UND grad’s test scores earn national award

UND Accountancy graduate Zsofia Barandi wins 2019 Elijah Watt Sells Award after stellar CPA Exam performance

Zsofia Barandi earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting from UND. After taking all four sections of the CPA exam in 2019, her high scores made her eligible for a prestigious award. UND archival image.

The Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination is a daunting challenge, even for the most prepared.

To pass it is a major step in becoming a full-fledged public accountant.

To pass all four of its four-hour sections on the first try, with an average score above 95.5 – out of a possible 99 – is to be eligible for a national award.

UND graduate Zsofia Barandi is now the 11th from UND to win the Elijah Watt Sells Award since 1986. Of the 75,000 individuals in the United States who sat for the CPA exam in the past year, only 137 met the award’s lofty criteria.

The last UND graduate to win the award was Chelsey Enderle in 2014.

Barandi was shocked. Given the format and intensity of each component of the cumulative exam, she never left a session knowing how she did. But Professor Kate Campbell, chair of UND’s Department of Accountancy, wasn’t shocked at all by Barandi’s feat.

In fact, Campbell had predicted it, Barandi said.

“It was my first year in grad school, and I was still a year out from taking the exams,” Barandi recalled. “Dr. Campbell was talking to a group of alumni and said something like, ‘Zsofia is going to win the Elijah Watt Sells Award.’ And I was like, ‘Oh no.’”

It’s now a story that Barandi, a native of Budapest, Hungary, can laugh about. Since September, she has been a member of “Big Four” accounting firm EY’s assurance staff in Minneapolis, Minn., after graduating with her accountancy master’s degree in May 2019.

Barandi knows the months of studying and years of hard work she put in as a student helped her earn the distinction, but she is direct in acknowledging the opportunities available to her through UND’s accounting program.

“I was in a really good position because of UND Accountancy to be able to achieve this,” she said. “This happened through a combination of support from UND and EY; and I never would have gotten a job at EY if it wasn’t for the connections alumni share with UND. It all goes back to the department.

“It feels good, and I’m very excited to have won this award.”

Full-time commitment

Though not shocked by Barandi’s performance, knowing the type of student she was throughout her UND career, Campbell used words like “unbelievable” and “extraordinary” to describe what it takes to earn an Elijah Watt Sells Award.

Katherine Campbell

“Around 45 to 55 percent of people pass the test at any given time,” said Campbell, adding that each section requires a score of at least 75 to be considered passing.

The sections are broken down into Auditing and Attestation; Business Environment and Concepts; Financial Accounting and Reporting; and Regulation. Campbell said that each section of the exam includes “task-based simulations,” in addition to a multiple choice format that most test-takers would expect. The American Institute of CPAs, the body that regulates the testing and recognizes award-winners each year, describes the simulations as “condensed case studies that test accounting knowledge and skills using real life, work-related situations.”

“Basically they’re giving you real-life examples of what you would be working on in the field, which is good because your work isn’t going to be multiple choice questions,” Barandi laughed. “For instance, in the Regulation section, you would get different tax documents and have to answer questions around tax law and use calculations for other questions, using those documents.”

Barandi needed to complete all four sections within an 18-month period to pass the exam. She likened the experience of studying for it to that of a full-time job.

“You have to have been very committed to your studies throughout your whole curriculum, because the CPA exam is testing you on everything you learn in accounting, but also business concepts, economics, law and information systems – all these different areas,” said Campbell of preparing for the tests.

Barandi may be in rare company with her achievement, but UND students regularly perform above national averages on the CPA exam, according to Campbell. UND archival image.

Testament to exceptional quality

Though Barandi is merely the third from UND to win the award since 1993 (and the 11th since 1986, as mentioned above), Campbell said that the University’s accounting students regularly perform above national averages with regard to scores and pass rates.

Brent Kukla, a partner and lead UND campus recruiter at EY, is an alum of the program who helped recruit Barandi to the global firm. He told UND Today that Barandi’s impressive accomplishment is a testament to UND’s quality of education.

“The Department of Accountancy’s high-quality instruction and experiential learning opportunities are preparing and inspiring students who will help solve today’s most complex challenges; shape the next wave of innovation, technological and social change; and thrive in our fast-changing world,” Kukla said. “On behalf of EY, I’d like to congratulate Zsofia for earning the 2019 Elijah Watt Sells Award.”

As a member of the assurance team, Barandi said her role is to help EY’s teams with “whatever they need” as they conduct audits for several Fortune 500 companies. She said her first year has provided a great learning experience, and that she’s been able to witness how companies across the board are affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

There most likely won’t be any kind of ceremony in the current environment, said Barandi, who’s currently working remotely. But the congratulatory messages and well-wishes from UND, EY and beyond have made her all the more appreciative for the support she’s received early into her career.

“Dr. Campbell has been extremely supportive, and I could name literally every professor in the department for the same reason,” Barandi said. “They want students to succeed and really push them to go for internships and go out to career fairs. With the connections the department has, they set students up for success. That’s something I will always be grateful for.”