CFE Honour Roll Interview – Strategies from Jonathan

I chatted with Jonathan, an Honour Roll student from CPA CFE 2019. Below is the partial interview and transcript.



Why don’t we start with your background, could you tell us a little about yourself?
I live in Melfort, Saskatchewan, I work at MNP, I’m a designated professional there, so I just got my letters a couple of weeks ago. I graduated from the University of Saskatchewan, with high honours and great distinction there, and I actually wrote honours thesis paper that’s being published in the American Accounting Association Journal this February.

Why don’t you tell us about your CFE prep schedule, for example, how many weeks did you take off and how many hours did you study?
For sure. I took off from start of Capstone 2 onwards, I took a couple of weeks off before, just to relax and get ready, which I would highly recommend if you can, because it was really nice, I found that after a little bit of time off I was ready to start doing something again, so I could get started right into studying full-time.

I took 8-weeks off in total. I studied every day Monday to Friday from 8 to 5, I took a lunch in that time, I treated it like it was my full-time job during that time and then at 5 o’clock I stopped studying. I would just take the evening off and relax like I normally would if I was just working. I tried to maintain as much consistency as I could from working full-time to studying full-time for those 2 months.

Can you tell us how you debrief your cases?
Yeah, so I debrief a lot, I would say compared to some of my cohorts that were at the same firm, I would say I debriefed the most. I really valued that debrief time because I use that as a study period. Instead of just looking at the solution, I would use my debrief time to really dive in, to understand fully where the solution was coming from, what exact handbook reference do they refer to, how they applied them. When I was prepping, I was told that you should spend equal time as the case was to debrief and I definitely did that, if there was a 5-hour case, I spent at least 5 hours debriefing it. That was my main study resource, I never spent a whole day studying technical, most of my technical study was through debrief, so I would spend (for a 5-hour case) the whole next day debriefing.
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I would have tabs in the tracking sheet for each kind of Assessment Opportunities (Management Accounting, Financial Reporting, Assurance, etc. all six of them) and then every case I would type in what was tested, what you were supposed to do, and how I performed on it.

Once you went through this process and you got to CFE, was there anything that surprised you, when you actually got to Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, or was it like you expected?
I found it to be exactly but I expected it to be. For Day 2, we were warned ahead of time that there’s going to be FR [Financial Reporting] issues that you’re not going to know about, so I wasn’t surprised by them necessarily. I was surprised because I didn’t know about them, but I wasn’t surprised that there ones that I hadn’t studied yet.

Knowing that going in, there was really nothing on there that was out of the normal or bizarre, I would say, I found everything to be very, very expected, in how the questions were provided, how many assessment opportunities there are going to be, etc.

Do you use a computer outline or a paper outline?
I did not know what to do on the first day of Capstone 2.

I was a little overwhelmed. Other people knew what their approach was, going in there, their mentor told them to do this so they’re doing it, so I felt a little overwhelmed because I didn’t know what my approach was going to be.

In PEP [Professional Education Program], it wasn’t as essential, because I felt like I had more time in those exams or I could make up time easier so I didn’t feel as pressured to really nail down a strategy, whereas in the CFE, you don’t have extra time. So I played it by ear and tried out some different things, I found on Day 1 and 2, I did my outline on the computer and I did my outline very [in-depth], it was really fleshed out, it had the full AO [assessment opportunities] on it and it had a lot of points that linked back to the analysis underneath it so that it was kind of ready to roll, so that when I was actually writing my response, I was typing in, fleshing out the details, and done.

On Day 3, I didn’t outline on the computer, because I didn’t have enough time. Instead, I would just, on a piece of paper, I write down how many AOs were there, and the highlight of them (FR, Assurance, weakness-implication-recommendation) so I would do the highlights and then do how much time I have for each one, because it was such a short case, that I felt that I didn’t need to flesh out [the details]. I didn’t outline Day 3, it depends on what works for you, I could remember all of them and I found I was wasting time as I was outlining, I could have just been working on the answer.

But on Day 2, I really needed to outline, after 3 and 1/2 hours, it’s a lot of typing and it’s a lot of thinking, and you’re starting to get tired. I found it really beneficial that in that first hour, I had already fleshed out, you know, AO#8, so that at least when I’m typing it out I kind of already have a benchmark to go on and then I just need to flesh in the details and provide recommendation, what it may be.

(I totally agree with you, you just don’t have the time to do that in Day 3. Sometimes there is not even a point, because the requireds are a little obvious, they are jumping out at you).

Exactly, and you know there’s only there’s only gonna be 4-6, so it’s not as Day 2, 14 or 15 of them. You’re not gonna remember what 12 is vs 14, in hour 4, when you’re exhausted.

You mentioned earlier that you had a mentor assigned to you. Can you tell us a little bit about that and if you had just one mentor and if you had a study partner that you studied with and what was that like?
I selected the mentor, but it was all provided through the firm. I really valued having a mentor.

We didn’t live in the same location, but we chatted on the phone once a week, to talk how the week was and things like that. It was just really nice having a mentor because they’ve been through the process, so they know what to say to you, they know what you’re going through.

My mentor had just wrote in the last couple of years, she remembered the practice cases. When I said to her I just did this case, she said, “Oh, I remember that case, that one was terrible!” That was really nice, they knew exactly what I was going through, I really enjoyed that.

I did not have a study partner, I did everything independently at home. I did that the whole way through University and through CPA PEP, so for me that works and that was my preference, because I didn’t want to feel like I was comparing my performance to someone else’s, and I didn’t want to feel like I was holding someone else back because I wanted to study this more or vice versa, because I heard, leading up to it, that someone doesn’t want to study Day 1, for example, but you do, so I felt it was easier if I did it on my own.

Having a mentor was awesome, it was so important to me because they helped me stay grounded and continually remind me that Perfection is not the expectation and that was so important.

If there’s one, single best advice that you would give to future CFE writers, what would that advice be?
Just stay calm and relaxed during the whole process.

Without my mentor, I know I would have spiralled into a super stressed-out, high-strung state, during that whole 8-week and that is not what you need to do prepping for it.

It’s like what you said before about when you peak, you really want to peak at the end of the 8 weeks. If you are high-strung, if you’re studying all night in week 2, you’re not going to make it to week 8. For me that was really hard, because I’m used to [in] University studying all night, try to get the perfect answers, it was a really different study approach for me, but it was so essential, because I could have never maintained a full day and night study pattern for 8 weeks. On the day of the exam, I would have been totally burned out.

Let’s go into a little more technical side of things, we spoke about case outlining and how you do Day 1 and Day 2 on the computer, can you walk us through the exact steps?

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