Leslie Johnson Rezgui
Exam Advice: Get enough sleep!
Sr. Manager, Technical Acct. & Financial Reporting
Colorado Springs, CO
At forty-three years old, I received my Colorado CPA license in the mail. Hooray! It was an unlikely adventure leading up to that point — one that began more than six years prior.
You might call me the “Accidental Accountant.” My path to CPA certification was most roundabout and unconventional. After graduating from Yale in 1989 with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts, how did I end up taking the CPA Exam and becoming a licensed CPA?
The year after graduation, I started my own graphic design business in Paris, France. Being the founder, I kept the books for the business. We also worked with an external CPA, who told me that if I ever wanted a career in accounting, I could do well. That piece of advice was tucked firmly into the back of my mind as I continued working for a number of years in marketing. In 1998 I moved back to the U.S. with my family, including a brand new baby, to settle in Colorado Springs. There, we set off again on the adventure of starting our own business — a boxing and kickboxing gym. Here again, along with marketing, teaching classes, and selling memberships, I kept the books for the gym.
A couple of years passed, and I was ready to get back into the mainstream workforce. I weighed the decision for a while, debating marketing and public relations, then one day, while shopping in the grocery store, my “Aha” moment came: Accounting! I recalled what the CPA had said all those years before, and felt myself agreeing — I could get a job in accounting. After discussing this possibility with my mother, herself an accountant, I began writing my resume with a focus on the accounting and bookkeeping work I’d done. That was it — a few weeks later I was hired as a temporary staff accountant for a publicly traded company. Five years of hard work later, I was Controller. Still, I had little formal education in accounting.
So in 2004, at age 37, and with the inspiration and encouragement of my boss/mentor, I decided to try sitting for the CPA Exam. Unfortunately, my Fine Arts degree left me with a lot of accounting courses to take before I was eligible. I had to start somewhere, though, so I found an online Master of Accounting and Financial Management (MAFM) degree program through DeVry University. I took one class at a time at first, while still working full time and fulfilling my other “jobs” as wife and mother (not to mention continuing to help with the boxing business). But that still wasn’t going to be enough to sit for the CPA exam — I needed business courses too. I decided to work towards a dual degree — MAFM and MBA — all online. At one point I thought to myself, “I’ll be past forty by the time I finish all of this coursework!” Then I realized I’d be forty in a few years either way — with or without a Master’s degree; with or without the CPA.
Soon after taking the exam, I started working for a publicly traded medical device company in Colorado Springs, first as Financial Reporting Manager and then as Assistant Controller. For eight years I managed SEC reporting, technical accounting, SOX, the month-end close process and many other projects that came my way.
Today, I work as a Senior Technical Manager in the National Solutions, Technical Accounting and Financial Reporting Group of Experis Finance. Our team consults with clients nationwide to assist in various accounting projects, including, most recently, the implementation of new accounting standards such as Revenue Recognition and Leases. This position utilizes my research and writing skills more than working with numbers, and I enjoy learning about different companies and industries. The variety of clients and work is a perfect fit for this stage in my career.
I share my life with my husband, an artist and musician, who has helped bring art back into my life once again, and my son, a chemistry major at the University of Denver. When I’m not working, I enjoy riding bicycles, hiking in the Colorado mountains, snorkeling, scuba diving, doing photography, gardening and cooking.
Planning for the Exam
I had the dubious advantage of losing my job when the company where I’d worked for nearly six years went bankrupt in the fall of 2007. Unemployed at age 40, I finished my Master’s degrees and began taking the Becker CPA review courses while looking for another job. By the spring of 2008 I had completed all of the educational requirements to sit for the exam, and requested my Notice to Schedule.
I chose to start with the Business Environment and Concepts section of the exam. Since it had no simulation, was all multiple choice, and was the shortest of all the exams, i.e. “the easy one,” I thought it would be a good way to get my feet wet.
How I Studied
Using the Becker review course, I listened to every lecture, read every page, and did every practice question and practice exam. As recommended by the course instructors, I made flashcards — and while this was the most time consuming and tedious part of my studies, I believe it was also the most helpful and useful. Working to distill each page or half page of text onto a note card was a wonderful way to get to the essence of the materials, and resulted in effective review tools as well.
