Hard Work Pays Off: BDO Professionals Secure a Spot on the Elijah Watt Sells Award List

Studying for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam is crucial for accountants, as obtaining the designation helps to establish a solid foundation and create endless opportunities in their career path. Passing the exam is a significant milestone for professionals and demonstrates the strong work ethic needed to tackle a career within the accounting field. Last year, three BDO professionals excelled on the exam, earning them a spot on the prestigious Elijah Watt Sells Award List. 

Of the nearly 67,000 people who sat for the exam in 2022, 50 of them earned the Elijah Watt Sells Award. To achieve this honor, CPA candidates must score a cumulative average of 95.50 across all sections of the exam on their first attempt. The award is administered by the AICPA and is named after Elijah Watt Sells, one of the first CPAs in the U.S. and a major figure in establishing the AICPA.

We spoke to the three award winners about their path to obtaining the designation. Read more to hear about Assurance Experienced Associate Daniel Ambalu, Tax Associate Caroline Chipman and Assurance Associate Stephanie Hetki’s journeys, including how they successfully balanced their work, personal responsibilities and studying.

Support Fuels Outstanding Performance

While the Elijah Watt Sells Award recognizes individual performances, Ambalu is quick to point to those around him who showed their support.

“Everyone at BDO, from the associate level to partner level, showed me support in their own way,” Ambalu said. “Sometimes, it would be in the form of a short email wishing me luck. Other times, I had the blessing of a director to take time during busy season to study or take an online class. Knowing people at BDO had my back pushed me to perform well.”

BDO wasn’t the only place that gave Ambalu flexibility. He volunteers at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley’s Children’s Hospital, producing an in-house entertainment radio show for patients. 

“Volunteering is important to me, so I wanted to continue that work even while I was preparing for the CPA exam,” he said. “Working with those kids put everything in perspective, but that was especially needed in between some intense study sessions. Everyone at the hospital was supportive in my journey to do well on the exam and showed immense flexibility so I could maximize my study time.”

Every minute was valuable, according to Ambalu. He had clear objectives in mind to make sure he had a firm grasp of the material. That included setting goals for practice exams, aiming to score in the mid to high 80’s and taking no more than two and a half hours to complete an exam.

“I like to take my time to make sure I have everything covered, so a personal goal has been to become more efficient not just on the CPA exam but also at work,” he explained. “Studying for these sections helped me maintain that eye for detail but doing so in a methodical way. I learned a lot about balancing my responsibilities and learning what strategies work for me."

Being an Elijah Watt Sells award recipient proves that hard work pays off, but a supportive group of people can be just as valuable as you pursue a challenge.” 

Ambalu poses for a picture with fellow volunteersAmbalu (second from right) poses for a picture with fellow volunteers

A Winning Score

At first glance, there may not be much overlap between soccer and accounting.

But in Chipman’s world, she found a way to connect the two.

“Time management is huge when studying for the CPA exam,” she explained. “I took a lot of what I learned while playing collegiate soccer and applied that off the field.” 

Chipman played on the University of Georgia Women’s Soccer team, all while excelling in the classroom at the university’s J.M. Tull School of Accounting. She learned early on to balance her academic and athletic commitments. 

“Before I started my job at BDO, I wanted to get the CPA exam out of the way so I could hit the ground running and help my colleagues wherever I could,” Chipman said. “I kind of compare it to my college experience, when I had to get my class work done before a practice or a game so I could be ready for my team. I had great teachers in the classroom and awesome teammates on the field, so I didn’t want to let anyone down.”

Chipman received her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Georgia. Before starting at BDO in June 2022, she spent the first half of that year studying for the CPA exam, taking all four sections in a five-month span. After she got high scores on the first two sections, Chipman could have coasted toward the end of the CPA. Instead, to borrow some soccer terminology, she competed until the final whistle.

“Knowing that the Elijah Watt Sells award was in sight, I wanted to finish strong,” she said. “Going into my first section, I just wanted to perform the best I could simply because I’m competitive and self-motivated. But the opportunity to join a select group in accounting elevated my desire to finish strong.”

Chipman during her days as a member of the University of Georgia Women's Soccer teamChipman during her days as a member of the University of Georgia Women's Soccer team

Setting Yourself up for Success

2022 was already set to be a big year for Hetki.

Not only was she starting her career at BDO, but she was also preparing for an accounting rite of passage — the CPA exam. 

After earning her bachelor’s degree at Cleveland State the previous year, Hetki devoted the first half of 2022 to studying. 

“I probably spent about 50 hours a week studying during that time,” she recalled. “That meant making lots of study guides and solving a lot of practice problems.”

Hetki spent much of her time preparing for the Regulation section of the exam, knowing that some of the concepts have tripped her up in the past. 

“After I saw my high score on that section, it not only validated all the studying I had done at that point but it also motivated me to shoot for the Elijah Watt Sells award,” she said. 

But Hetki wasn’t there yet. She had plans to go on an overseas trip with her sister to give her brain a rest and to celebrate finishing college. And she needed to finish the last two sections of the CPA exam before starting her new job at BDO. So, there wasn’t much time left to devote to studying.

“Hard work and dedication have always been key factors in achieving my goals,” she said. “But it’s also important to take breaks too, especially since I studied so much. That bit of rest really helped because, when I started studying again, I had the bandwidth to settle into my job at BDO and finish the CPA exam with strong scores.”

Hetki takes a picture from a telephone booth in LondonHetki takes a picture from a telephone booth in London