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Exclusive: Inside the Mind of an Elijah Watt Sells Award Winner

Back when I worked in HR for a public accounting firm, it was common to receive and send out requests for best practices in employment policy.  Such information is often shared freely across non-competing firms all in support of advancing people initiatives within the profession. Most often I was (and still am) a Go-Giver in this regard.  

A go-giver is a person who puts others' interests first and adds value to their lives.  The go-giver has zero expectation of a return on investment of their time, yet they ultimately yield returns. You know, that universal flow stuff.  So I shared information freely and would receive support whenever I put requests out there.  In one instance, however, I did not respond to a request.  In fact, I just deleted and didn’t even throw out a token IDK.

The sender wanted to know the amount of bonuses paid for winning the Elijah Watt Sells award.  For those of you who don’t know, the Elijah Watt Sells award is given to candidates who earn a cumulative average score of 95.5 on all four sections of the Uniform CPA Exam.   In 2012, over 92,000 candidates sat for the exam and only 39 people met the award criteria.  Because I studied like a crazy mad woman and scored much closer to club 300 than earning those superhuman results, I had all kinds of faulty assumptions about what kind of person won that award. I didn’t respond to that message because I thought why in the hell would a firm want to incentive that kind of behavior.  Quite simply: I thought you had to lock yourself in a library for 20 hours a day and be a HUGE nerd to score that high on the exam.  Well, it turns out I was completely wrong.

This year I had the chance to meet a person who won the award in 2012 and I was blown away.  He wasn’t the nerd I envisioned.  He didn’t live in a library.  He actually lived in a fraternity house while studying for the first half the exam.  (And it wasn’t a Beta Alpha Psi house; it was a social fraternity. Mmmk.) For the second half of his studies, he was living with his girlfriend.  Who would have thought one could score so highly and have time for a relationship.  Furthermore, he was a pleasure to speak with and not the socially awkward, sweaty palmed person I had made up in my head.

Thankfully the winner was not able to read the bubble about my head when I first met him.  He was also kind enough to grant me an interview and share his story with the readers of GC.   To preserve his rep in his firm, I have chosen to keep his actual name anonymous and referred to him as Elijah.

GC:  Tells us what we really want to know. How much was your bonus for earning the award?
Elijah: $20,000.

GC: How did you spend it?
Elijah: I bought an engagement ring and then put the rest in savings and investments.

GC: Was your intention to try to win this award?
Elijah: Yes, I learned about it when I was taking my accounting courses.  Everyone said no one does it and it is impossible.  It was a long shot.  My goal was to study as hard as I could for the first exam and see how it went.   My first section was FAR and I got a 99.  I thought maybe I can win if I continue to I study as hard as I can.  The second test was AUD and I got a 99.  Once I was halfway through, I was really focused on the goal and thought it might be achievable.  The third test was disappointing.  Although my score was 94, and still good, I wasn’t sure if you had to get all 99s to win the award.  
After the first 3 exams, I was tired.  It was the summer. I had friends travelling. I didn’t want to work anymore. It was my last summer before full-time work.  The fourth test was hard to push through because I was not even sure if I could still win the award. In end, I just decided to keep going and turns out it was good enough to get the award.

GC:  How did you push through?  
Elijah: I have been pushing through studying for tests for what feels to be for my entire life.  I am one of those guys who has to have really good grades. I’ve trained myself to be really disciplined and continue studying even when I really do not want to.  It was like this stuff was one of my college classes and I was 100% committed to scoring well.

GC:  What was your motivation for the award?
Elijah: Obviously the money.  The other part was something that is engrained in me; I don’t like performing poorly.  Even if I wanted to allow myself to score a 75, I knew I would not be happy with it.  In college, I earned a 3.98 GPA.  Even though I didn’t have to get As, I always strived for them.  I am a perfectionist, which is both a blessing and a curse.  

GC:  What type of response have you received overall?  
Elijah:  Highly congratulatory.  My college had me back for an awards banquet and gave me a roast of sorts and were super congratulatory. Within my firm, there has been a ton of recognition.  Emails from dozens of partners, random people, and a ton of attention I didn’t want.  Attention is not why I went for the award.  I have also been asked to do webcasts and attend public forums and meetings related to the exam or the profession.

GC:  How has this award impacted your career?  
Elijah: I already completed my first year at the firm and had my review. Winning this award set me apart from what I do on a daily basis and helped me to get compensated more because I was a more highly rated associate.  Typically in my firm, you only get promoted to Senior in 3 years and I am putting in the extra hours to get promoted in 2 (hopefully).  

It also earned me a lot more respect because my colleagues assumed I knew more than others.  That was good and bad because they assumed I knew a lot. The challenge with that is that in some cases, they may have gave me too much credit for my knowledge when I first started.

