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How I stopped failing my Accounting Exams



How I stopped failing my accounting exams and went from having a failing grade in my Intermediate Accounting class to scoring an A on the final

By Steven Zawila

I was dejected when I received my first Intermediate Accounting exam back and saw my failing score. Several thoughts found their way into my head.

  •         “Am I going to be a bad accountant?”
  •         “Will I still be able to find a job?”
  •         “Am I wasting my time studying accounting?”
  •         “How can I pass the CPA exam?”

To say that I felt discouraged was an understatement. I studied like crazy for this exam. I spent many long nights in the library and drank multiple cups of coffee in the span of a single night. Maybe I didn’t study hard enough? Maybe I just needed to study harder?

That’s what I tried to do. When my second Intermediate Accounting exam rolled around, I tried to study “harder.” I spent even more hours and longer nights in the library, often staying long enough to watch the sun come up. I stressed myself out even more over my notes. I substituted my coffee with Red Bull and drank even more caffeine. After studying this hard, there was no way I would fail, right?

I took my second exam. I failed. I got an even worse grade than my first exam.

What was I doing wrong?

At this point, I started to resign myself to the fact that I just wasn’t as intelligent as my classmates. It wasn’t fair that I could spend all night studying and still fail while my friends get high marks and never stay late in the library! But hey, life’s not fair, right?

Maybe I just wasn’t capable of acing my exams like they were. Maybe I was just destined never to reach the same heights that they could. Maybe I should learn to be happy with where I was and just accept that.

One night a classmate—one of the top students in the class—and I were hanging out and we casually discussed the exams.

“They’re tough, aren’t they?” I asked. “Yeah, I really had to study hard for this one” she replied.

Wait, what? She was never in the library as late as I was!

And here she was, telling me that she really studied hard? What did she mean?

It turns out that she knew something I didn’t. What she knew going into the exam was that I could study as hard as I could until hell froze over, but if I was not studying in a way that let my brain absorb the information effectively, then I might as well have not studied at all.

I had no clearly defined study plan and, as the saying goes, my failing to plan was planning to fail. Instead, I simply studied haphazardly until right before the exam, at which point I realized that I was in trouble and tried to cram several chapters into my head in the span of a single night. Unfortunately, our brains don’t work that way. By staying up all night, I was just spinning my wheels rather than actually absorbing the material.

What got me here wasn’t going to get me there. My study routine needed an overhaul.

Ultimately, I turned my class performance around by learning how to study smarter, not harder. I created a study plan that allowed me to gain more out of the class lectures and helped me focus on my weak areas before I walked into the exam.

The next exam rolled around. When I started taking it, I immediately felt the difference. No longer was I desperately looking for questions that I knew the answers to. Instead, I was able to answer most questions confidently and make an educated guess on everything that I did not know.

Later, I got my exam back: A. I had nailed it.

The best students are not necessarily gifted or luckier than the rest of us. They simply know how to study smarter rather than harder. Even though I had studied harder and routinely stayed up much later than my friend going over the material, her study habits allowed her to both master the course material more effectively and in less time than mine did.

Success in your toughest accounting courses does not have to be reserved for the naturally gifted students. I’ll show you how to use a study strategy that will prepare you for your exam efficiently and give you enough time to have a good night’s rest before exam day.

1) Preview the class material before each lecture:

Before each class, go through the assigned reading and focus on understanding the material conceptually. Then, make an honest but modest attempt at doing the homework problems.

When working on homework problems, you should be able to honestly say to yourself that, yes, you attempted to solve it. If you can completely solve all of the assigned homework problems based on the reading, great!

However, don’t sweat it if you’re not getting it 100% correct at this point. Also, don’t spend an overly excessive amount of time on the homework for one class.

At this point, the goal is to acquaint yourself with the class material well enough so that you will be able to follow along with your professor’s upcoming class lecture. If there’s any course material that you didn’t fully grasp yet or any homework problems that you may have missed, then you can gain a better understanding when the professor goes over the problem in class.

In my experience, many accounting professors don’t grade your homework on correctness. Even if they do, you made an honest attempt and your homework grade will not make-or-break your class grade. Your exam grades will.

Back when I was a little less wise, I never read anything before class. In my freshman year of college, I never looked at any of the assigned readings. I mean, the professor would just tell you everything that you were supposed to have understood anyway, right?

That didn’t work so well in accounting. If I skipped doing the readings, I would come to class and have no idea what the professor what talking about. Then I would have to spend even more time going back doing the reading I was supposed to have already done just to catch up with the rest of the class.

Not an enviable position to be in.

This is a fairly straightforward concept, but it can be a game changer. When I started doing this, no longer did I sit in lecture wondering what the professor was talking about. Instead, I was able to follow along with the class discussion and actually benefit from coming to class.

2) Focus on what you don’t understand during and after class:

During class, pay attention to the professor’s explanation of the homework problems. If your answers didn’t match the homework solutions, make note of why that was the case. For example, I always scribbled notes such as “Needed to dr. instead of cr. the Inventory account” on the homework problems that I got wrong.

In addition, pay attention to any concepts that you did not fully understand from your reading or anything the professor discussed that was not included in the notes. Don’t be shy to ask questions on areas that you don’t understand! It sounds cliché but it’s true that if you did not understand something, there is probably at least one other person who had trouble with it as well.

