Friday, September 17, 2021

I passed the CPP (Certified Payroll Professional) Exam Today!

Warning: The following content is intended only for people who have taken or are planning to take the CPP exam.

In other words, this is going to be the world's most boring post ever.  It's even more boring than my post about passing the CPA exam - don't say that I didn't warn you!  I'm writing this for the same reason that I wrote about the CPA exam: I really wanted to hear the deets from someone who had been through the process, and I didn't find a lot out there on the internets.  CPP is a tough google since it also stands for Certified Protection Professional and Certified Professional Photographer, so let me clarify that we're talking about the American Payroll Association's Certified Payroll Professional exam.  I took and passed the test today on my first attempt.

Along the way I tried four different exam prep programs: Momentrix, PayTrain, Practical CPP, and Payroll Source, and I'm going to tell you ever last detail of what I thought about those.  The TL&DR summary: 

  • Don't bother with Momentrix
  • PayTrain is really nice and really expensive but I don't feel that it was complete.  I did 90% of my studying in PayTrain but I'm not sure if I would have passed the exam if it been my only resource.
  • Practical CPP was a bit too indepth and scared me BUT the I felt that it boosted my knowledge and there was one question on the exam that was about material that I learned from Practical CPP.  And the price is quite reasonable.
  • The Payroll Source was excellent, and the practice questions were very similar to what was on the exam.  One question was identical!  I wish I'd known about it sooner than one week before the exam;-)  And there's a 30 day free trial...sheesh I really wish I would have known this sooner than one week before the exam.
  • P.S. although not a study resource, I also took one of the APA's knowledge assessment tests one week before the exam and failed it miserably...I do not recommend taking the knowledge assessment tests because I didn't feel that the questions represented what was on the exam and it really messed with me!

First a little bit about me so that you know where I'm coming from.  I am an accountant (a CPA thank you very much) who ended up working in payroll.  My first payroll gig was as the solo accounting person at a startup, in my next job I did payroll accounting, and in my next job I was the lone payroll person for many years for a late stage startup that became HUGE.  At the end of this month I'll be starting a new position in payroll with a fancy title.  Add everything up and I went into the exam with 10 years of payroll experience.  When I took the CPA exam, it was anyone's guess if I would pass, but I felt pretty confident about getting the CPP.  My confidence got shaken along the way, and as of last week I was certain I was going to fail the exam.  I'll talk about that more in a minute.

I learned about the CPP certification a few years ago, but at the time I figured that it was enough to "just" be a CPA and was concerned that it might be a little much to maintain continuing education for both certifications.  It wasn't until this year when I went through a job transition and knew that I was sticking with the payroll track that I decided to "treat myself" to some extra letters after my name.

First question: do you need to be CPP?  Absolutely no, not any more than anyone "needs" to be CPA to be an accountant.  I applied to a few hundred payroll jobs this year and only saw a few that required CPP certification.  But I couldn't help but notice that everyone in the payroll department in corporate had those letters, it was a "nice to have" for a lot of the jobs that I was applying for, and I wanted a new challenge.  Also I'd been thinking about it for a few years, how much longer was I going to think about it without getting off my butt and going for it?

A visit to the APA website got me off my butt, since the exam is offered twice a year and the fall testing period was coming up.  This was in June, and the window to schedule the exam was opening in July.  The testing period started on September 11.  I didn't want to take the test on September 11 (it just seemed like an unlucky day) but I also wanted to take the test as soon as possible.  The PayTrain system recommended taking the test after 10 weeks of study, and today was exactly 10 weeks after I got PayTrain, so that was how I picked my date.

Similar to the CPA exam, you can't take the CPP just because you want to.  I was qualified due to my work experience, so the only thing I had to do was provide a supervisor email to the APA.  They contacted my supervisor right away and she responded promptly, so I had my approval within a few hours.  Time to study!

What I Was Told About The Exam Going In

I asked my contact at my company's payroll provider about the exam.  Her response "oh it's as hard as the CPA exam".  Yikes I gave up my whole life for 90 days to study for the CPA exam, that's not what I wanted to hear!!!!  I took comfort that this person was neither a CPA nor a CPP.  Now that I've taken both exams, I can tell you that this was bull.

