Climbing the CPA Exam Mountain

… and how I qualified for the Elijah Watt Sells award in 3 months!

Climbing Elijah Watt Sells Mountain
Picture of Ryan Quade

Ryan Quade

Hey! My name is Ryan, and I recently passed the CPA exam. This is my story about how I tackled the CPA exam in 3 months and qualified for the Elijah Watt Sells award.


Some people affectionately refer to the FAR CPA exam section as “the beast.” I affectionately refer to the CPA exam process as “the mountain.” Nothing is easy about the Uniform CPA Examination. It has plenty of sheer cliffs and ridiculously steep trails. But, let me tell you, the CPA exam is a mountain worth climbing. Here’s the story of how I passed the CPA exam – and qualified for the Elijah Watt Sells award in 3 months.

Starting Up the CPA Exam Study Trail

If someone had explained to me, before I started this journey, that the CPA exam was basically a gigantic final exam that tested almost everything I had ever been taught in business school, I may have had second thoughts about my intended approach.

But since I was clueless, I submitted my application for the CPA exam with (ignorant) confidence that I could pass the entire CPA exam in 3 months. After getting back from a two-week vacation, I booted up my laptop and started studying for the REG CPA Exam section at 7 am on Monday, May 2nd, 2022.

By the end of the day, I felt like I had jumped from a plane. Without a parachute.

Finding the Right CPA Exam Study Guide

My reasons for taking the CPA Exam were basically the same as everyone else: job security, access to the AICPA professional network, etc. but, given the unique Juris Doctor (JD)/Masters in Accountancy (MAcc) program that I’m in, I had only three months of summer to take all four CPA exam, sections. I also didn’t have an accounting firm reimbursing the costs of a CPA review course.

As my initial shock and panic subsided, I spent the next few days checking out free trials of the “usual” CPA review courses. But none of them fit my budget – or learning style. I found a CPA exam test bank I liked, but I struggled to find a good content provider. The common accounting lecture and textbook approach wasn’t working – I would quickly forget the CPA study material, or struggle to see how it fit into the bigger picture.

I was almost to the breaking point of paying thousands of dollars for a CPA review course when, one day, I was trying to figure out “multi-jurisdictional tax” and found a great explanation video posted by Universal CPA Review on YouTube.

I checked out Universal’s website and was impressed by the reasonable price – but still, I wasn’t sold. As I had read on one CPA exam forum, “you get what you pay for.” But, having no better options, I signed up for the free trial.

That was one of the best decisions I ever made.

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Settling into a CPA Study Routine

After finding Universal CPA Review, I began establishing a CPA exam daily study routine. I would start at 7 am by reviewing the prior day’s CPA study materials. First, I would do a little mini-lecture (out loud or in my head) on the concepts, imagining that I was explaining them to a friend or coworker. Then, I would run through a few practice problems.

After my review session was complete, I would cover new content by watching the videos and or reviewing the CPA exam study guides. My notes were usually organized in an outline format, with a bullet point listing each main topic and sub-bullets listing out my detailed notes. Since the CPA exam is also a test of memorization, I tried to keep my notes as brief as possible, writing out only the details I struggled to remember.

After taking a mid-day break to work my part-time job, I would resume content and practice questions in the afternoon and study until 7 pm.

I followed this schedule Monday through Saturday, and though it was rigorous, it was doable. Yes, I had zero social life. Yes, I was in my room, studying all day, while my friends were off traveling in Europe or South America. But, as Thomas Sowell said, “there are no solutions, only tradeoffs.” I carefully reminded myself why I had decided to take the CPA Exam; I also focused on the joy of my small renewal routines (such as prayer and gardening). Through these intentional practices, I kept mentally and emotionally balanced, able to continue the long days of intense study.

Ascending the Four CPA Exam Peaks

After three weeks of studying, I headed to the Prometric center to take the REG CPA exam section. Testlets 1, 2, and 3 were a breeze. But after returning from break, I struggled through 4 and 5 – my brain felt limp, and I questioned almost every answer I inputted. But I muddled through, walked out, and gave myself a 50/50 chance of passing my exam. Long story short, I ended up making a perfect CPA exam score.

REG Score

I spent the next four weeks studying for the FAR CPA exam section. On test day, I struggled a bit more on the first half of the test, so walked out thinking I had a 50/50 chance of passing, at best. I ended up making a 94 on my FAR exam.

FAR Score

I used the next three weeks to study for the AUD CPA exam section, focusing on understanding the overall auditing process. When I took the actual AUD test, I had very nuanced multiple choice questions and simulations, where the right answers weren’t immediately apparent. I again thought that I had a 50/50 chance of passing, at best. To my surprise, I made a 93 on my Audit exam.

AUD Score

I dedicated my last two weeks on the BEC CPA exam section, treating it like a sprint. Rather than noting concepts, I spent most of my time working on multiple choice and free response prompts to best prepare for the “mile-wide, inch-deep” BEC questions. On test day, I was very confident in my multiple choice questions and concept simulations, but I felt unsure on how the computer would grade my essays. I ended up making a 97 – bringing my average to 95.75 (meeting the minimum 95.5 needed for the Sells).

BEC Score

As you’ll notice, I may not be the best at probabilities. But the point is, I never felt 100% confident walking in or out on test day. But I relied on the mental maps Universal CPA Review taught me and gave it my best shot – which led to the right results.

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