Building a Support System for Your CPA Candidates

Gusto Editors

If you have employees preparing for the CPA exam, you’ll know they’re facing some significant challenges. Without a solid support system, they run the risk of burnout, which can negatively affect your work community’s health and motivation. So what can your firm do to help?

Here at Gusto, we’re committed to cultivating well-being on the job. Our goal is to bring humanity back into the workplace and give accountants the guidance they need to be happy, successful professionals. We’re thrilled to share with you ways to create emotional support networks on your accounting team.

Our webinar, “Love and the CPA Exam: How to Build an Emotional Support System in Your Firm,” lays out fundamental ways to cultivate a healthy workplace. In covering the ways firms can achieve optimal wellness, speaker Amber Setter provided some great examples of how managers can foster a supportive environment for their accountants. This topic is near and dear to Gusto’s vision because it exemplifies our goal: to create a healthier, happier workforce in which professionals are fully supported in their endeavors.

Amber is a leadership coach, an actualization coach, and a certified, non-practicing CPA. Her unique offerings center around her ability to bring a truly holistic model of awareness to organizations in tangible ways. Amber is highly experienced in working with accounting firms in multiple capacities. She coaches professionals in conscious leadership and wellness initiatives, and she previously held a position as a learning and development manager for an accounting firm. Having helped hundreds of employees pass the CPA exam, Amber was excited to share her knowledge with emerging accountants everywhere. 

Helping your CPA candidates schedule their exam

Just becoming eligible to sit for the CPA exam requires a lot of work, effort, and paper-pushing. Furthermore, since the exam is in four separate sections (which can be taken separately), candidates have to time everything out just right. That’s because the timing here can be tricky. If a candidate fails a portion of the exam or is unable to take it within a certain period, they’ll need to reapply, get approval, and pay even more fees.

Amber explained that when a candidate initially applies, they’ll select the sections they’re sitting for, pay for them, and then get a Notice to Schedule (NTS). It would make sense that candidates pay for all four sections at once, saving them time and money from reapplication fees. And that’s what many of them do. But the NTS is only good for nine months. 

“The issue with that is how short of a period nine months is for all four sections, especially if the candidate is busy working. If they’re working, it’s going to be really, really hard to pass all four sections in nine months. You really need to make sure that they know that. I think it’s a big problem because if what happens is that they end up taking these things under time constraints and stress, it doesn’t bode well for them.”

Amber Sutter

So, educating accountants about the difficulty in working within this time frame is essential. So is encouraging them, motivating them, supporting them, and ensuring they receive the time and space to study and prepare.

Three young CPA Candidates preparing for there exam

If you’re employing any recent graduates, you also might be wondering when they should take the exam. Amber explained that someone graduating in May who applies to take the exam immediately would still likely have to wait until August to sit for section one. On the other hand, some students might opt to take the summer off and take the test later.  But is that the best choice?

“You really want to try to create the container and the conditions for people to do it as soon as possible. Maybe you have a start date that they come in in September, but they have idle time. Perhaps you should consider moving your start date out to give them more time, to let them figure out their finances so that they can get some of those exam sections behind them.

Amber Sutter

Amber cited CPA exam results reports from NASBA in 2017. Based on this data, the sooner a student takes the exam after graduating, the better. The longer someone waits, the more likely they are to have significant personal responsibilities, such as marriage and family. Those in their mid-thirties will have a much harder time sitting for the exam. Amber shared that it’s essential to work with candidates and their timelines from the beginning.

Understanding the challenges facing CPA candidates today

Amber acknowledged that the test has always been rigorous. But she observed that today’s candidates face unique psychological challenges, one of which is how outdated some of the course material is. Students are forced to learn skills that are no longer relevant to the realities of the job. Meanwhile, they may not be getting enough preparation regarding the newest, most critical skills.

On top of that, if a student fails a section, it’s not that easy to reschedule. Amber shared how many firm leaders don’t realize that. 

“This is a real, real struggle because it’s not that you can take it anytime and it’s really cumbersome and challenging to reschedule…There are periods of time when its hard to schedule…when you ask someone to reschedule, they might have been studying for three months. You’re taking that train off the track, inadvertently.”

Amber Sutter

There are also social issues to address:

“Currently, 29% of the US population provides care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend. And during any given year, those people are spending an average of 20 hours a week providing care. 20 hours! That’s about what you want to be studying for the CPA exam, but this is going to be an issue that’s going to be greater and greater.”

Amber Sutter

Not only that, increasing numbers of people face significant consumer and student loan debt. In 2003, students had an average of $18,000 in debt. That’s now climbed to $36,000, with a monthly average payment of $400. Considering this investment, it’s important that candidates mindfully schedule the exam to avoid wasting money. It’s actually very common to fail a part of the exam. When students fail after making a big investment, it can have detrimental effects on their mental health.