The next person I asked was one of my contacts in Big Corporate who was both a CPA and a CPP.  Her response "the company paid for three of us in the department to take the exam.  We got a book and studied on our lunch break 3 days a week for the summer.  It was tough but it's definitely do-able.  Just make sure you really study the calculations because there are a ton of questions about those".  She said she would find out the name of the book for me, but she never did and I left the company shortly afterward.  But that was the answer that I wanted to hear!  As you'll find out, I studied a bit more than "over my lunch break three days a week" but the exam did not take over my life until the last week heading into the exam.  And now that I've taken the exam, I agree 100% with what she said==>it was tough but it's definitely do-able.

Exam Preparation

Maybe it's me, but I find the APA website really confusing.  I knew that they offered classes but I couldn't tell what they were recommending for CPP study apart from the vague "no one study tool should be considered the only basis for exam preparation".  

I had two advantages in my favor that I want to call out if you're taking the exam and need a benchmark figure out where I am vs where you are.

  • Strong knowledge of payroll calculations.  My former employer used The Worst Payroll Company in America so out of necessity I had to learn where the numbers came from.  I had some gaps, such as I don't work much with incomes over $200,000 so until I started studying I didn't know about the additional Medicare tax, but going in I knew how to calculate federal withholding with worksheets 4 and 5 and the social security stuff.  These aren't things that you learn overnight.
  • The test is 9% accounting and oh yes did I mention that I'm a CPA?

Here are the study guides that I used and why I ended up using four of them:


I really don't like to give negative reviews or call things out but wow Momentrix has it coming.  You can google it if you're curious, but I'm not giving you the link.  I wasted my first few weeks of study on this garbage.

The book Certified Payroll Professional Exam Secrets Study Guide is the driest and dullest book I have ever read.  After I read it I took the practice test and scored a 75% and realized that I was going to need more than the dust between the covers of this sorry book to get my knowledge up.  For some reason I decided to add insult to injury and get the flash cards as well.

The only nice thing that I have to say is that I was able to return the book to Amazon and get my money back.  I didn't return the flash cards since they didn't cost very much and I'd already started tearing them apart (they came on perforated stock) but they were similarly dry and IMO useless.  They went into the garbage can today.

I can confirm the reviews that say text has errors such as outdated numbers.  No harm if we're talking about something simple like the social security wage base, big harm if we're talking about a number that I don't know already.  A big part of the exam is payroll calculations, and the book had nothing on those.


After I realized that Momentrix wasn't going to cut it, I did some more digging on the APA website and found PayTrain.  It seemed like a complete online preparation system, which was appealing since I used the Becker online program for the CPA exam.  But ouch it was $1,300!!!  I thought about it a bit and decided that while I didn't like the price it might very well be worth it to have a complete online learning system and be able to pass the test on my first try.

Good things to say: the platform was easy to use, and it really nailed all of the payroll calculations.  I knew many of them at a level that was fine for my day job, but not enough for a certification exam.  Also, a big part of the reason that I passed the CPA exam was that I did so many practice tests.  I drilled the module practice exams to the point where I had the answers memorized.  From late June to early September PayTrain was my only study resource and I spent many hours in it.  I've already told you that I passed the exam today, so what's to hate?

Best thing to say: if you're not very familiar with payroll calculations I think you should definitely get PayTrain.  Yes it's pricey but I'm sure you'll make your money back once you get your CPP.

Bad things to say: while the calculation part of PayTrain was excellent, I feel like a lot of material was left out of the text and the practice questions.  I studied the life out of PayTrain and took the final exam and got a 94%, seems like I was all up and ready to go right?  Yep, ya girl was feeling pretty smug.  For yuks, I decided to take an APA Knowledge Assessment test one week before my exam...I got a 60%. 

Oooh shhhhh...I've just spent weeks studying, I'm one week out from the exam, and the assessment test says I'm going to fail. Um...a little help here please????

The Practical CPP Study Guide

The Practical CPP Study Guide is not an APA resource.  It's written by a real life CPP for CPP's and it's an ebook with online flash cards and practice exams.  I'd come across it here and there as I was googling trying to find real life stories about taking the CPP exam.  After failing the assessment I was looking for something anything to save the day.

