Great Valley graduate earns Elijah Watt Sells Award for CPA exam performance

Mike Donnelly standing outside

Master of Professional Accounting graduate Mike Donnelly was one of only 50 students nationwide to receive the 2022 Elijah Watt Sells Award from the American Institute of CPA.

Credit: Mike Donnelly

MALVERN, Pa. — Penn State Great Valley Master of Professional Accounting graduate Mike Donnelly was recently awarded the prestigious Elijah Watt Sells Award for his performance on the Uniform Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Examination. Each year, the American Institute of CPAs presents the award to CPA candidates who pass all four sections of the exam on their first attempt and have a cumulative average score above 95.5 across all sections.

Of the nearly 67,000 people who took the CPA exam in 2022, only 50 met the criteria for the award. For Donnelly, being part of such a select group is thanks in large part to how thoroughly Great Valley’s program helped prepare him for the exam, he said.

“I had excellent professors in the program, and they all cared about my success,” Donnelly said. “All the major topics [on the CPA exam] were covered in some way, shape or form in class. It was another way for me to get exposure to that information which made it easier when I had to go through and study for the exam itself after I graduated.”

Donnelly currently works at Merck, an international biopharmaceutical company, in global workplace enterprise services, but didn’t follow a “typical” path to a career in accounting. As an undergraduate at the College of New Jersey, he started out as a physics major, switched to mechanical engineering and then considered a few other majors before deciding on finance. The further he got into his finance degree, the more Donnelly realized he enjoyed accounting. But by that point, he said, he decided he didn’t want to change majors again and delay his graduation.

After finishing his undergraduate degree, Donnelly began a job in internal auditing — closely related to accounting — which solidified his desire to pursue accounting further, he said. He researched a few Philadelphia-area master’s degrees in accounting, took several core accounting courses online to bolster his background knowledge, and decided to enroll in Great Valley’s program because of its in-person evening classes and the flexibility it offered part-time students.

The skills Donnelly learned at Great Valley extended past the CPA exam, too. He’s held a variety of roles at Merck and said he enjoys delving into different areas to broaden his experience. Although none of his roles have been strictly as an accountant, aspects of accounting have been present in every position.

“I do draw my accounting knowledge from Penn State and the CPA a lot,” Donnelly said. “It just makes it a lot easier. You could do these jobs without being a CPA, but it’s just another obstacle that makes everything harder for you if you don’t have that background knowledge. I have nothing but good things to say about the program.”