Many professors will either explicitly tell you or at least allude to what types of questions you can expect on your exam. For example, my Corporate Tax professor would drop hints such as “You know, this would make a good exam problem” or “I would know how to do this for the exam.”

Translation: “This type of problem will definitely be tested so you need to know how to do this.”

Make sure you ask questions in class or during office hours on areas that you still feel confused. By definition, you can only review what you already know how to do. When you can look at the homework solutions and follow them from beginning to end, you are on the right track.

3) Review before the exam

Periodically review your class notes and revisit the homework problems that you did not answer correctly. Look over the notes on why your first answer was not correct, and then try to answer the problems that you got wrong again. If your answer still is not matching up to the solution, make note of why your answer is different.

Again, you do not need to be a perfectionist here. I got the same homework problems for leases and bond amortization wrong several times while studying for the exam! Sometimes I even made the same mistakes multiple times in a row!

Yes, it sucked. And yes, it was discouraging. But it’s better to make mistakes at this point than it is to make them on the exam. Every mistake I made during my review was a mistake that I was less likely to make on the exam.

I have found the adage “treat your brain like a muscle” to be truthful. If you are trying to work out, you would not go to the gym and lift weights for 10 hours straight, right? In the same way, going to the library the night before the exam and studying until the sun comes up does not allow your brain to effectively absorb the information (when I tried this, I felt like crap the next day and still bombed the exam). I have found more success with shorter, spaced out review sessions then I have with a lengthy cram right before exam day.

Finally, make sure that you’re not just memorizing the answers to the problems that you review. This is a tough pitfall to avoid, since memorization often happens unconsciously—I often never realized that I was doing it!

When you are able to work through all of the homework problems with little to no errors, you are in good shape for the exam!

Becoming a successful accounting student!

I wanted to share my experiences with you to help you realize that if your grades are not where you would like them to be, there is something you can do about it. The solution is not necessarily to study “harder” either.

Accounting is a tough major, no doubt about it! There’s no reason to make it more difficult than it already is by trying to study in a way that’s not effective. In fact, the right study habits can make all the difference.

About the Author:

Steven Zawila is an accountant who aims to make studying accounting more accessible to students. If you liked this approach, I’ll be sharing even more at my website Sign up for more study hacks as well as intuitive explanations of the toughest accounting concepts such as pensions, bond amortizations, and dollar-value LIFO (yes, all of those can be explained intuitively) that will help you ace your accounting classes.

How to use Active Recall to become a Problem-Solving Machine

Don’t confuse recognizing information with being able to recall it.”
~ Adam Robinson, author of What Smart Students Know

What are some things we typically do when we “learn” or “study” during the semester?

  • Listen to your professor’s logical, organized explanation of a new concept and thinking, “oh ok, got it”
  • Read through your lecture notes while nodding and murmuring, “makes sense”
  • Do problem sets with the textbook open to the example problems, and plug-and-chug until the correct answer pops out

These things may make us feel warm and fuzzy, but the truth is, these things are embarrassingly ineffective when it comes time to put pencil to paper on an exam.

And tragically, they end up convincing you that you understand everything, until you show up to the test, where it feels like you’re seeing the material for the first time again.


Because all of these things are PASSIVE.

Passive vs. Active Learning

Think of what we typically do in lecture.

We like to think of ourselves like sponges: we’ll somehow absorb what the professor is saying as it washes over us like a warm bath.

But remember: the brain will always conserve energy when possible, so unless there is a specific problem for it to solve, unnecessary information is quickly discarded.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, and what top students embrace and practice on a daily basis, is what we call “active learning” (or more specifically the technique of Active Recall).

Active learning is just as it sounds. In order to truly learn a new piece of information, you need to somehow trick your brain into working on it, activating new neural pathways and building new connections.

If you put in short bursts of hard work doing active recall (solving problems from scratch), you can save yourself hours and hours of wasted time mulling over useless material.

Active Recall: How do we do it?

Step 1: Start with a question

This can be conceptual or an actual practice problem.

Do NOT look at your notes.

And do NOT review any problem solutions. (*Note: you will need the solution in step 3 though so have it on hand, hidden away.)

Step 2: The struggle

Struggle with it.

This is going to be tough, especially if this is the first time you’re trying to solve a particular type of problem from scratch.

Try your best, and guess if you have to. But again, no peeking at your notes or the solution.

Once you’ve given it your best effort, then comes…

Step 3: Check yourself

Bust out your problem solution and see how your answer lines up with it.

Don’t skimp here! You want to catch any gaps in your understanding and address them as soon as possible.

So find your mistakes, and go back and correct them.

Remember: finding your mistakes and fixing them NOW means that you won’t make those mistakes LATER on the exam when it counts. So the more mistakes you find, the better!

Step 4: Repeat at different time intervals

Studies show that the most effective spacing for performing this type of practice is…

#1 – Right after you’ve learned something

and then…

#2 – 2-3 days after you’ve first been introduced to the material

So for you that means the following:

After class for the day, immediately test yourself using active recall, when you’re still uncomfortable with the material. This is where you get the biggest bang for your buck, because you’re really forcing your brain to work hard.

Then, do it again ~2 days later.
So get out there, and start ACTIVELY learning your course material, and watch as your grades and understanding skyrockets.

(Feature Photo Credit:  Bryan)

Tom Miller is an engineer and physics tutor, obsessed with independent learning. He writes about unconventional study methods at WTF Professor, aimed at simplifying the learning process for engineers and technical students.