It's a 14-hour rite of passage split into four parts. It tests knowledge, organization, and expression through its battery of questions. Those who pass each section with a minimum score of 75 percent earn the time-honored initials that signify technical excellence. It is the Certified Public Accountants licensing exam, and its difficulty is so renowned that the long-standing joke among accountants is that CPA exam centers serve as their profession's unofficial reunion headquarters.
Difficult as the exam may be, Tull School graduates consistently distinguish themselves by recording first-time CPA exam pass rates that are two and a half to three times higher than the national average. And one of the people who is responsible for this remarkable showing is accounting professor Linda Bamber, who has won more than a dozen teaching awards since joining the Terry College faculty in 1990.
"Tull School Director Ben Ayers does a great job of making sure that people who excel as teachers are appreciated for that function — and that's really unique," says Bamber, who was honored in 2009 with the prestigious Outstanding Accounting Educator Award, which is given for lifetime achievement by the American Accounting Association.
In accepting the award, Bamber paid tribute to her colleagues in the Tull School.
"It's because my colleagues collectively devote so much effort to teaching that we're able to deliver rigorous courses leading to the second-highest pass rate in the country on the CPA exam," says Bamber, who was referring to the most recently available statistics from the 2007 CPA licensing exam, which showed Tull graduates ranking No. 2 in the country with a 78 percent pass rate.
It was 1975 when Bamber, then an undergraduate, stacked her fall course schedule so she could devote 40-50 hours per week to prepare for the CPA exam during her final semester at Wake Forest.
"It never occurred to me that I would pass the entire exam the first time," she recalls. "All I wanted to do was get some parts completed, so next time I could take fewer parts."
Bamber couldn't imagine feeling more out of her element when she entered Winston Salem's convention center in her "lucky exam clothes" and saw 500-600 people seated at row upon row of large wooden tables — and, even on test day, most were dressed for success.
"I was wearing a pair of jeans, a funky-looking top, and my hair was in pigtails with red ribbons," Bamber recalls. "I show up looking like I'm in junior high, and there are all of these people in suits…I was so intimidated, thinking what am I doing here?"
Apprehensive because she finished the exam 45 minutes early, Bamber was even more surprised when she learned she had nailed all four parts of the exam, scoring in the top one and a half percent of all candidates and earning national recognition as an Elijah Watt Sells Award Finalist.
Bamber draws upon that experience to prepare Terry students for their eventual transition from college to a client service industry. Because the demands of the corporate world can wreak havoc on studying, Bamber gives long-form, evening exams in her Cost Accounting 5100 course to simulate the testing environment of the CPA exam.
"I want my students to have the same experience I had — to be in the CPA exam and think, this is a piece of cake compared to what I did at school!" says Bamber. "I want them to be surprised and delighted by the idea that school prepared them so well."
From her desk drawer Bamber pulls out a thick, red packet that she creates for students in her cost accounting class.
"I have handouts for every chapter that explain why you should be interested in the topic, what is important to get out of the chapter, and helpful hints."
This customized course supplement is currently 272 pages long, and it's crammed full of business press articles, problems more difficult than the textbook offers, plus case studies and writing assignments.
"I have to coordinate this with the syllabus, library materials, and my black board site," says Bamber.
Updating this material has become one of Bamber's summertime rituals for the past 20 years, but it is this type of instructional planning that is necessary to stay abreast of current accounting practices. The field is so quick to evolve with continual rule changes — making it difficult, if not impossible, for the textbook industry to keep up.
When students get this kind of return on their educational investment, it makes a big impression on them, says Bamber, who lauds Tull graduates for showing the kind of loyalty that resulted in more than 90 percent of the 2009 graduating class pledging an average of more than $1,000 each to support the school over the next five years.