Tips for Studying for the CMA or CPA While Working

By Jeff Jardine, CMA®, CPA, PMP
Senior Consultant, Deloitte & Touche LLP

During my summer internship at an accounting firm I noticed each night as I was heading out the door with my managers that two of our team members stayed behind and continued working.
I admired but internally questioned their dedication. After the pattern ensued for several days, I asked one of the individuals why she felt the need to stay behind every day when we had already reached our daily milestones. She explained that she was preparing to take portions of the CPA exam, and that there was no other available time besides weekends to study. I wished her well (she did eventually pass).
Her actions/dedication left an indelible impression on me, and as I entered my senior year in college I rearranged my class and personal schedules to allow myself time to study for the CPA exam so that I could take the test prior to beginning full-time employment.
Pursuing this and other certifications has made a positive impact on my career. I thus offer three tips for how to effectively study for professional accounting certifications while working: 
Tip 1: Get Certified Prior to Starting Your Job
If I could pass along one piece of advice to young professionals considering an employer-required certification it would be this: If you have time between graduating college and beginning work, put 100 percent of your efforts into completing that certification prior to starting your job. Yes, it makes for a miserable summer wherein your best friends are exam prep instructors (Peter Olinto, anyone?), but in the end this method is the much preferred alternative to studying after a long day of work for months on end.
What should you do, however, if you have no such break between college and full-time work, or you are studying for an additional certification later in your career while working full-time? I fell into this latter category while working toward the CMA, which I had known since college that I wanted to take as soon as things settled down after beginning work at an accounting firm. 
Tip 2: Gain Buy-in from Your Employer
After examining my schedule, I determined the most favorable times to study for and schedule the various sections of the CMA exam. Then, I spoke with my teams at work to gain their buy-in (my managers were fully supportive), and I scheduled my exams well in advance while keeping in mind client demands and team requirements. Saturdays always fill up first at testing centers, so schedule as far in advance as you can.
Tip 3: Build Studying Time Into Your Daily Schedule
Additionally, I took a day off from work prior to each exam date to have adequate time to study – though I didn’t plan on studying everything on that one day or just on Saturdays. I knew that I needed to study – at least a little bit – every day to most thoroughly prepare for the exam.
After considering my daily schedule, it was clear that the time I had the most control over was early in the morning. I decided to wake up an hour earlier each day for the three to four weeks prior to the exam to review material and churn through practice questions (which I believe is one of the most effective methods to prepare for these exams). Then on Saturdays I studied longer and more in-depth.
I took Sundays off from studying to allow things to settle in my mind while spending a day with my family. In the end, my efforts paid off. I passed each section and after finishing the experience requirement, I was a CMA.

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The IMA Young Accounting Pros Blog features the insights of IMA's Young Professionals Committee. Committee members share advice and experiences on careers, continuing education, work/life balance, and other issues affecting young accounting and finance professionals.

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