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What to Do If You Fail a Section of the CPA Exam [2020+]

A man disappointed as he sees his failed CPA score report.
Updated for 2020

What if I fail the CPA Exam?

Failing the CPA Exam is one of the most disheartening experiences a CPA candidate can experience, but it isn’t the end of your journey. Follow our advice when it comes to failing the exam to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Take a deep breath

Before you can get back up and start working toward passing a failed section, you need to give yourself a moment to breathe. You’ve invested time and money in the CPA Exam, so it’s natural to feel down after failing a section.

Take a few days off to process everything, and try not to spend time dwelling on the exam.

You can still pass

Just know that you’re not alone—the CPA Exam is hard. It’s pass rate consistently sits around 50%. Don’t worry though, you can still do this! Millions of candidates have passed the CPA Exam, even though many first faced failure along the way.

Find the problem

After you’ve set aside a bit of time to recover from the shock of a failed section, take a good look at your score report and figure out what led to it.

Remember, not passing the CPA Exam doesn’t mean you can’t do this. The CPA Exam is a test of endurance, not intelligence.

How to interpret a failed score

When you receive a failing score on the CPA Exam, you’ll be provided with a Candidate Performance Report. This report will show your strengths and weaknesses by question type and content area. Pay special attention to your performance divided by Item Type (Multiple Choice, Simulation, and Written Communication). Knowing that a certain question type is tripping you up can help when you’re building your new study plan.

The report is fairly general, so although it’s a useful guide, you shouldn’t base your new study plan solely on this report.

Evaluating your preparation

Look over your previous study plan and honestly evaluate it.

Did you try to create shortcuts by skipping or skimming content you thought you knew?

It isn’t enough to just know a topic; you need to practice answering questions on that topic. Preparing for the CPA Exam is different from learning a topic because practical knowledge doesn’t translate well to a standardized test. Additionally, many questions are designed to be misleading.

Did you try to guess what would be on the exam?

If you or your review provider try to guess what topics the CPA Exam will heavily test, that can result in poor scores if that guess turns out to be wrong. The only way to ensure you pass is to prepare for all of the topics the CPA Exam covers.

Were you using the right review course or using your review course the right way?

Most review courses have a specific learning method they endorse. Contact your review course’s candidate support, assuming they have one, and walk through your study process with them. It is possible you weren’t using the review course as intended.

Did you put the time in?

Studying for the CPA Exam takes time. Maybe you overestimated how much study time you’d have in a week or you didn’t stick to the study plan you made. A failed section is a clear sign that you might need to make more time to study.

Unexpected stress

Sometimes life conspires against us and delivers unexpected news at the worst possible time. If you found yourself distracted during the exam because of outside stress, that could have resulted in a lower score on the CPA Exam.

Be sure to reconcile your actual score with the amount of unexpected stress you were under. For instance, if you failed by a few points after recently receiving significantly stressful news, that could be the cause. However, if you failed by more than a few points or were just under everyday stress, you might need to look at other factors.

Identify the solution

Once you know what the problems were with your previous attempt, it’s time to come up with solutions. When it comes to recovering from a setback, most CPA candidates have the same questions.

How much time should I spend studying for a failed section?

This is a complex question. It depends on how many points you were away from passing and what your Performance Report looks like. If you barely failed a section (70-74), you can probably spend a couple of weeks taking practice exams and focusing on weak areas. If, on the other hand, you failed by more than 5 points, you’re likely looking at closer to a month or two because you will want to work through most of the exam content again.

NOTE: If you didn’t actually complete your review course previously, this is the time to finish the course and start your final review/practice exams. If you were strong in the areas you did complete, start where you left off and circle back to the other areas during your final review.

What topics should I review?

All of them.

Even if you only did poorly in one content area, you should review all of the content areas. This will prevent you from forgetting topics you’ve already mastered. Additionally, just because your Performance Report indicated a strong performance in a content area, it doesn’t mean you received a perfect score in that content area. In the end, every point you claim can be the difference between a passed and failed section.

Should I change review courses if I failed a section?

If you used a review course to prepare for a section of the CPA Exam and you failed that section, you might want to consider changing review courses. Before you switch, evaluate a few things:

Are you using the course as intended?

All CPA review courses are designed to be used a certain way. Talk to your provider about the method you used and find out if it is the method they recommend. If not, consider trying their method before changing providers.

Does the review course match your learning style?

Are you struggling to learn content only through one method? Everyone has their own learning style, so be sure you’re not making your exam prep harder than it needs to be. For instance, if you’re a visual or auditory learner, be sure your review provider offers videos.

Did you complete the review course?

If you left much of the course unfinished, you might want to finish the course before you switch courses.

Have you memorized most of your provider’s questions?

If you’ve memorized the questions of a review provider, it is almost always time to change something. You can’t prepare for the CPA Exam by memorizing questions; you have to learn the topics, and you can’t learn topics if you’re answering questions by rote.

Upgrade to Gleim and save!

CPA review courses aren’t cheap, and if you’ve already purchased a review course, the price is especially noteworthy. That is why Gleim offers a deal for candidates who have already purchased the course of another review provider. You can save up to $750 on a new review course!

Should I take a different section of the CPA Exam?

If you’ve already scheduled another section of the CPA Exam, look at your study plan and decide whether to reschedule that section to make time for your retake. Usually, sticking to your original plan is ideal because it can help you focus and maintain understanding of difficult concepts. If you can, stick with your current section and then return to the failed section shortly after. Because of Continuous Testing, candidates are able to retake a failed section quickly. You should be able to buckle down, retake your section, and stick to your original plan.

While everyone’s circumstances are different, it’s usually best to finish a section while the content is still fresh in your head.

But if you are feeling frustrated with a section because you weren’t close to a passing score, it may be better to move on to put some distance between yourself and that stressful subject. You can come back to it after building your confidence by passing another section.

Make a new study plan

Once you’ve identified the problems with your previous study plan, it is time to prepare a new one.

Create a new study schedule based on the problems you identified.

Include time to review all of the topics, not just those you did poorly on.

If you did poorly on one type of question (simulation or multiple choice), focus on that question type, but don’t make it your only means of preparation.

Keep moving forward

Failing a CPA Exam section can be disheartening, but if you apply what you have learned from the experience moving forward, you will have a greater chance of success!

Schedule your CPA Exam section retake once you have completed at least 80% of your revised study plan.

Having a deadline is useful for motivating yourself, so set a date to schedule your exam. That way you’ll have a target date but you can adjust it if needed. It can be tempting to schedule the CPA Exam right away, but you don’t want to under prepare.

Once you’ve created your new study plan, get started on it. Getting back into studying will help you put the failed section behind you. The biggest hurdle most candidates will face is a failed section of the CPA Exam.

Whenever you’re ready to continue your studies, Gleim is here to support you. If you’ve been studying with another review course and are thinking about making a change, you could save up to $750 by upgrading to Gleim!