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FICPA Conversations: Shawna Wells finally conquered the CPA exam

Our FICPA Conversations series returns with one our newest members!

For more than 20 years, Shawna Wells dreamed of securing her CPA license. But self-doubt and an adversarial relationship with the CPA exam left her believing she’d never pass.

The Purchasing Manager for the Orange Country Sherriff’s Office, Wells built a career for herself, but she could never shake her desire to finally become a CPA.

Finally, over the course of a year, she ripped through all four sections of the exam and achieved her dream.

Now a licensed CPA and a member of the FICPA, Shawna is here to tell her story and to offer advice to anyone else who thinks that they can’t overcome the exam.

Tell us a little about your relationship with the CPA exam and how your were finally able to obtain your CPA license last year.

Getting my license had been a bucket-list goal since high school. Now, I'm 47.

When I graduated UCF with my accounting degree back in 2001, I got this big-old, test-prep book, and I thought, “I can't do this. I'm just not smart like this. Instead, I thought, I would get my master’s degree. Of course, life happened, and I didn’t get my master’s until 2014.

Still, the idea of getting my CPA license was something I couldn’t let go of. It was always the goal. I don't know why, and I can't explain it. I had been buying review courses all throughout this time – for years. I spent a lot of money on courses, but I never had the courage to actually take the test.

Finally, it was in July 2019 that I said, “That's it. I'm doing it.” I bought another review course, and I started to have my doubts again. But this time I decided to sit for the test. I had to get over the fear of it. I sat for FAR (Financial Accounting and Reporting) and I failed – with a 71. I thought, “Oh my god, I’m only four points away!” I took it again in March 2020 – right before COVID crashed the world – and I passed. I raced through the rest. I took REG (Regulation) three months later and passed; I took BEC (Business Environment and Concepts) three months later and passed; and I took Audit three months after that and passed.

A lot of people were shocked. They were like, “I can’t believe you passed three out of four on the first try.” Looking back, I can’t believe that I psyched myself out so much, thinking: “I can’t do this test. I’m too old. I can’t remember this information.”

Beyond it being an item on your bucket-list and something you were determined to cross off, what is it about a CPA license that really captured your attention in the first place?

I just always thought that if I was going to be in accounting, I had to go all the way. It’s hard to describe, because a lot of people that are not in accounting don’t understand. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this. I got my bachelor’s in accounting; I got my master’s in accounting; I wanted to prove that I could get to the top.

I've worked in government my entire career. I've been at the Orange County Sheriff's Office for 24 years. I started as a 911 operator when I was going to college; I moved into grants once I got a degree; and then I kept pushing forward, first in finance and then into purchasing. Now, I’m looking to advance into the comptroller position, to hopefully go from 911 operator to comptroller.

Having that CPA license is going to prove to other people that I can do the job. They’ll know that if I can pass the CPA exam, I’m apt to do what they need me to.

Given your experience – that doubt you had – I’d like to ask you to offer some wisdom to others who may be in a similar position. First, what kind of advice would you give to a young accounting student who’s struggling with the idea of sitting for the exam?

I think it's such a high-pressure environment at times. When you’re studying accounting, everybody's asking, “Where are you going? What’s next? Which of the Big Four are you going to?” I didn’t feel like I was a part of that particular group of students. I didn’t believe I was as smart as they were. I truly underestimated myself, and it all seemed out of reach for me.  

I wish I would have believed in myself. I wish I would have at least attempted to take the exam so I would have had an idea of what it was like, instead of just hearing about it and giving up . There is so much pressure to pass on the first try; it worried me, and it prevented me from attempting the exam. 

So what if you don't pass it on the first try? Just jump in there and try. Take three full months to study a particular part of the exam – the time will fly by – and get a feel for what you’re really up against. I wish I would have done that when everything from college was still fresh in my head.

And how about for someone who finds themselves in the position you were, even just a few years ago. What would you tell someone who’s already established in their career and still questioning whether their dream is achievable or even worth it anymore?

I would tell those people that you never know what kind of doors are going to open for you. You never know what’s going to change in your life, or what kind of opportunities might arise that you’ll want to capitalize on. Having this CPA license makes me more marketable, and it gives me a sense of security. I worked hard for it, and no one can ever take it away from me.

It’s about commitment and coming to the realization that it’s just a test. Commit to studying, and take it one section and chapter at a time. It’s not about knowing everything; it’s just about being able to apply the material you learned. You just need to understand the concepts enough to apply them. Even now, I can’t tell you what’s on the exam (even if I was allowed to tell you). I just read the questions, I let my brain do the work, and I logically worked through it. It’s not a black-and-white test.

I started with the topics I really enjoyed, like FAR and REG. I felt they was easier to study because I really wanted to learn the material. If you’re just studying to take a test, that makes it harder. I decided I wanted to learn. I wasn’t trying to take a test anymore.

It was hard and stressful but so worth it. There are days I look at my certificate and still can’t believe I did it.

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