CPA Townhall: How to generate exam awareness early on

An experimental event aimed at providing students with CPA Exam information has become an annual occasion.
By Madhuri Bandla, CPA, and Ananth Seetharaman, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D.

Growing the CPA pipeline includes sowing the seeds of interest early on. To that end, in spring 2022 the University of North Texas will hold its sixth annual CPA Exam Townhall — an event to increase CPA Exam awareness and to generate a positive CPA Exam culture. It's a one-stop shop for accurate and timely CPA Exam information. It's also a venue to plant seeds in the minds of sophomores and above that passing the CPA Exam could be one of their goals.

It was an experiment that started with the CPA Exam Townhall in 2017, organized by department chair Ananth Seetharaman with the help of the master's program coordinator Christine Ellis. The event was promoted primarily through organizations such as the Association of Latino Professionals for America, Beta Alpha Psi, the National Association of Black Accountants, and PASS (Professional Accounting Student Society), and student feedback was so positive that the decision was made to make it an annual event.

The inaugural spring 2017 event had a full classroom of 75 students. Since then, along with a successful switch to a virtual format because of the COVID-19 pandemic, attendance has more than doubled. The town hall has successfully met its goals: Not only has it sparked early interest among our students, but based on feedback received, we have successfully expanded the mindsets of our accounting students to set a more ambitious goal; i.e., not just graduating with an accounting degree, but passing the CPA Exam within one year of graduating from our master's program.

Our town hall format has three parts.

Keynote address on the value of the CPA

We start the town hall with an impactful keynote presentation about the overall value of the CPA, the job market, hiring trends, and the designation's competitive edge. Speakers delivering the keynote address have included the department chair, the Texas Society of CPAs (TXCPA) chair, and a national instructor from a major CPA Exam review provider. Data from the AICPA, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), and state CPA societies are used in this presentation, which is primarily geared toward answering the question, "Why become a CPA?" This fires up the students and makes them understand better the value proposition of a master's degree in accounting.

Panel session — success stories

We then move to a Q&A panel session facilitated by the department chair. Panelists are alumni who have recently graduated and have passed the CPA Exam in the past year.

One of our department's strategic initiatives is to remain connected with our alumni, so finding alumni who have recently graduated and passed the exam is not a difficult task. For their part, our alumni love to remain connected to our faculty and are excited to serve on the panel and share their success stories with students. Panelists have participated via Zoom from their workplaces, offering their insights and strategies for CPA success.

We prepare a flyer with pictures of our panelists and promote the event via social media and through student organizations. Faculty are also encouraged to share with their classes and incentivize students to attend by offering a few points of extra credit.

We pose a variety of questions to the panelists, such as:

  • What's the best order in which to attack the exams?
  • How long does it take to prep for each part?
  • How do you maintain a work-study-life balance?
  • What is the biggest fear and apprehension going into the exam, and how was it resolved?
  • What are study challenges, schedules, and tips?

Katie Ricketson is one of our upcoming panelists for the spring 2022 town hall. She was formerly the vice president of Beta Alpha Psi and has helped in organizing town halls in the past. She is now back as a panelist after having passed all four parts of the CPA Exam within six months of graduation.

Ricketson described the University of North Texas accounting department's atmosphere as having "always been geared towards helping students understand the importance of obtaining one's CPA credentials for their future career." She added: "This helped shape my path in graduate school early on to prioritize applying and sitting for the CPA Exam."

Students seem to relate well to success stories of peers who have recently walked a path like theirs. From study strategies and flashcard preparations to time management and how to handle test anxiety, prospective CPAs get a flavor of all it takes to pass and win the CPA challenge.

Many students have been amazed by the amount of time and commitment the panelists put into studying for the exam and are motivated to aspire for the same success. Personal experiences shared from a student viewpoint, rather than a faculty or review provider's, have been of great value. While the number of credit hours needed to pursue the exam can be intimidating for some, wanting to take the exam makes others feel more encouraged to pursue the master's program, with the added value of the extra credit hours in accounting it can give them.

Journey to the CPA

The final part of the town hall is a discussion of exam review resources and specific steps to take in the CPA journey — from submitting the Application of Intent to receiving a Notice to Schedule. This presentation with timelines has helped students in visualizing a personal plan for completion.

We have partnered with a major CPA review provider. Its representative gives students a clear understanding of the various steps, with information covering eligibility, application process, and the basic structure of the exam. For schools that don't have connections to a specific review provider, we recommend partnering with a state CPA society and presenting on the steps to the CPA, published by the AICPA and NASBA, for example.

Incentives to attend  

For departments that wish to initiate a town hall for the first time, we recommend finding a passionate faculty member with strong connections with alumni to lead the effort. Offering free pizza is always a good bait to get students to attend — especially the first few times — until the town hall becomes a  department's tradition and students look forward to the event. Partnering with a state CPA society and/or faculty ambassador will help as well. Freebies such as pens and review flashcards for lucky winners of a draw can help in generating some excitement.

The CPA Exam Townhall has helped inspire some students, nudge others, and, most of all, build awareness about the CPA Exam and credential. It has helped in alleviating some anxiety about the unknown. When alumni from our university share their success, it helps motivate more students to keep pushing on to get to the finish line.

Celebrating a CPA Exam rockstar

We consider all who pass the CPA Exam as winners, but what about those who pass at the first attempt, scoring in the 90s in all four parts prior to starting work? Truly rock stars! Last year, we were happy to recognize our CPA Rockstar, Brady Brockett, at a separate event called "Great Impressions," where students share their internship stories and CPA success with other students.

Brockett attended our CPA Town Hall before taking his CPA Exams. He said the event "gives great insight into the field of accounting and how rewarding it can be to achieve your CPA certification."

He added: "Personally, it was very encouraging for me to hear from … alumni about their personal experiences and success with the CPA Exam. Hearing these experiences of other alumni [who] had passed parts of the CPA Exam before their graduation date encouraged me to do the same.

"Overall, this is a great event that provides students insight into the CPA Exam and the CPA designation."

We look forward to many more students who will follow Brockett's path in the future.

Madhuri Bandla, CPA, is a senior lecturer and TXCPA faculty ambassador, and Ananth Seetharaman, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., is the chair in the department of accounting, both at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. 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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