Pennsylvania accounting students test themselves in XBRL essay contest

Sharp technical skills are a must to find success in the field of accounting, but so is the ability to communicate clearly. Accounting programs are emphasizing writing skills more than ever, and the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA) gives students another incentive - prize money.

The PICPA awarded a total of $4,000 earlier this year to three business students who presented the best essays in its annual Student Writing Competition.

"In private industry, we want to hire people who are good technically, but we also want to hire people who are good in communication," said Steven Blum, CPA, and chair of PICPA's Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. "Sometimes our only work product is the written document, so it becomes extremely important that these graduates can communicate effectively."

The competition, which began in 1976, gives students the opportunity to flex their writing muscles, delve into a "real-world" issue and write a 1,500-word essay that could be published in the Pennsylvania CPA Journal. This year, the theme was, "Will XBRL Revolutionize Financial Reporting?"

Blum, who is managing director of FTI Consulting in King of Prussia, PA, said the topics change every year, and XBRL, or Extensible Business Reporting Language, was a timely issue for this year's contest. "Everything I was hearing was that we're serious, and this is the direction we're moving in, and given the technology slant to it, I thought it would be of interest to a lot of students."

The winning essays are independently researched, original, and well thought-out. "I think this is a good add-on to their curriculum," he said. "It makes some of what they're doing in class a little more interesting because they can apply it to a real question."

The competition is open to undergraduate students attending Pennsylvania colleges and universities who are pursuing majors in accounting or business. Eighty students participated this year. The first-place $2,000 winner was Michelle Ormsby of Villanova University, whose essay, "XBRL: The Language You Need to Know," was published in the Fall 2008 issue of the Journal. Amanda Cioban of Elizabethtown College won second place and $1,200, and third place went to Gail Heffelfinger of Moravian College, who won $800. The accounting programs of the winning students received $1,000, $600 and $400, respectively. Read all the winning essays.

The 2009 competition asks students to discuss fair value accounting.

Blum said he would like to see the contest expand, so even more schools and students participate. "I would love to see students get involved in some element of the accounting profession as early as possible," he said.

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