Elijah Watt Sells Award Winner Danielle Beaulieu's how-to guide to the CPA Exam

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If you’re considering getting your CPA license or studying for exams, getting tips from people who have been where you are can help you create a strategy for success. Getting CPA Exam success tips from an Elijah Watt Sells Award winner is even better! This award is presented annually to candidates who meet three very challenging criteria: 

  1. Passing all four sections of the examination on their first attempt 
  2. Completing testing during one calendar year 
  3. Obtaining a cumulative average score above 95.50 across all four sections of the Uniform CPA Examination

 We spoke with Danielle Beaulieu, a 2022 Watt-Sells Award Winner, to get her how-to guide to the CPA Exam. 

Step 1: Determine your motivation for obtaining a CPA license 

My journey to obtaining a CPA license was non-linear, especially compared to my peers. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Economics. Without any previous accounting coursework, there was no indication that I would take the path toward becoming a CPA. 

However, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do once I entered the workforce. I quickly realized two things: 

  1. That my undergraduate education (while necessary) did not provide me with a specialized skill set and 
  2. I wanted a career that was monetarily lucrative and intellectually fulfilling. 

My first job out of school was at a non-profit research institute for mutual funds. Here, I encountered my first accounting terminology: receivables and payables. While I'm more than familiar with these two terms now, they were utterly foreign to me then. I realized that learning about accounting could be beneficial, so I signed up for my first accounting class: a 6-hour weekend course at the local community college. 

I learned my first accounting mnemonic device during this course: Eat Apples Daily. It sounded like something my parents would tell me when I was a child, but it was just an easy method for remembering three basic items that increase on the debit side of a T-account: 

  • (E)xpenses 
  • (A)ssets 
  • (D)ividends. 

These word games would become increasingly important through my first accounting course and my CPA journey with Becker. From Tim Gearty’s BAE-BAE accounting for governmental funds, to Peter Olinto’s CRIME mnemonic for the COSO internal controls framework, mnemonic devices would become an effective learning technique that led to my success on the CPA Exam. 

Over time, I realized how the financial information I was exposed to daily – on the news, on the metro, at my job – that I habitually tuned out was becoming increasingly understandable and accessible. And with this realization, my confidence grew, and my interest piqued. I began researching various careers in the accounting field, both in public accounting and in industry. I found that a background in accounting could open doors to any possible industry I desired to work in the future. And a CPA license would be the stepping stone I needed to pursue this dream.

 So, I took the next steps to change my career: I took a few introductory accounting courses, passed the GMAT, applied for and attended grad school, applied for public accounting, and studied for the CPA Exam. Now that I set my sights on the CPA, it was time to create a study plan.

 Step 2: Set a study schedule you can keep up with 

The CPA Exam required so much time that my biggest takeaway is this: Get it done early. The more studying and exams I could complete during grad school or before starting a new job, the better. 

As Peter Olinto reminded me during my daily late-night CPA study sessions, my date for Saturday was my textbook. And this date continued for over a year as I completed my CPA Exams. 

I completed two exams over a short break between graduation and starting work, setting a strict study schedule using Becker’s built-in Study Plan tool. This feature helped me create my study schedule based on my current work-free lifestyle. I even shared my Study Plan with my family, which added another layer of accountability, even though I regretted it sometimes. During this time, I studied every day (including weekends), treating my CPA studying as a full-time job. 

I know this study “job” isn’t always feasible. Not everyone can dedicate all their waking hours to studying for the CPA. I completed my final two CPA Exams while working full-time at a public accounting firm during the busy season. Working so much , I had to adjust my Study Plan. I still tried to sneak in an hour each night, plus weekend study time. Over the following several months, my study pace was much slower, but I was still moving. The functionality of Becker’s Study Plan tool held me accountable for my studies. 

Step 3: Take advantage of Becker (Yes, I said it - take advantage) 

Early in my CPA journey, I learned that Becker had many tools available on their platform that I should and WOULD take advantage of. 

Online classes 

FAR was the first exam that I sat for and I was incredibly nervous. While I had already gone through the entire textbook and practice problems, I needed more exposure to topics like NFP and government accounting. I doubted my knowledge of these, so I signed up for the live online courses offered by Becker where the instructor reviewed chapters and reinforced my understanding of each topic. 

