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What to Do If You Fail a Section of the CPA Exam

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

What if I fail my 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

Once you’ve taken a bit of time to recover from the shock of a failed section. It is time to really look at that failed score report and 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.

Interpreting 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, 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. In addition, many questions are designed to be misleading.

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

If you or your review provider tried to guess what topics the CPA Exam would heavily test, that can result in poor scores if that guess turned 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 previous study process with them. It is possible you weren’t using the review course as it’s 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 your study plan. A failed section is a clear sign that you might need more time to study next time.

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 and received significantly stressful news, this could be the cause. However, if you failed by more than a few points or were just under everyday stress, the problem is probably more than just stress.

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 because it will depend on what your score was and your circumstances. 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%, 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.

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 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, considering 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 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 providers 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 the topics if you’re answering questions by rote.

Save when you switch

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. Check out our Help Me Pass program to learn how you can save hundreds of dollars off of your review course today.

Should I take a different section of the CPA Exam?

In general, you’ll want to avoid taking different sections of the CPA Exam until you’ve successfully passed the one you’re on. This is especially true if you scored within 5 points of passing (70% or higher).

If you’ve already scheduled another section of the CPA Exam, look at your study plan and decide whether to reschedule that section and make time for retaking your failed section. Ultimately, everyone’s circumstances will be different, but it’s generally best to finish a section while the content is still fresh in your head.

How do I manage unexpected stress?

Determine how much stress can be mitigated and plan around it. Common stressors for exam day include:

Lack of sleep or fatigue

Get a good night sleep the night before the exam and aim to wake up at the same time you normally would. A change in sleep schedule can be just as tiring as only getting a few hours of sleep.

Eat a simple meal before you go into the exam. Going into the exam with low blood sugar can lead to fatigue, headaches, and increased anxiety. 

Traffic and arriving late

Leave for the exam early.

Find a location within walking distance of the testing center that you can relax in. Go to this location an hour and a half before your scheduled appointment.

Take the day off of work or class and avoid making plans prior to the exam.

Relationship or family stress

Take the day off of social media and turn your phone off or onto airplane mode an hour or so before the exam.

Let people know ahead of time that you’ll be unreachable during the exam.

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 the question type you did poorly on, but don’t only prepare using that type of question.

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

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

Retake the CPA Exam.

Learning from your previous mistakes will drastically increase the likelihood that you’ll pass the CPA Exam.

NOTE: Many states recently began to allow candidates to retake sections of the CPA Exam in the same window they failed it. Check with your state board of accountancy to see whether they’ve adopted this policy.

Keep moving forward

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. Don’t let this setback be what keeps you from becoming a CPA.

Whenever you’re ready to continue your studies, Gleim will be here to support you. If you’ve already begun studying with another review course and you’re looking to switch, visit our Help Me Pass page to see how much you could save by switching today.