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How these students aced the CPA Exam

Sells Award Winners share their best exam prep advice.
By Dawn Wotapka

When it comes to your students' journey to the coveted CPA designation, nothing looms larger than the Uniform CPA Examination.

In 2021, more than 72,000 people took the CPA Exam, and just 57 of them earned the Elijah Watt Sells Award, given to those who receive a cumulative average score above 95.5 across all four sections on their first attempt in a single year. The distinction, first established in 1923, recognizes Sells, one of the nation's first CPAs who helped found the AICPA.

Several Sells Award winners shared their best advice on how students can master the CPA Exam. Here are their top tips:

Don't reinvent the wheel. Encourage students to use the studying techniques that worked best for them as they progressed through their accounting classes. "There's not a right or wrong way to study for the CPA Exam," said Maha Haque, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and assurance staff at EY in Dallas. "By the time you're ready to start studying, you've been in school long enough to know which study habits work for you and which don't."

Carve out time. Most would-be exam takers are juggling advanced classes, internships, and/or work, so they may want to schedule specific times to study. "I set aside time for studying every morning before work and every night after work," said Christian Kilschautzky, CPA, a graduate of Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and the head of accounting for Berlin-based SellerX, an e-commerce business. "In the morning, I would always repeat the topics from the previous day."

Choose the right location. "Finding a study environment that is comfortable and allows you to focus is extremely important," said Eli Bublick, a graduate of Indiana University who works on the assurance staff of EY in Chicago. "Given the difficult nature of the material, I found it helpful to study in a quiet setting with no interruptions."

Don't skip anything. Students should attempt to study every topic that could be covered on the exam, even those that seem easy or familiar. "I made a concerted effort to study all the material that was presented to me, even if I felt like I had prior knowledge from my accounting classes," Bublick said.

Practice, practice, practice. Several winners said that they completed as many sample questions as they could. "Drilling multiple-choice questions repeatedly was surprisingly really helpful," Haque recalled. "I thought it would be redundant to do the same questions over and over, but it helped the information stick."   

Kilschautzky used a similar technique. "Given the enormous number of topics to cover, I think constant repetition is key when preparing for the CPA Exam," he said. "I devoted a lot of time to multiple-choice questions, task-based simulations, and practice exams."

Analyze the questions. "Always take the time to understand why you got an answer right or wrong so you can better identify your strong points and weak points," said Kyle Topp, CPA, a graduate of the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities and an assurance associate at RSM US LLP in Minneapolis. "Just quickly reading the question and memorizing the answer doesn't ensure you'll get it right the next time a similar question comes around."

Read the book. It may feel safe to rely on digital study materials, but nothing beats the old-fashioned textbooks included in some review courses, Bublick said. "I've spoken with many peers that would listen to the lectures, complete practice questions, and just skim the textbook. However, I feel like reading the textbook is necessary to gain an in-depth understanding of the material," he said.

Consider flashcards. Flashcards are an affordable and easy technique that has been helping students for generations. Though apps are available that allow students to create digital flashcards, paper flashcards can still be valuable. "The act of writing out flashcards made me actively think about each of the topics and details, and I did not expect to rely so heavily on them when studying," said Jordyn Boutilier, a graduate of the University at Albany, SUNY, and an assurance associate with PwC in New York City. This "allowed for me to not have to study solely on electronics, as I was burnt out from that going to school virtually."

Join forces. Students can form study groups with friends, colleagues, or peers who are also prepping for the exam, as Haque did. "It was nice to have people to go to when I needed help, and it was useful to teach others on areas I was stronger to reinforce the content," she said. "Sometimes just having someone who was going through it too was helpful and made the process less draining."

Remember self-care. Remind your students to take time for themselves. "Looking back, I wish I took more study breaks and spent more time with my friends," Bublick recalled.

Part of this means resting after each section's exam is done, Boutilier said. "Make sure to take time in between each exam to decompress and relax so that when you start studying again, you are refreshed," she said.

This award "represents a key building block in the foundation that I've been building since I took my first accounting class in high school," Bublick said. It "demonstrates the amount of hard work and dedication I can put forth towards a goal, which I believe will help distinguish me as my career progresses."

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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