As a dedicated Hockey Mom, I could be seen at the hockey rink evenings and weekends, flashcards in hand and in my pockets, reviewing notes between periods of games or during practices. At the grocery story waiting in line, I had my flashcards to review one small section at a time.
I also completed every single practice question and practice exam. During these practice exams, I would work on timing, planning out exactly how many minutes I could spend on each section before moving ahead. This was a great way to get prepared for the real thing, and I felt confident going into the exam room that I was prepared and organized.
A bonus tip that I learned from one of my instructors for the Auditing exam was recording all of the various audit reports onto my iPod. That way, while jogging or driving in the car, I could listen to my voice reading audit report after audit report, so I finally got them memorized. This was a tremendous help on the exam, for both the multiple choice and simulation sections.
The biggest sacrifice for me? The years of schoolwork, working on homework late at night after my son was in bed and early in the day on Saturday and Sunday mornings. There was a serious lack of both free time and sleep, and all while making an effort to spend time with my family. I had little social life during those years, and at times the coursework seemed unending.
Section One – Conquering Fear
Stress is an inevitable part of taking an exam such as the CPA, so the morning of each exam, I ran a couple of miles (with my audit reports in my earphones) to get my mind under control. Also, trite as it may sound, getting enough sleep and eating well were important aspects of my exam preparation too.
I took the BEC portion of the exam in May 2008. I was nervous as I pressed my finger to the scanner while signing in at the test center, but felt confident going into the test room where the familiar computer screen awaited. There sat Number Two pencils, a few sheets of scratch paper provided by the exam proctor, and I found the exam to be very similar to what I had experienced during the practice exams. I was able to manage my time as I had practiced, and finished with a few minutes to spare, having taken one short break in between two of the sections.
Driving away from the test center on a beautiful Colorado spring day, I felt confident that I had at least passed the section. When I checked my score online several weeks later, I was thrilled to see a large 93 pop into the grade box.
Taking the Rest
For family reasons, I decided to take the summer off from testing. I did, however, use the time to complete the remaining review courses. I signed up for all three remaining parts in October 2008, spaced at two week intervals. Still unemployed, I was studying nearly eight hours a day, while my son was at school, with vigorous review, practice-question and practice-exam study sessions. This was interspersed with jogging or walking my dog to get some exercise and clear my head. I was quite nervous about the remaining sections, since they included the simulations. As I took each test, though, my extensive practice gave me a good deal of confidence — except on the Regulation section. There were tax questions on that exam I was sure I had no clue about. I was certain I had failed that part, and already planning to retake it in January.
The week before I took the last section, I saw an ad for my perfect job – SEC and other financial reporting, accounting research, publicly traded company, and three miles from my home. Check, check, check and check. I applied, and by Thanksgiving, precisely one year after losing my prior job, I had a job offer from The Spectranetics Corporation. Without having passed the CPA exams and being on track to receive my CPA certification, I would never have been considered for this job, and I worked for this company for eight years.
When I received my scores for the three remaining parts in December and January, I was stunned. The first 99 I was sure was a mistake. I had to refresh the website several times, maybe this was just a dummy number that came up. Ninety-nine! I couldn’t believe it. A couple of weeks later, the next score appeared… 99… and the final one, Regulation… 99. So much for my gut feeling about that exam.
In the spring of 2009 I received another shock, and literally screamed out loud when I read the email. Really — my son even ran into my office to find out what was going on. Had the Penguins just won the Stanley Cup playoffs?! Not quite. It was actually an email from the AICPA saying I’d received the 2008 Elijah Watt Sells Award for outstanding performance on the CPA Exam. I was one of only ten recipients. Fantastic news, after so many hours of hard work.
I’d passed the CPA exam, but there was still one more hurdle to overcome: I needed a year’s experience working for a public accounting firm to fulfill my state’s certification requirement. I couldn’t just start over in my career, either — I already had a good job in industry! Fortunately, the stars aligned in 2010, when Colorado passed a law opening the experience requirement to certain types of accounting work in industry. I called it Leslie’s Law, as it was just what I needed. As soon as the Colorado Board of Accountancy wrote the new rules and the new application form was ready in the summer of 2010, I completed my application. And waited. Patiently. For eight weeks. But my patience was rewarded. I received my CPA license — that very small piece of paper which holds such very big significance. Goal achieved, dream realized. It took a couple of years, a lot of long nights and even a new state law, but “The Accidental Accountant” was finally official.