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The Not-So-Secret Way to Get an Elijah Watt Sells Award

Since 1923, the Elijah Watt Sells Award has recognized the extraordinary achievements of the top-performing CPA exam candidates each year, a rare and hard-earned reward for above-average scores. The few, the proud, the … wait, wrong slogan.

Have you ever wondered just who Elijah Watt Sells even was? Most people probably assume he was some try-hard super accountant with an uncanny ability to retain information and regurgitate it back out in multiple choice answer form given the award that bears his name. Those people might be shocked to learn he was actually a terrible accountant early in his career.

An AICPA profile says he was a “valued worker” in the railroad assistant station agent job he took out of college at age 16 “but fell short in his accounting skills.” Not to mention he didn’t even graduate from Baker University with an accounting degree (or any degree, for that matter). His reporting was so bad he got in trouble for it at work, at which point he did the most American thing you can do and lifted himself straight up by his bootstraps and got serious about his job. He would later go on to help form the AICPA and was a founding partner of Haskins & Sells, which you kids know nowadays as Deloitte.

So Sells wasn’t a prodigy by any means. Nor was he particularly exceptional at his job starting out, which some of you might be able to relate to. Through education, dedication, and old-fashioned determination, he became one of the most influential accountants of the 20th century, and his legacy lives on through the award that bears his name.

In 2019, nearly 75,000 aspiring CPAs sat for the exam and only 137 of them performed so well they can now count themselves among other Elijah Watt Sells Award winners. This means they passed each section on their first attempt with a cumulative average score above 95.50.

But how did they do it? Like the award’s namesake, they invested time and effort to meet their goals. It really is that simple. You’re welcome to engage in all manner of superstitious rituals if you feel that will give you an edge, but at the end of the day, the only way to get to the winner’s circle is to put in the work.

OK, but is it really that simple? Surely there has to be more to it. No, seriously, that’s it.

Becker surveyed dozens of 2019 Watt Sells Award winners who used their course — 90% of EWS winners did — and nearly every one said the same thing: practice exams and MCQ make all the difference.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of the MCQs,” said award-winner Michael Humphrey. “They allow you to really master the material.”

The key to mastering MCQ comes from going beyond memorization and using answer explanations to understand why. Otherwise you’re just grinding questions that you’ll never see on the exam for the sake of grinding questions, which will probably get you into 75 territory if you study enough, but Watt Sells Award not so much.

“The important thing with MCQs is not necessarily to do as many as possible, but rather to do as many as you can while fully understanding why the correct answer is correct, and why the incorrect answers are incorrect,” said award-winner Carson Angress. “This is the only way to know if you truly know the information, or have begun memorizing answers.”

The other key here is practice exams. Between AICPA practice exams and your review course, you should have more than enough material to familiarize yourself with the exam format. With the Becker system, candidates can build their own practice exams made up of MCQ, TBS, or both if they’re feeling bold. Then when they’re ready, they also have simulated exams with all new questions that feel just like the real thing and prepare students for the actual exam experience.

Let’s put this in other terms: Imagine you and your friend have decided to run a marathon in the spring. You’ve got a couple months to prepare, so how should you best spend your time? Your friend thinks the key is expensive running shoes and consuming endless YouTube videos from marathon runners. She spends hours on running forums, getting into Internet fights over the best way to replenish electrolytes. You, however, know that training is the way to go, literally putting your foot to the pavement to work on your endurance and fitness. Come marathon day, your friend has far better gear than you but burns out after just a few miles while you deftly glide to that last mile. How’d you do it? You already knew how you’d perform in the race because you’ve been practicing on your own all along.

This is the strategy that worked for 2019 award-winner Kara Killingsworth. “Once I would go through the practice questions and exams, I was able to gauge which areas I was weakest in and could go back to lectures or do more questions in those areas,” she said. “They really allowed me to put my knowledge to the test and feel prepared on exam day.”

In other words, she trained for the marathon (which the CPA exam is, let’s be real) with lots of runs and mini-marathons, which helped her to figure out where she needed to improve before the big race.

Look, it’s not rocket science. And at the end of the day, there’s no big secret to how to get the Elijah Watt Sells Award, no matter what clickbait blog titles may tell you. There isn’t some secret strategy or ideal brain-feeding meal plan that will get you there. It’s you. Put in the work, practice, practice, practice, and who knows, maybe next year you’ll find yourself in quotes giving advice to future CPAs who want to count themselves among the small number of people who have achieved this honor.

And if not, don’t feel bad. It’s a rare award for a reason. If it were easy, everyone would do it, much like the CPA exam itself.

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