When writing CPA Canada PEP and CFE exams, planning your approach and AO times in an outline is a key component of passing. With the option to do the outline on paper vs. computer, many candidates question which approach is better. Check out the below considerations when deciding which method is best for you!
- Outline will always be in front of you. You don’t need to spend time scrolling up and down to check your plan. This will help you better stick to your allocated time and ensure you are answering the AOs fully.
- You have more flexibility in positioning and formatting the outline in the way you want. You can draw arrows, highlight, and circle key items on your outline easily. Computer outlines don’t provide the same flexibility.
- You can easily cross off and markup AOs from your plan as you complete them. This will help you keep track of how many AOs you have left to complete and any that you need to return to. For example, you can put a “?” sign next to AOs you did not fully complete to remind yourself to return to them. In an electronic outline, the same question mark may get lost in the paragraphs of text.
- You can easily highlight and match AOs with key background information and appendices directly, instead of relying on a summary (which could take more time to write/type out). For example, you can highlight in blue color an AO in the narrative. When you see case facts related to the same AO in appendices, you can highlight with the same blue color to keep track of the information.
- Paper outline is more time consuming as handwriting takes longer than typing. This is valuable time taken away from preparing your answer.
- There is a risk you may not be able to read your handwriting (if your handwriting is as bad as mine), or your outline could get smudged if you erase or rub it. This may cause you to miss out on critical points for your analysis. Electronic outlines don’t have the same problems.
- Per CPA Canada exam rules, you can’t use a pen or mechanical pencil for the PEP and CFE exams. This will cause your writing to be messier as HB pencils are not as sharp.
Electronic (computer) Outline
- Allows you to prepare your answer faster, since you don’t have to re-write items from the paper outline to the computer once you’ve completed it. You can easily copy and paste items from your outline to your answer, or convert your outline into your final answer.
- There is flexibility in re-ordering your electronic outline as you can easily change the ordering of AOs by cutting and pasting them to their new positions. You can also leave blank space between AOs in your outline so detail can be filled in as you read the case and gather more / new information. Paper outline doesn’t give the same flexibility because there is limited space.
- You can create a time budget in Excel faster than on paper (see example here).
- If you run out of time, you at least have something on your computer already to build your answer from, such as the key issue and critical case facts. You may get RC for this if you have enough relevant content.
- You can build the structure of your response around your outline and less time is needed to restate the issue statements. This provides a smooth transition to typing out your answers.
- There is reduced risk of missing a required that you forgot to transcribe from paper to your computer, assuming your computer outline is well organized.
- Saves you time from flipping between case papers and outline to capture all the requireds.
- For long cases, you will have to scroll up and down from section to section to stick to your plan. This takes time and may cause you to lose track of AOs. To solve this, I recommend students to create their outline as a “skeleton” (by using templates) and convert it into their final answer. This is better than typing your entire outline at the top of the memo and copying below as your answer AOs.
- You must capture all AOs and key case facts by typing them out. This will be more time consuming for long cases that have extensive detail, or if your typing speed is slow. The recommended minimum typing speed for CPA Canada exams is 40-45 WPM. You can check your typing speed here.
- Typing out has shown to be less effective for remembering and interpreting information than writing them out by hand.
I recommend electronic outline for most candidates due to its speed, flexibility and ability to convert your outline into your final answer. To be successful with electronic outlines, you must have good organization skills and efficient case writing. In my interviews with Honour Roll students, I found some students prefer paper outlines while others prefer computer outlines. Ultimately it’s not the method that defines your exam success, but your approach, organization and practice.
Regardless of the method chosen, you should be practicing your outlining skills on each case you write. Try attempting both methods and determine which one is most effective and efficient for you. I show examples of both outlines and explain how to outline like Honour Roll students in my PEP and CFE success courses.