Top CPA Candidate: UD Grad Jim Celia wins Elijah Watt Sells Award

Recent UD graduate Jim Celia has won the 2017 Elijah Watt Sells Award, which awards outstanding performance on the CPA exam. Celia was one of just 58 winners out of more than 95,000 CPA exam candidates, placing him in the top 0.06% of all CPA candidates.

In this Q&A, Celia, who earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s in accounting from the Lerner College, discusses how he got here, offers advice for future test-takers and more.

How did it feel to win the Elijah Watt Sells Award?

I had known about the existence of the award from my time at UD: One of my favorite professors (Tom Vermeer, for undergraduate audit) had won the award when he took the exam. I had made it my personal goal to match his accomplishment. Naturally, knowing the threshold I needed to reach (average greater than 95.5 across the four exams), and knowing the scores I’d received on the first three exams made that last night of waiting for my score very stressful.

I needed at least a 97 on BEC [the Business Environment & Concepts section of the test] to earn the award. When the 99 popped up on my screen at one in the morning, I handled the situation as maturely as I could: I texted everyone I knew and ran down the hallway to wake up my parents in the other room. Hopefully everyone else was as excited about the award as I was, as they learned about it in the middle of the night, too.

What role did the Lerner accounting department play in preparing you for the CPA exam?

The UD accounting experience was instrumental in my development, and was a major reason for my success on the exam. I gained a strong foundation in financial, individual tax and managerial accounting throughout the undergraduate program, and then was pushed even further throughout the master’s in accounting, which provided me valuable skillsets in IT auditing and corporate taxation.

As I went through the Becker course materials, there were rarely moments where I thought to myself, “I don’t remember seeing this before,” or where I felt genuinely unprepared. This put me at a distinct advantage as compared to students from other schools, who routinely commented to me that government and not-for-profit accounting, as well as corporate taxation, were not covered in sufficient detail in their programs to afford them the opportunity to treat their study materials as a review instead of a first-time learning experience.

What advice would you offer to other accounting students who want to succeed on the CPA exam? Any tips or tricks to share?

I have a few key tips:

  1. Before you start, you need to be ready. You have to set expectations with yourself and with your loved ones that you may not be able to hang out during the week or take a long vacation. You need to be emotionally prepared to have a normal workweek throughout the summer after you graduate, while people in other majors might be able to relax.
  2. Understand why the sacrifice is worth it. The benefits of having a CPA license are well documented; however, the value of getting as many parts out of the way as you can before you start at your job cannot be overstated. You will be most effective at studying when it is the primary, or only, goal on your plate, when you have just finished some of the senior year core courses that make up a plurality of the materials covered on the exam, and when you do not have to worry about finding balance with your job.
  3. On a more practical study level, be as efficient as possible with your preparation. If you work through a multiple choice question, don’t just write down why the right answer is correct: Understand why the wrong answers are incorrect. The goal is to pack as much learning as possible into a timeframe, such that you can cover all of the materials required for the target exam part without forgetting/losing sight of the material covered at the beginning of the practice materials. I’m also happy to provide more specific advice if readers want to contact me via email.

What are your goals/plans/dreams for the future?

I am planning to pursue my Ph.D. in accounting starting next fall, with the eventual aim of finding a role back at UD, teaching, mentoring and researching.

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