understand that the exam has changed, and which format is more difficult is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that both formats are extremely difficult to pass. Candidates don’t need to be told how easy they have it, they need support and encouragement. In order to provide genuine support, the first step is to understand the new exam format (www.cpa-exam.org) and the challenges candidates are facing. When I successfully completed the CPA exam earlier this year I felt an extreme sense of accomplishment. I was also tremendously relieved! The long journey was over and I could now join the ranks of those talking about what I experienced “back when I sat for the exam.” Based on my experience and talking to firms across the country, I have outlined some pointers to helping employees pass the exam. Show Support Remember to be supportive to candidates during this difficult and stressful time. Providing continuous encouragement is important as well as letting them know you understand the tremendous challenge they are facing. And next time you want to tell them, “You have it easy compared to what we had to go through” – simply bite your tongue. At least until after they’ve passed the exam. One of the best things my peers at Boomer Consulting, Inc. did for me during my preparation was to ask questions about what I was going through. Through this simple act they were telling me they knew I was taking on a challenge and they wanted to understand it better so they could support me. If nothing else, it gave me a sense that I wasn’t alone; others were invested in my success as well. Dedicate Time for Preparation A major fallacy to exam preparation is that candidates work in accounting every day and shouldn’t need an exorbitant amount of time to prepare. The truth is this is an academic test and habits from practice can often get in the way. The test preparation companies understand the material likely to be covered, how it will be covered and craft exam-taking tips to improve the chances of passing. Leverage this knowledge. But also understand you can’t take review courses quickly – they take time. Time tends to be the most limited resource for candidates, especially with constant pressure to focus on revenue-generating activities. Setting aside dedicated study time is a shared responsibility between those taking the exam and the people supporting them. Most firms offer paid-time-off for studying and I can speak personally for its importance in allowing me to enter each section of the exam with the confidence that I had prepared to the best of my ability. Focus is important during this time so the larger blocks of time that can be set aside, the more beneficial they will be to passing the exam. Create Incentives for Passing Candidates must make a tremendous sacrifice to adequately prepare for the exam. They need to know there is going to be a “payoff” at the end of the road. However, this “payoff” is not limited to financial rewards. The non-financial incentives can be as motivating if not more. Study Groups – Many firms have seen benefits from using study groups. This naturally provides a support network of people going through the same experience. Similar to peers asking questions about preparation process, this helps the candidate realize they are not in this alone. Recognition Ceremonies – Everyone likes to be recognized for their achievements and passing the CPA is no small feat. Some firms have teamed up with their state society to host a recognition dinner for all those who have passed the exam. Make an Announcement - A simple announcement to the firm of the candidates’ success is another easy way to recognize the achievement. Notifying the firm’s clients and partners through a newsletter can also be gratifying to the candidate and the firm. Exam Survival Kits – One firm provides a package of goodies to candidates. The survival kit includes items such as aspirin, a small bottle of their favorite adult beverage, candy, highlighters, note cards, etc. Act as a Resource – Even when candidates dedicate themselves to thoroughly following an exam preparation process, there are still going to be concepts they don’t understand. Letting them know you are available for questions can alleviate a lot of the stress that comes with preparation. The exam does place a significant financial burden on candidates and this also cannot be ignored. Between application fees, review courses, finalizing the certification and permit and joining the AICPA and state board of accountancy, the expenses can add up quickly. One of the biggest questions among accounting firms today is “how much of the cost should the firm cover?” While there is no “right” answer to this question, here are some things firms are doing to help limit the financial impact on candidates. Application/Exam fees – Most firms cover all the application and exam fees if the candidate passes. Any fees required for retesting are the responsibility of the candidate. Cost of Review Courses – Again, most firms cover all or part of these costs with most having a set limit on the amount that can be spent (a little under $1,000 on average). Many firms also share resources among candidates to keep costs down. Bonus – Most firms give bonuses upon successful completion of the CPA. Of the firms that do, the bonus ranges from $500 to $3,000, and averages around $1,200. Retention Agreement – Most firms do not require employees to sign an agreement to remain with the firm after passing the exam. However, those that do usually require a two-year term during which expenses must be repaid on a pro-rata basis should the person leave the firm. When creating your incentive package for candidates, keep in mind that each person is an individual and everyone may not be motivated by the same incentives. Creating a menu of available incentives from which candidates can choose allows you to create personalized rewards packages that will maximize the motivation of each candidate. Tailor the Preparation Process Similar to incentives, the study process works best if it is tailored to the individual. Everyone is different in regards to how they best study and learn. Before you simply make a decision about a review course for the entire firm, it is important to understand the process that will work best for each person. Some people have the self-discipline to be successful with a self-study or online course (trust me, it takes a lot of discipline), while others need the structure and direction provided by a live class. Asking your candidates for an honest assessment of their preferred and most efficient study method is important before you make the decision. This could save you a lot of time and money in the long run. There are a number of exam preparation resources available for candidates and they vary in delivery method. A brief description of some of the more popular resources is below. Becker CPA Review – Offers a number of options including live classes, online courses and self-study CD’s. They also offer “exam cram” workshops. The cost varies with the option you choose, but it averages around $2,500. KAPLAN CPA Review – 24-hour online access to 28 lectures by leading professors and accounting professionals. Additional materials include study books, flashcards and review software. There are no live classes offered. The cost is about $1,600 for all four sections. Gleim – Online, self-study system that includes study books, a test prep CD-Rom with thousands of multiple choice questions, audio reviews and Gleim Online. The cost for all materials for the four sections is just under $1,000. For a more comprehensive list of review courses/tools, visit www.dora.state.co.us/accountants/examreviewproviders.htm. Jim Boomer is CIO of Boomer Consulting, Inc. He passed the CPA exam in February 2008 and became a CITP in June. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Management Information Systems from Kansas State University and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Texas at Austin.
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