Which Section of the CPA Exam Should You Take First?

first-cpa-exam-sectionOne of the most popular questions we hear from CPA candidates is, “which section of the CPA exam should I take first?” That’s a great question. If you don’t already know what the four parts of the CPA exam are, you should read my post about the sections of the CPA exam. It will give you more information about each part, so this post will make a little more sense and help you decide which to choose.

That being said, picking the right CPA exam part to take first is a big decision. It could also mean the difference between passing the exam on time or having to pass parts multiple times. Let’s talk about some of the popular theories out there then I will give you my opinion.

Take the Hardest CPA Exam Section First

You’ve probably heard this from your professors, co-workers, or even your CPA exam review course. Tons of people give this advice. On the surface it sounds good, right? Get the hardest CPA exam part out of the way first. Then you won’t have to deal with it later. That makes sense, except it doesn’t consider how the exam as a whole works.

All four parts of the CPA exam have to be passed in an 18-month window. If you don’t pass all of them in 18 months, the first section that you studied so hard for will drop off and expire.

So let’s say you have a difficult time with Regulations. You decide that you are going to knock that one out first. You study your hardest for several months and take it for the first time. Unfortunately, you get the dreaded 74 and you have to take it again. This time you get serious and double down on the studying effort. You study twice as hard and you pass it with a score of 80.

Now fast-forward 17 months. You are getting ready to take your last section. You think it’s going to be easy, so you barely study for it and you fail. Now there is no time to retake it and your REG credit gets dropped. Now you have to retake your most difficult section. Does that make sense? Wouldn’t you rather retake your easiest section?

First CPA Exam Part Should Be Your Most Confident Subject

Your first exam section should be the subject that you feel the most confident with. This is different for everyone. For instance, if the last two classes you took in college were business law and corporate taxation, REG would be a pretty obvious first choice. The material is still fresh in your mind and it shouldn’t take too much effort to study. You’d basically be reviewing everything you just learned during the last semester.

If you are fresh out of school, you should focus on the subject that comes most easily to you. For instance, some people are just really good at memorizing legal information and weird tax codes. If you are one of these anomalies, REG would also be a good first choice for you.

If you aren’t fresh out of school and you don’t have an innate ability to memorize the tax code, you could look to your work. For instance, if you are an auditor, AUD would be a wise first choice.

The point is that your first CPA exam should be something that you feel confident with and will be somewhat easier for you to prepare for and pass.

Why Should You Take This Section First?

So, why am I right and all of the other people are wrong? There are a number of reasons why this is the best CPA strategy.

First, if you take your strongest section first, you will most likely pass it. You have no idea what that does to your motivation and confidence. When you get that NASBA letter saying that you passed, all you will want to do is jump up and down. It’s exciting and gives you energy to take on the next section.

Conversely, if you took the most difficult section first and failed it, your confidence and motivation will be shattered. After spending all that time studying this difficult topic and you still fail. You most likely won’t be that motivated to continue.

Second, we already talked about losing the credit from a passed exam. If you take your strongest section first and lose it, it won’t be fun, but it also won’t be devastating. You will have to retake a subject that you are familiar with. It should be pretty easy to retake it.

I hope this helps make up your mind. Believe me. It makes way more sense to start strong subjects. Once you pass the first section, you’ll be ready to take on the whole exam.

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Kenneth W. Boyd is a former Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and the author of several of the popular "For Dummies" books published by John Wiley & Sons including 'CPA Exam for Dummies' and 'Cost Accounting for Dummies'.

Ken has gained a wealth of business experience through his previous employment as a CPA, Auditor, Tax Preparer and College Professor. Today, Ken continues to use those finely tuned skills to educate students as a professional writer and teacher.