Richard Huynh is part of a small group of CFE writers that achieved Honour Roll standing on the first Common Final Examination (CFE). To achieve honour roll standing is to rank in the top 52 of the thousands of CFE writers who wrote the exam. Richard is presently working for RLB LLP in Guelph and finished his Bachelor of Accounting and Financial Management from the University of Waterloo in 2015.
After the CFE results came out I got in touch with Richard and he kindly agreed to answer some questions and offer advice to CFE Blog readers.
Interview with Richard Huynh, 2015 CFE Honour Roll Standing:
How well did your undergrad program train you towards writing the CFE?
From a technical standpoint, I thought the accounting and financial management program at the University of Waterloo did a great job. I’ve only gone to UW so I can’t compare programs or anything, but I thought the curriculum was very rigorous and required a lot of hard work. It focused on accounting from the very beginning, whereas I believe other business programs specialize at a later time. Having co-op was also very useful as it allowed me to apply my in-class learning to the work place and vice-versa. This made learning some topics, like tax, much easier after seeing it at work. As for case writing, we saw a little bit of that starting in third year. However, most of the case writing comes in the diploma and Master’s programs that follow the undergrad program.
What was your study schedule like leading up to the exam? Would you change anything?
For the most part, we studied 9 am to 5 pm Mondays to Fridays starting in August (six weeks). Each week had three to four days focused on just multis (Day 3 cases) and one to two days focused on Day 1 or 2 cases. After each case, we would mark one of each other’s responses and then debrief individually afterwards (Day 1 cases were marked individually). If anyone didn’t finish debriefing, it was up to that individual to finish on their own time.
For the days with multis, we felt that we would remember more of a particular case for marking/debriefing purposes if we marked/debriefed it immediately after writing it vs writing two cases in the morning and then marking/debriefing both of them in the afternoon, but it really depends on preference. We did throw in one day where we wrote three straight multis (about two weeks before the CFE) just to get a feel for the time management required for Day 3. However, Densmore told the two of us that went that if we can manage our time for a single case, it’s not that much different doing it for three cases since you’re still just dropping everything and moving on after a certain time.
During the week of the CFE, I wrote maybe one multi. The rest of the time we spent reviewing our debriefing notes since we wanted to be mentally rested before the exam.
I don’t think I would change this approach at all. It was important that we worked hard, but not so hard that we’d burn out/peak before the exam. I know some of my friends did three multis a day and they generally stayed until 7 pm on those days. We’re already spending up to forty hours a week studying, so I think it’s important that once it turns 5 pm, that you just do anything to get the whole thing off your mind. I think it’s also important that you start taking it easier the week of the exam just so that you can give your brain a rest before the exam.
What kind of support did you get from your firm/office?
I was fortunate to work at a medium-sized firm. I had two mentors who were available to answer any questions that I had or mark cases if I needed. My firm also paid for the Densmore sessions as well as the extra Densmore cases. Study materials were covered by them too so I also bought Densmore’s competency map study notes.
Did you take any prep courses? What advice did you find most helpful?
As mentioned earlier, my firm paid for the Densmore prep course. I felt that their advice on ranking and time management were the most helpful. It’s helpful to know your technical, but if you don’t leave yourself enough time to talk about all the issues, then you risk missing out on breadth and depth on other issues since you can easily spend over half the case talking about any single issue. I initially thought it was a waste of time, but it only takes a couple of minutes to look at all the identified issues and rank the order you want to approach them (very helpful if the treatment/implications of one issue has an impact on another) and also estimate the amount of time it should take to talk about each issue (something you will get better with as your write more cases). Doing this will help you use your time more efficiently as you don’t have to go back and forth working on multiple issues at the same time (this will probably make you panic too). While writing down an estimated time will not prevent you from going over, if you’re disciplined enough, it definitely helps making it easier to know when to move on.
Are there any must have materials (books, videos, marking, tutoring, etc.)?
I honestly thought the Densmore prep course was useful and I highly recommend taking a prep course. The extra cases from Densmore were also useful since this was the first CFE and sample cases were very limited. Day 3 cases are pretty similar to the old multis so that’s not an issue, but Day 1 and 2 cases were limited to what the institute released.