I went through a similar process for my REG exam and took advantage of the REG online classes, too. 

AICPA Newly Released Questions 

It's easy to overlook these questions, but they are a great way to reaffirm your knowledge and provide additional practice. 

Academic Support 

When I couldn't understand practice problems (no matter how many times I went through the textbook), I contacted academic support. They provided a detailed explanation and tried to clarify the areas where I was struggling. Not only was this support team incredibly insightful, but it was also very responsive. I utilized this feature for each exam I studied for. 

Simulated Exams and Final Review 

I highly recommend that CPA candidates take advantage of all of Becker’s practice exams. I got a great score on the first practice exam but wanted to feel confident and discover any knowledge gaps. 

The practice exams simulated the functionality of the actual CPA Exam, revealing things like the format and function of the built-in calculator and authoritative guidance. Nervous test-takers or people who struggle under time constraints should definitely take all available practice exams. Understanding your pace and how you will react emotionally during the exam is vital to passing. Using these practice exams, I determined my typical timing for different problems and how much time I could dedicate to each section. 

My Becker package also included the Final Review sections. While I don’t believe this feature is 100% necessary to pass the exams, I took full advantage of the additional materials and extra simulated exams in the Final Review to augment my studying for weaker areas like REG.

 Create your own practice tests 

With Becker, I was also able to create my own practice tests which were great for times when I didn’t have four full hours to dedicate to an entire simulated exam. I could decide which chapters to include, the number of questions, and the mix of MCQ and TBS questions. The constant iteration and various formats made learning easier and less tedious. 

Online Textbook 

The ability to study on the go was a game-changer for my CPA journey. I would get restless learning in the same location every day, so having the ability to study in coffee shops, on the metro, at the park, at a restaurant, or even at my friend’s wedding (sorry about that) provided me the freedom to set my study pace. It didn’t allow me to use inaccessibility as an excuse for not studying. 

This list is quite long, but it is not all-inclusive. I highly recommend to any future CPAs that you take advantage of all the great tools offered by Becker to prepare for your exam day. 

Step 4: Schedule the exam. 

Just do it. Don’t hesitate to schedule your exam. It may be scary, but it’s an important step. As my friend and fellow CPA licensee reminded me, delaying your exam date will only lead to procrastination and psyching yourself out. So, when you have a schedule in mind, set the date. 

Again, this is where Becker’s Study Plan can assist you. Once I determined my study schedule, Becker’s tool helped project the time to complete the Simulated Exams and predict a time range for taking the CPA Exam. I'm naturally hesitant in many instances, so this feature was incredibly helpful in setting boundaries for when I should be scheduling my exam date. 

Step 5: Treat yourself after taking the CPA Exam

I won’t lie. I hated sitting for each CPA Exam. It was too cold in the room, too hot, the headphones hurt my ears, the kid next to me wouldn’t stop sighing, the calculator was too slow... I could go on, but you get the picture: sitting for the CPA Exam sucks. 

Every time I sat for a CPA Exam, I left the exam center feeling drained and defeated. However, that's a natural feeling. Standardized tests make you question every answer, word choice, and even your own intelligence. So, every time I sat for a CPA Exam, I went out for drinks and tacos with my family afterward, and just let myself relax. My scores were a problem for another day. The post-exam day was just a day to treat myself and remind myself that it’ll be over soon. 

Step 6: Celebrate your hard work and achievement. 

This is going to be a letdown for most readers, but I didn’t really have a huge celebration to mark the end of my exams. My celebration was in the little things I allowed myself to do daily. Small things that I previously didn’t allow during my study process, I did with abandon, like sleeping, eating, hanging out with friends, being lazy, and simply enjoying the downtime. 

Having my life back after the exam was celebration enough. It’s been almost a year since I took my final exam, and I still can’t believe I finished. However, I am incredibly proud of my achievements as a CPA licensee and Elijah Watt Sells award winner. 

Start your CPA Exam prep with Becker 

We are so proud of Danielle’s incredible accomplishment. Over 90 percent of all Elijah Watt Sells Award winners relied on Becker to help them reach their goals, and we can help you reach yours, too. Ready to start your exam prep? Sign up for a free 14-day CPA Exam demo and see why more people have trusted Becker for over 60 years.

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