6 tips for passing the Enrolled Agent Exam (on your first try!)

Whether you’re a tax professional, CPA or career-changer looking to become an EA, you’ve likely heard of the IRS’s Special Enrollment Examination, or EA exam. This three-part exam is the key to becoming an EA and will help open doors for your tax career.  

While the EA Exam requires some studying and an established understanding of tax, you can easily pass on the first try when properly prepared. Follow these six tips to get an overview of what to expect: 

  1. Get a review course specifically for the Enrolled Agent Exam 
  1. Be aware of any new material 
  1. Prioritize understanding the fundamentals 
  1. Memorize basic formulas 
  1. Get familiar with Prometrics exam day procedures 
  1. Learn to budget your time (and when to skip questions) 

1. Get a review course specifically for the Enrolled Agent Exam

The Special Enrollment Exam is a tax-specific exam created by the IRS. If you have an accounting background, it can be easy to think you can skip purchasing any materials. However, tax accounting and financial accounting are two different areas; you should dig further into tax topics than your college courses. 

If you have no knowledge of tax, we recommend beginning with a course that covers the basics. Surgent Income Tax School has courses that walk you through tax preparation from beginner to advanced levels.  

Once you have a solid foundation, an EA review course can help you drill down into tax topics and become more familiar with the tax code, while adaptive study materials facilitate the learning process. Here’s how Surgent EA Review stacks up: 

  • Boost efficiency with adaptive learning. Surgent’s A.S.A.P.® Technology adapts as you study and answer multiple choice questions, helping you identify and correct any weaknesses while also maintaining areas you already know. This truly adaptive approach can drastically reduce your study time compared to other providers. Because your study sessions are so powerful and efficient, your odds of passing increase as well. 
  • ReadySCORE measures progress and boosts exam day confidence. Taking your exam date into account, A.S.A.P. Technology creates a study plan each day to help you stay on track. To monitor your progress in real time, check your ReadySCORE™ score prediction metric. You’ll know exactly when you’re ready to sit for the exam. 
  • Your exam coach can help you learn test-taking strategies. Similar to SAT prep, your exam coach can help you learn how to study more efficiently and answer questions more accurately.  
  • Unlimited practice exams will fully prepare you. With unlimited practice exams, you can easily find trends in which types of questions you are missing, get a feel for pacing yourself and overall become more comfortble with the testing format. 

2. Be aware of any new material

The tax law and IRS publications change constantly; some changes are subtle and some changes. For example, years ago the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act overhauled even the most basic tax matters. As legislative changes like these subsequently trickle down into the Enrolled Agent Exam, it’s imperative you know what you’re going to be tested on. 

The EA Exam tests the previous year’s tax laws. For example, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was passed in late 2017, but the Enrolled Agent Exam didn’t feature the changes until the May 2019 through February 2020 testing window.  

Make sure you purchase a review course that updates with the Enrolled Agent Exam or stay apprised of any changes featured at www.irs.gov

3. Prioritize understanding the fundamentals

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the complexity of tax laws, but keep in mind that the Special Enrollment Exam tests for a basic level of competency to represent taxpayers before the IRS.  

This means each part of the exam will cover U.S. taxation fundamentals and the most common tax issues. There might be some advanced topics thrown into the mix, but if you are 100% confident on fundamentals, you’re going to pass the exam. You may even be able to use your fundamental knowledge to apply principles to more complex tax matters. 

4. Memorize basic tax formulas

Similar to knowing the fundamentals, you’re likely going to have to calculate a variety of basic tax numbers. For example, you might have to calculate Adjusted Gross Income for individuals or deductions for corporations.  

To make intimidating computations a breeze, memorize the formats of basic tax calculations for individuals and various types of business entities. 

5. Get familiar with Prometric’s exam day procedures

Exam day can be intense if you’ve never sat at a Prometric site before. Prometric testing centers take careful security measures such as fingerprinting, ID scans, personal scans and storing personal items in a locker.  

If you’re unfamiliar with these strict policies, you’re more likely to feel stressed and uneasy going into your exam. Spend some time in the “What To Expect” section of Prometric’s site in advance. You’ll find an in-depth view of the testing experience, including arrival and check-in procedures, proctor and testing room procedures, and end of test procedures.  

6. Learn to budget your time (and know when to skip questions)

The Enrolled Agent Exam is timed, meaning you need to budget your time to finish the whole test within the allotted 3.5 hours. Taking practice exams and learning to pace yourself is key; you should consistently be checking the time and ensuring you’re on track to see every question. You should also try to budget time at the end for questions you skip, as well as come up with a strategy for skipping.  

It’s easy to get caught up on complicated calculation questions, and there’s a good chance you’ll run into questions that are completely out of left field. Instead of spending extra time trying to figure them out, skip and move on to questions you do know. You can circle back as time allows.  

During your practice exams, one factor Surgent exam coaches observe is how allowing a tough question to discourage you can lead to missing subsequent questions. Saving these frustrating questions for the end can prevent you from a series of wrong answers. Your testing mindset is the key to success! 

Ready to start studying? 

Becoming an enrolled agent will boost your confidence as a tax professional, helping you prepare tax returns and represent taxpayers before the IRS with conviction. Use these 6 tips to help you pass the EA Exam and get on your way to your career as an EA. 

Liz Kolar, CPA, CGMA, has been teaching CPA Review for more than 25 years in the United States, has personally taught more than 2,500 live sessions, and has helped thousands of candidates pass the CPA Exam. She founded Pinnacle CPA Review and co-founded Surgent Kolar CPA Review.