The CPA Exam is known for being a grueling, rigorous test, and it’s common for candidates to retake sections where they failed to get a passing grade on the first try.

That’s why each spring those who scored exceptionally high and passed all four sections on their first attempt are honored by the AICPA with the Elijah Watt Sells Award.

The 2018 Sells Award list had 110 such candidates – and three of those future CPAs are from South Carolina. To put those numbers in perspective, an average of 95,000 people took the CPA Exam for the years 2012-2017, according to statistics taken from the NASBA.

Allyson Randle (a SCACPA Student Member since 2016), Ryan McMillen and Joseph Pearson not only passed all four sections of the Exam on their first attempt, they each obtained a cumulative average score above 95.50 across all four sections.

Candidates are eligible for the award in the calendar year following the year in which testing is completed. The AICPA then notifies those who meet the eligibility criteria, and plaques and digital badges are mailed to them by mid-May. There were 110 winners for 2018.

SCACPA caught up with all three South Carolina winners to hear how they prepared for the CPA Exam.

‘I wanted to pass the exams before I started working full-time’

SCACPA Student Member Allyson Randle graduated from Clemson University’s Master of Professional Accountancy program in August 2018 after receiving her undergrad degree in Accounting there. She then took a few months to travel before starting her career as a tax accountant at EY in Greenville this past October.

Allyson’s grad school program designated a schedule of when to study certain material. But she said most of her studying was done independently, so it was important for her to motivate herself to meet each deadline.

“Because I knew that I wanted to pass the exams before I started working full-time, I made studying my top priority,” Allyson said. “My main strategy was to follow the schedule set up by the school and Becker to stay on track to prepare myself for each exam.”

She credits her professors for being a huge help, both in teaching the material and in motivating her to study. “It was reassuring to hear stories about their own experiences with the Exam, and to realize that determination was essential to become a CPA even if I didn’t pass the Exam on my first attempt.”

On the days she sat for each Exam section, she felt nervous but prepared. “Luckily, I didn’t face any obstacles on test day other than the airport-like security at the testing centers,” she said.

After excelling on her first two Exam sections, she was informed she could be eligible for the Sells Award.

“I was aware of the E.W. Sells Award ahead of time, but until I passed the first two sections, I wasn’t striving to achieve the award,” Allyson said. “I just wanted to study hard, so that I could pass all the sections on my first attempt.”

But at that point she decided it was important to keep focused and put the prize in perspective.

“While it would be nice to score well enough on my final two exams to complete my eligibility for the award, I wouldn’t be disappointed in myself as long as I met my original goal of passing them all on the first attempt,” Allyson said.  “I actually decided to take the final section a few weeks early, so that I would learn my last two scores at the same time and not have any extra pressure for the last exam.”

Allyson now works full time at EY in Greenville after being an intern there during the summer of 2017.

“As I’ve been adjusting to working in public accounting, I can’t help but feel grateful that I have already passed the CPA Exam and won’t need to fit studying into an already busy life.”

‘For the trickier parts, I had some really good teachers’

In contrast to Allyson passing the CPA Exam before entering the profession full-time, fellow Sells Award winner Ryan McMillen sat for three of the sections while he was working in tax services for EY in Greenville. In a coincidence, the future Sells Award winners both were in EY’s Greenville office at the same time; Ryan started working full-time while Allyson was an intern.

Business Environment & Concepts was the only section Ryan had taken before he was hired full-time.

“Fortunately, the people there, my managers especially, were really understanding with working around deadlines and client commitment to let me study and take the Exam,” Ryan said.

That including taking the Exam in the middle of busy season. “I would not advise taking it while you’re working, it becomes pretty stressful,” Ryan said, “and a lot of people wouldn’t be as fortunate as I was, with workaround, timewise.”

Ryan, who graduated from USC with a bachelor’s of Business Administration, Accounting and Finance, transferred to EY’s Chicago office in late December, where he switched from tax advisory to a technology group that concentrates on process improvement and technology advisory. “Conceptually, I do all the same tax accounting, but it’s a heavier tax center role,” Ryan said.

Talking from his Chicago office, Ryan remembers all the hours he put in while in South Carolina studying for the Exam – or was it too many hours?

“I had never taken an exam of that magnitude, so I over-studied for BEC (Business Environment & Concepts),” Ryan said. “I studied for eight weeks, and you still walk in and don’t feel super-great after you leave. It’s the uncertainly with the sheer quantity of information on some of these exams.”

Some CPA Exam candidates might have specific timeline goals in mind, such as wanting to complete all sections within six months. Once Ryan began working in the Greenville office, he made it a goal to pass the next sessions on the first try but he wasn’t in a hurry.

“I just wanted to not have the credits expire,” he said. “I would recommend to pace yourself out over a longer course, just to help yourself stay sane, so you don’t have to study eight hours a day. I really think you stop retaining information after you study for a certain amount of time.”

It took Ryan nearly the full 18 months to take all four sections.

“I do recommend breaking it up into small, manageable chunks,” Ryan said. “I’d put in an hour or two of studying after work. If I didn’t feel like studying, I wouldn’t study. Definitely use a prep software and follow a schedule. If you can get a firm to pay for the course, I’d highly recommend that.”

Ryan credits the support of friends and family throughout the process.

“They allowed me to not go crazy,” Ryan said. “When I was in the middle of busy season, I lived and breathed accounting, so they listened to me talk about accounting.”

Ryan also points to his success during process from the solid foundation in accounting provided by his educators at the University of South Carolina.

“I specifically had a lot of instructors in South Carolina who were really good at teaching some of the finer parts of the Exam,” Ryan said. “An example would be nonprofits or partnerships, the stuff that would separate a score from an 80 to a 90. Everyone gets the basics. For the trickier parts, I had some really good teachers.”

‘It requires a little sacrifice, but I felt very prepared’

Joseph Pearson now works in tax and is in the midst of busy season, but he remembers his days in school when he would stay on campus for an extra hour or two every day and use that time to study.

“My wife helped in that she supported me staying the extra time,” Joseph said.

Joseph said he felt most nervous about the process when he sat for the Exam for the first time.

“Part of that was just getting to know the process for taking the Exam, and part of that was not knowing much about the Exam or how I would do,” he said. “By the time I made it to the last one, I felt like a seasoned veteran.”

When news of his Sells Award arrived, Joseph said, “My wife was ecstatic, as was I.”

“I hold myself to a high standard and it felt very meaningful to know that I had achieved what I had set out to do. In some ways, it was validating.”

Joseph’s advice to those intending to take the Exam is to spend a little time each day studying.

“It requires a little sacrifice, but I felt very prepared.”

About the E.W. Sells Award

The AICPA has bestowed the Elijah Watt Sells Award on candidates for outstanding performance on the Uniform CPA Examination® since 1923. Sells (1858-1924) was one of the country’s first CPAs. He was active in the establishment of the AICPA and played a key role helping to advance professional education in the profession.

You can read the AICPA’s announcement and a full list of the 110 winners of the 2018 Sells Award here.