Skip to main content
School News

SOA Grads Earn CPA Exam's Highest Honor, Continuing a 15-Year Streak

A student's silhouette mid-stride with the Tanner Building atrium in the background.
The BYU School of Accountancy is ranked #3 in the nation for undergraduate accounting programs by the U.S. News & World Report.
Photo courtesy of BYU Photo.

The certified public accountant (CPA) exam is split into four sections, each of which takes four hours to complete. Hopeful accounting graduates spend those 16 hours answering and rechecking questions after hundreds of hours of studying. Only about half the people who take the exam pass on their first try. Less than one percent of examinees earn a 95.5% in each section on their first try, qualifying for the Elijah Watt Sells award.

For the last 15 years, at least one student from the School of Accountancy (SOA) at the BYU Marriott School of Business has earned this prestigious award; BYU is the only university to output such a consistent record of successful examinees. In the most recent exam cycle, two recent BYU graduates received the Elijah Watt Sells award: Mitchell Behling and Ryan Quade.

Since each of the CPA exam’s four sections covers a different aspect of accounting, students need a thorough understanding of each topic to do well on the test. “You have to know something about everything,” says Quade, a joint MAcc and JD student from Riggs, Missouri. “There are always people who are good at tax or who are good at audit, but one of the great things about BYU Marriott’s accounting education is that it helps you become well versed in everything.”

Having graduated with his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in accounting in spring 2022, Gilbert, Arizona native Behling also felt that BYU Marriot prepared him well for the exam. He adds, “The challenging part of the CPA is just summarizing it all at once. Pretty much every single concept that was on there, I’d gone through in a class in more detail than it was in on the exam.”

This comprehensive exploration of topics is by design, explains Doug Prawitt, the LeRay McAllister/Deloitte Foundation Distinguished Professor and SOA director. “We focus on helping our students gain deep conceptual understanding.”

The SOA’s accounting program is so effective that students don’t need a CPA exam prep class to excel. “I definitely came in to the CPA exam very well prepared from BYU Marriott,” Behling says. “A lot of other schools have some kind of CPA-specific class that helps you prep for the exams, and BYU Marriott doesn’t do that.”

The MAcc program offers a variety of tracks that not only equips students with a broad base of knowledge for the exam but also prepares them for a variety of careers. The two main stems are tax and professional accountancy, but there is also a PhD prep track and the JD/MAcc program, which combines law courses with accounting courses for a juris doctor and a master of accountancy.

A well-rounded and comprehensive exploration of accounting isn’t the only thing SOA’s curriculum provides to students. “We don’t just teach to convey information—we strive for student success,” says Bill Tayler, the Robert J. Smith Professor and associate director for the SOA. “We teach to inspire lifelong learning and service, encourage professionalism, and strengthen testimonies.”

Referencing the structure of the accounting program’s junior core, Quade explains, “The junior core is one of the best designed programs that I can think of in terms of developing not only your teamwork ability but also your curiosity and your ability to do hard things. You learn to fail fast, to fail forward, and to be proud of that.”

Quade credits the faculty at BYU Marriott for helping him stay motivated during the rigorous junior core program. “I would not be where I am today without professors who cared about me as an individual,” Quade says. “So many times, I went into office hours on the verge of tears and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I feel like I’m failing all the time.’ And the professors pulled me up.”

Quade’s experience being lifted by his professors is the type of environment the SOA tries to create. “Our faculty and staff are committed to the mission of BYU in assisting students in their quest for perfection and eternal life,” Tayler says. “That’s a lofty ambition, but it keeps us focused on what matters most to us—serving our students.”

The School of Accountancy claims the most Elijah Watt Sells award winners of any university in the world. The student-centered approach of the program continues to benefit students in a variety of ways. Quade explains, “They believe in us, they believe in me, and I look forward to paying that forward in the future.”


Written by Melissa Een