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Why You Don't Have to Pass the CPA Exam on Your First Try

A closeup of a person's arm as they're writing on papers with a pen on a wooden desk. You can see a coffee mug and open notebook in the background. The person is wearing a worn, light brown sweater.

Yesterday was score release day and social media was lit up!

Screenshots of computer screens showing a score above 75 and a caption full of exclamation points, women in accounting celebrating on their Instagram stories, heart-eye emojis; everyone was buzzing!

It’s great to celebrate the passes. But I want to encourage everyone—especially my fellow women in finance—to celebrate their failures, too.

The CPA exam is, in one word, difficult. The CPA exam pass rate has historically floated around 45-55% and is considered one of the more difficult certification credentialing exams. With four different sections that cover an extensive amount of information, studying for this exam requires a lot of time, more dedication than you think you need, and to remember this:

You don’t have to pass the CPA exam on your first try. Not even your second.

And it all has to do with your mindset.

There are two different shapes your mind can take: fixed or growth.

An infograph describing the two mindsets put forth by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D titled "Two Mindsets", detailing the differences between fixed mindset in blue and growth mindset in green.
With research compiled by Carol Dweck, Ph.D., there are two different kind of mindsets you can have: fixed and growth.

If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that characteristics like your intelligence and personality are static: you’re born with what you have, and there’s no way to change these parts of yourself.

With a growth mindset, these characteristics can instead be cultivated. Your intelligence or your personality aren’t innate features that you have: they’re characteristics that you actively work on and are capable of improving.

When it comes to the CPA exam, a growth mindset is essential.


Because odds are, you’re not going to pass the exam on your first try.

But, when you work on fostering a growth mindset in yourself, that’s not the goal. Whether you pass on your first, second, or third try isn’t important.

Instead, you shift your goals. Now, you're focused on learning as much as possible from your mistakes, embracing the challenges that the exam material (and the process of studying itself) presents, and getting comfortable with defeat.

With a growth mindset, women in accounting can reach higher levels of achievement because you’re not just earning your CPA certification: you’re persevering amid some fierce challenges, learning lessons beyond the exam material, and motivating yourself to work outside of your comfort zone.

A letterboard says: "Be proud of how hard you are working" in white text, black ground, with a wooden frame and two pencils askew on top of the board. Underneath is a white desk and light pink fluffy blanket. There is a light pink cell phone laying face down on the white desk, black over the ear headphones lying on the white desk and pink blankets, and an open notebook on the blanket.
What she said. Photo by Emma Matthews Digital Content Production via Unsplash

At the end of the day, no rulebook dictates that you must pass the CPA exam on your first try to be a successful CPA—or even a CPA at all.

And even though the pass rates in 2020 are looking up (go y’all!) there’s an important opportunity available for you here if you see each exam as a challenging learning experience versus a test of your competence.

Because ultimately, your competence for being a CPA isn’t completely measured by the exam: some CPAs passed on their first try with flying colors and struggle in their careers. Some CPAs struggled to pass but are thriving at their practices.

According to a growth mindset, your competence is ever-changing, always evolving, depending on your efforts to nurture it. So how could an exam ever measure your speed when you’re always moving forward?


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