Good things to say: The package was $110, less than 10% of the cost of PayTrain;-)  The ebook was concise and easy to read.  The online package included six tests, and I'm a huge fan of practice tests.  The material included way more topics than PayTrain.  I felt like going through the exams boosted my overall payroll knowledge.  I would not recommend it as a stand alone study guide, but yes I think you should check it out if you're taking the CPP exam.

Best thing to say: there was one question on the exam that covered material that I learned about specifically from the Practical CPP Study Guide.

Bad things to say: Yeah the material included WAY more topics than PayTrain in WAY more detail and the depth of the material freaked me out and made me think that I was WAY unprepared to take the test.  It's possible that I got an "easy" version of the exam, but I felt that the Practical CPP Study Guide was a bit of overkill.

The Payroll Source

Wow, if you blink you'll miss that The Payroll Source has practice tests for the CPP exam.  It's described as being  a resource to keep companies up to date on payroll regulations.  I learned about it in the 11th hour (a.k.a six days before the exam) from a message board about the CPP exam.

The other thing==>it has a 30 day free trial.  That's right, it cost me $0.  That's the first time you've heard me say that in this post.

Good things to say: this is a 600 page ebook about everything that you could ever want to know about anything payroll related, and IMO it's very readable.  From the short time that I had with the material, I learned so much.  I scored very well on the practice tests the first time that I took them AND the questions were very similar to the questions that were on the real test.  In one case, I'm certain that the question was identical, and it sticks out in my mind because it was one of the ones that I missed on the practice and had to go back and learn and it wasn't material that was covered in PayTrain.  Same shout out as the Practical CPP Study Guide, I got at least one question right due to the Payroll Source.

Best thing to say: The biggest compliment that I can give The Payroll Source is that I will be reading the entire book before my 30 day trial ends.  Not because I have to but because I want to.  I didn't have time to get into it as much as I would have liked before the exam.  I'm guessing that this was "the book" that my CPA/CPP contact used for her exam.

Bad things to say: really nothing.  Online access to the book is about $600 a year or you can buy a hard copy for...$600.  Steep but half the price of PayTrain.  I do feel that it could be a complete study guide for someone with good knowledge of payroll calculations.

The Exam Experience

I took the exam remotely.  I would have preferred to go to a test center, because tests like these have so many rules and regulations that it's easier to be in a controlled environment under observation.  But the ol' COVID...I didn't want to have the variables of getting sick on test day or the test center closing down or something like that.

To take the exam at home, you can only have one screen, so that meant working off of my laptop instead of a big monitor.  You are monitored by video and audio the whole time.  I took everything off my office walls in case the examiners would think that my stepkids' artwork was a cheat sheet.   You are supposed to have your phone with you but out of sight in case the exam proctors need to contact you, and I didn't like the possibility of getting a ton of notifications from texts and emails, but those were the rules.  I took my Garmin off because I didn't want to get notifications from it or have someone think that I was somehow using it to cheat.

I logged in half an hour before my test time as recommended and sure enough I needed it.  I'd already installed and tested the exam software, but it took FOREVER to load up and needed to be updated.  As part of the check in process I had to take a picture of myself, my driver's license, and four pictures from different angles of the room.

Then it was time for the exam!  Whomp whomp, I got a Javascript error and a spinning wheel.  I let it go for a minute and then messaged the proctor.  Instantly they got on the chat, asked what I was seeing on my screen, and reloaded the exam.  There was a demographic survey about my age, income, and years of payroll experience, and then it was go time!!!

So, just like the CPA exam, you're not allowed to reveal test questions or specifics of what was on the exam.  I'm going to stick to that (well, apart from agreeing with it I couldn't tell you my test questions if I wanted to since it's been a few hours and I don't have a photographic memory).  But I will tell you what I would have wanted to know going in.  I've already said that the questions were similar (and in one case identical) to the Payroll Source practice questions.  I agree with my CPA/CPP friend that there were a lot of calculations, and yes there were a few curve balls but nothing too aggressive or below the belt.  And I will say that it seemed like there were a lot of accounting questions, but of course I might feel that way since those questions were easy for me so they were a welcome sight.  I'm sure it wasn't more than 9% but it seemed like a lot.  Actually, let me rephrase that: I think that the APA's description of the topics on the exam and the percentages for each is accurate.