CPA exam fees

CPA candidates have to pay significant fees to prepare for and sit for the exam. Keep in mind that this has to be done within 18 months total. And that if a student can’t afford to pay for a section, they might have to start the clock all over again. Here’s a breakdown of costs:

  • Application to sit $50-$200
  • Exam fees $200 each
  • CPA review course $3,000
  • State fees $2,100 to $4,300

If the candidate fails a section, they’ll need to re-take it and pay another fee. Since most people won’t pass during the first try, they might be looking at quite a lot of money. Consider all of these factors when your staff is preparing for the exam. Help candidates with the exam fee if your firm is capable of covering those costs.

Helping CPA candidates manage their time

Working full-time and preparing for the exam is about the equivalent of working a second job. Amber shared that most candidates study before and after work, for an average of 20 hours per week. It’s critical for firms to understand this, as it can lead to significant mental duress:

“This exam becomes a mental obstacle. They think if they can’t do the exam, they don’t belong in that profession and they’re flunking out. But meanwhile, they might be performing great in their job…they’re having trouble with the book-smart aspect of the profession.” 

Amber Sutter
Two people leaning over a desk with papers with only there arms in view

So how can you support your team during this challenging time? It’s super important to have good communication, patience, and understanding. It’s also critical to make sure the candidates are educated in detail about the process:

“When I coach people, I get really granular with time investment at the beginning, since when I first started coaching people, I’d say, ‘Okay, how much did you study for that section you failed?’ And they’d say a lot or a little, and I can’t measure a lot or a little. If the AICPA recommends a certain amount of time, you go for that exact number, and depending on your score, you’re going to go up or go down.”

Amber Sutter

How can your firm make sure CPA exam candidates know what they’re in for? Make it a part of team meetings, keep candidates updated on any changes, and have an open-door policy.

CPA exam study schedules and timelines

Exam windows are periods of months in which a candidate can take a section of the exam. They can take two different exams in the period, but no repeats. So that means if someone has recently failed, they can’t just do the logical thing, which is to retake it right away. They’ll need to wait for months.

Now, factor in a full-time workload and a busy audit and tax season. Let’s say a candidate failed a section. However, the next exam window occurs during tax season. It’s best to postpone it longer when the candidate has had a chance to regroup from both the exam and the job.

It can be overwhelming to figure out. Amber shared how firms can help:

“Have somebody in your firm, like a scheduler or mentor, really align. Understand the testing windows, but also what’s your client’s service schedule and what does that look like? One of the best practices that I offer is [helping your firm help] staff to know when are good times to take the exam.”

Amber Sutter

Another way to incorporate that is to have a calendar with blackout dates marked that would not be a viable time for exams. Come up with this calendar and share it with candidates right away, so that they can plan their study and exam schedule before they even start with you. 

If this seems like a stressful and potentially chaotic situation for your firm, you’re not alone. The 18-month window is itself outdated, according to Amber.

“I met somebody once who passed six sections of the CPA exam and was not done because they kept falling off…You have to do them in an 18-month rolling window [which is] kind of a challenge.” – Amber Sutter

Amber Sutter

How can you support your team, set them up for success, and prevent burnout? Destigmatize stress and openly talk with candidates about how they’re taking things. If they fail, assure them that it’s normal. Ask them what pressures they’re under, whether it’s time, financial, or feelings of inadequacy. Amber shared that by asking these simple questions and identifying blocks, she was able to help people who’d been failing for years past, just by identifying the problem.

Learn more about the support systems in your firm

The CPA exam schedule is tricky to navigate, especially when staff is working full-time. Confused candidates who don’t fully understand how difficult it is to complete all four sections at once are at a disadvantage. Take time to educate your staff about the exam schedule before they join your team. Block out busy periods that would not be conducive to taking it and give that calendar to them before they start. 

Studying for the exam entails significant financial and psychological burdens. Add to that a number of social issues, such as higher debt and more time spent caring for aging parents, and you could have a recipe for burnout. If your firm is able to, help your candidates with their exam fees. Ask questions and get to the root of any issues. Not only can this mitigate problems before they occur, clarifying blocks oftentimes leads to breakthroughs in the exam.

Here at Gusto, we’re proud to offer you these progressive insights from the top minds in the accounting field. For more important info, check out the articles “Helping Employees Prepare for the CPA Exam” and “Core Changes to the CPA Exam and Profession” if you haven’t already.

We invite you also to discover how we can help make your processes smoother, simpler, easier, and best of all, more effective. Our goal is always to create a world where work empowers a better life. We help organizations make payroll, benefits, taxes, insurance easier–both for them and their employees.

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Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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