GC:  If you could do it over again, would you study as hard?
Elijah: Absolutely.

GC:  Who was the first person you told when you found out you received the award?
Elijah:  My mom, parents and fiancé. Then work people because I found out at work.

GC:  What did you do to pass?
Elijah: I read the whole book, listened to all the lectures and did all the practice problems until I got them all right and understood them, not just memorizing them. If you decide to skip things, you might not study the things that are on the exam. The tests are a crapshoot like that.  They can test things you don’t expect.

It is a personal thing in determining whether you really know each problem set.  If I didn’t understand it, I went back to the book to learn more. Generally that meant doing the problems a couple times.

GC:  How many hours did you put in?
Elijah: I treated it like it was my fulltime job. After I graduated and moved in with my now fiancé, I studied before she left for work and until she got home – 9 hours per day on weekdays. On the weekends it varied.  I tried to give myself weekends off because it motivated me to get through the week. I set milestones such as sections in the CPA review book to be done.  I studied on a weekend when I hadn’t completed a milestone goal during the week.

GC:  What did you do to maintain a sense of balance and take care of your well-being?
Elijah:  I had the advantage that I didn’t work while studying.  I work best when I take a mid-day break. I would get up and study 4 hours, go work out, eat lunch and then study the rest of the day until dinner.  In the evenings I would unplug, watch movies, and eat dinner with my girlfriend.  On the weekends I would refresh and go to events, so that I had things to look forward to.  You have to have things to look forward to.

GC:  What advice do you have for candidates?
Elijah:  If possible, take the exam before you start working fulltime.  Now that I am working in public accounting, I can't imagine going home everyday and studying everyday.  If I had tried to pass the exam while working, the whole process would be drawn out over a longer period.  100%- doing it before working fulltime is definitely the best way.

GC:  How much time did you spend when actually taking each test?   
Elijah: I took all the time they would give me.  Within a testlet, I would take my first pass through doing the easier questions and then go back to the ones I flagged.  I also took every test at the earliest time available.  They allow you to take the exam early.  For example, an 8am timeslot could be a 7:30 am exam.  I am a morning person.  I get lethargic midday and didn’t want to go in a test when I felt tired.  Early in the morning, I also didn’t have to worry about traffic so I could have an easy, clean drive.

GC:   What are your top three pieces of advice for candidates?
Take the exam before you start working full-time.
Do it as quickly as you can after you graduate when you are in the study mindset.  It is easier to roll right into it.  
Treat it like a normal class and do whatever worked in normal exams and other classes.  There is no real secret to studying the material.  It is about putting in the time. You have to understand it and not just memorize it.   

GC:   What is next for you?
Elijah:  Personally, planning a wedding and enjoying being engaged.  My professional life is to be decided.  I am still evaluating how I like being at my current firm.  I have so much to learn in my current position. I make decisions when I come to a crossroads every so many months.  I ask myself “Am I happy?” and “Do I want to be here in another 6 months?”

GC:   Are people pursuing you?
Elijah:   Yeah, I have received multiple offers especially from investment banks.  I think it is partly due to being part of public accounting and having Big 4 experience. But I also think the award created attention and that I have gotten specific offers because I won the award.

GC:   What are other things that might surprise the readers of GC?
Elijah: That I am engaged to a beautiful, smart, and loving girl.  If people were generalizing, they might not think that was the case. I am also a big craft beer fan.  I enjoy working out and watching lots of sports. Put simply, I am not just an accounting nerd.  I don’t particularly love accounting.  It is not the most exciting thing ever.

GC:   Anything else?
Elijah: In elementary school, there was a period when the school wanted to put me in the slower paced classes. They thought I was having a hard time understanding and wanted to get me additional help.  By the end of elementary school, with my mom putting in extra assistance, they decided I was gifted.  The life lesson I took from this was by putting in the in the extra work I was able to achieve goals that seemed unattainable.

I am hopeful you, the readers of GC, found this conversation with this outstanding performer to be insightful.  I hope you are able to see how your own faulty assumptions might get in the way of really being able to know someone.  I hope that exam candidates may have learned a trick or two that will support them in knocking their own exam scores out of the park.  Finally, my greatest wish is that you are inspired to see the power of setting goals, taking on action to achieve breakthrough results, and to not be fazed when others say you aren’t good enough.  Haters are going to hate.  Just like Michael Jordan who was cut from the basketball team in junior high, this candidate was inspired to perform well no matter what others said.  He set his goals to perform at the highest level and sacrificed a summer of fun for a summer of studies.  The results he achieved are greater than this award.  He is $20,000 richer, has a very bright outlook on future employment, and a life partner to drink craft beer with.   If this is the life of an accounting nerd, I am down with that.