The exam is two sections of 95 questions (190 questions total) with a break between sets.  You have two hours to take each section and a 10 minute break in between.  It took me about an hour to take each section, and then since I had the time I took about half an hour to review the questions before I submitted them, so it took me three hours total for the test.  I felt like I spent HOURS on a few of the questions.

I felt pretty good about the first section and took a few minutes for a break and then went back in and went at it.  Session 2 seemed a little shakier and I would be willing to bet that my performance took a dive on the second half of the test.  By the end I was physically exhausted.

Finally it was truth time.  I clicked submit for the last half of the test and I was on tenterhooks because I knew that I would find out my result right away. get your results you have to take a survey from the APA about how you studied for the test.  Talk about a captive audience!  There were only 8 questions but it felt like an eternity.  And then I got the sweet, sweet result: pass.  To date I haven't gotten my score, so there's no way for me to know if I aced it or just squeaked by.

About two hours later I got an email with a link to my passing result and next steps (the APA will send me some follow up emails in the next few days). I'll update this post if anything interesting comes of that.  

Today was a long day.  And a good day.  I passed the CPP exam.  Now I need a new project;-)

Have you taken the CPP exam?  How did you study?


  1. Congratulations, Birchie! Well done!
    I'm a CPA and followed it up with a CFA. The CPP is definitely worthwhile for you CV!

    1. Wow a CFA is legit! I saw an article on LinkedIn this summer that there is a shortage.

  2. This is totally out of my realm of knowledge, but congrats to you!! I hope the new job will be everything you wanted!

  3. Congratulations! Do you think the knowledge will help you in your job, or is it more for your resume? Anyway you can tell you have some blog fans, since all these runners are commenting on your CPP exam post!

    1. Thanks Jenny! It's 50-50, it will definitely help the resume/open the job market for me, but yes I wanted to learn as well.

      Runners appreciate a good slog story! The CPP is just "a marathon without the sweat".

  4. Congratulations and thank you for the tip on the Payroll Source! I'm studying now and agree that The Practical CPP is overwhelming. I took the practice test on the Payroll Source and did well. If that's what I can expect in the exam, maybe it's not so bad?

    1. Yes, if you did well on the Payroll Source test I think you're good to go! I drilled as many of those tests as I could in the final few days before my exam.

      GOOD LUCK on your test!!! Let me know how you did.

  5. Thanks for this post. It's very good in my opinion for anyone studying for the CPP. I have been looking for information and it is very hard to find good sources. I agree with this 100%. Going to look at payroll source.

    1. Thanks Yanira! That's exactly why I wrote this post. I just wanted to hear from someone who had done it what it was like and I couldn't find very much about it.

      Good luck on your test!!!

    2. I wanted to let you know that its been several months later and a lot of studying but I passed my CPP exam. Thank you again for all the information. The Payroll source all the way and APA Pay Train if you need practice with the calculations. I purchased the self-pace one. I took the exam in person and I think its the way to go if you have a test center near you. I did the 30 day free trail with the payroll source and saved all the practice tests and quizzes to my desk top and kept practicing until I had a 90 and above grade. I hope this helps others on the same journey.

    3. YES YES YES YES YES!!!!!!!!! Congratulations!!!! That's a great idea to save the tests so that you end up with more time than the 30 day trial to practice them.

  6. Thank you for sharing your journey with us and Congratulation on passing the CPP exam. I posted some questions about the exam on reddit and got some responses and google some more to finally found your post. I have only used PayTrain and would have definitely missed the Payroll Source! I'm planning to take the exam remotely in Spring 2023, ideally in Jan, but probably now have to wait until I finish Payroll Source. They told me the testing material will be based on 2022 rates. Would the tables and rates be provided along with the questions similar to the PayTrain practice test?

    1. Good, I'm glad you found it because that's exactly why I wrote it. I was just so frustrated by the lack of info when I was getting ready for the exam.

      Ugh, that's so confusing to have to shut out everything that you know about 2023 and use 2022 rates. To be clear, I don't know the answer, but yes the exam was similar to the setup in Paytrain. Anything with W4s they will give you the table, but for soc and 401k you're expected to know it.

      Good luck on your exam! Let me know how you did.