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Master’s in Accounting: Rachel Knapp, University of Illinois (Gies)

Student Name: Rachel Knapp

Graduate Business School: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Gies College of Business

Describe Yourself In 15 Words: Mission-driven professional problem-solver.

Master’s Graduation Class: 2019.

Undergraduate School and Major: Columbia University, Physics.

Current Employer and Job Title: Higher Ground Education Inc., VP, Financial and Accounting Systems.

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: Before cloud-based accounting systems had become standard, I coded a customized online reporting package from scratch and linked it to our company’s accounting system. This helped replace a slew of paper-based static reports with on-demand reporting in real-time.

Describe your biggest accomplishment as a graduate student: One of the most challenging projects I undertook (with a team) was analyzing a large data set using machine learning techniques and preparing a video presentation to a fictional client. Grappling with these difficult concepts, which were new to me, to the extent of being able to explain them to someone who knew nothing about them was very valuable and satisfying to me as a student. In the last six months of the program, I also passed all four parts of the CPA exam, earning scores high enough to qualify for the Elijah Watt Sells Award.

What was the key factor that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? After over a decade of professional accounting experience, I decided to finally pursue my CPA license. With no prior coursework in accounting, I knew I would need substantial formal education. I explored dozens of ways of meeting the requirements and decided quickly that since it would be a significant investment of time and money, I wouldn’t be satisfied with just finding a way to tick all the boxes—I wanted an educational experience that would be challenging, rigorous, and worth doing on its own terms. The iMSA program at Gies Business stood out as I could see it was exactly what I wanted. It also had all the other features I was looking for. It was an easy decision to make.

What led you to choose a Master’s in Accounting over an MBA? Because of the specific CPA educational requirements I was looking to satisfy in my home state, an MBA program would not have met my needs. I didn’t consider getting an MBA degree for that reason, however I always like to keep learning so I may consider an MBA in the future.

What has been your favorite course and how has it helped you in your career? It’s hard to choose, but I would have to say Managerial Accounting (taught by Professor Gary Hecht). It was the first accounting course I had ever taken, and it was eye-opening. As a self-taught accountant, I had figured out a lot on my own, but I learned a tremendous amount about the underlying principles and methods of managerial accounting. The course also gave me a deeper appreciation of the managerial accounting function (as distinct from financial accounting) and its essential role in business success.

What role did your school play in helping you to land your first job out of the program? I haven’t switched employers since starting the program, but I work at a rapidly growing company. My role has shifted a number of times, both while I was in the program and since. Completing the program, as well as receiving my CPA license, has increased my confidence level in being able to take on different roles and tackle new business challenges.

How did your classmates enhance the value of your business school experience? One thing I loved about the iMSA program was how much interaction I had with fellow students all over the world. This surprised me, as I had not expected an online learning experience to be so interactive. I also had the chance to work with people from diverse backgrounds, including not only fellow accountants, but also attorneys, small business owners, retirees, and recent graduates just getting started.

Who was your favorite faculty member and how did this person enrich your learning? Again, hard to choose here given the stellar caliber of Gies faculty, but I will have to go again with Professor Gary Hecht who taught Managerial Accounting. He encouraged active participation in live classes without ever letting it become a free-for-all.

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s graduate Master’s program? I think this program is ideal for someone who can bring prior professional experience to the table, with ambition to go further in their career. 

What was your best memory from your Master’s program? My favorite experience was working on case study write-ups with my first group. We’d meet often on Zoom, talking through ideas and live-editing until we had something we were proud of. We’d often keep chatting after the work was done, and I still count the members of that group as friends today.