As for the study notes, your mileage may vary. Some of my friends didn’t find them to be that useful since they were so summarized. However, if you wanted a more detailed explanation, you could always refer to your notes or textbooks from your university courses. I personally thought the book was useful, but that’s because I procrastinate a lot and didn’t have time to refer to more detailed notes (I used the book during my master’s program when studying for some of the exams).
Did you work with a partner or group as part of your studying for the CFE?
Yes, I worked in a group of four. I’d advise having at least three since you may get too used to your partner’s writing over the span of six weeks. If your partner can guess what you’re trying to say, that’s not good since they’ll likely give you the benefit of the doubt. However, the actual markers don’t know what you’re thinking/assuming so you may not get the benefit of the doubt on the actual CFE if your answer is unclear. The additional benefit of having more than two people is that you get different perspectives when receiving feedback and that each person should hopefully have different strengths that they can contribute when a question comes up. However, if you have too many people, each individual may not get the amount of attention/help they need and it can sometimes turn into a party.
Overall, I think three is probably the best number, but if you want more, I wouldn’t have more than four.
How important was rest and mental health for you as part of the studying process?
For me, it’s not that important. I don’t need much sleep to function and can actually write exams off of less than one hour of sleep (thank you mutated BHLHE41 gene). However, as emphasized at the Densmore prep sessions, it’s still important to be well rested for the three days. As already mentioned, it’s important to take it easy going into the final week (spend less time writing cases and more time on reviewing your notes). I personally don’t recommend going all out when studying if you don’t need to. You end up being less stressed as you spend less time worrying about the exam and there is a lower chance that you’ll burn out before the exam. Also, doing a couple of extra cases isn’t going to help you that much in my opinion. Sure you’ll see different case facts and potentially different situations, but how you answer each situation doesn’t change. Hopefully after six weeks of regular studying, you’ll have all the required tools to answer most of the situations that could come up.
What gave you’re the most trouble in your case writing?
Although I got better, time management was the hardest obstacle for me to overcome. When you know the answer, it’s hard to just cut your answer off and move onto something else. For example, some financial reporting issues have so many criteria that it can be very easy to spend too much time on that single issue. Another example is when you do quants and have all the numbers to work with. However, if you look at some of the marking guides, all it takes to get competent is maybe using half of the numbers (ex. correctly using 5/10 of the numbers in your quant). Consciously omitting something from your answer is hard and takes time to get used to, but it will definitely help on the actual exam.
What do you think many people do wrong as part of the CFE prep process?
I haven’t really talked to anyone that failed so I’m not entirely sure. However, I would guess that they focused on the wrong things as they were studying. It’s easy to try to master your technical skills, but doing so might result in you neglecting your case writing skills. The resources are there in Securexam, so as long as you can effectively use that, you don’t need to have everything memorized. As mentioned numerous times already, being able to manage your time will allow you to reduce the risk that you miss talking about any particular issue in sufficient depth.
It’s also critical that you properly plan before you start your response. This not only helps organize all the key facts mentioned in the case, but will save you time from having to constantly go back to the actual case and rereading it. Sometimes I can remember enough about a particular excerpt just from my planning notes and can address the issue without referring back to the case.
Learning how to use the handbook and knowing where to find specific criteria is critical as this can save a lot of time and can help add depth since you’d be applying case facts to handbook criteria.
What was the most challenging for you on the exam?
There were two things that I found very challenging. The first was the format and style of the Day 1 case. The CPAO only gave us two sample Day 1 cases to work with and they were nearly identical aside from the technical issues involved. The Day 1 case on the exam was completely different so I was quite shocked and this resulted in me panicking a bit, but I’m glad I was able to overcome this.
The other challenge related to an issue for the assurance role on the Day 2 case. I’m sure most people who did the assurance role know what issue I’m talking about, but it was something that was never covered in my curriculum (probably because of how unlikely it was that we actually needed to know it for anything) and was never encountered during any of my work terms. Fortunately, I had spent time learning where to find things in the handbook and was able to find the applicable sections on the topic rather quickly. Also, by allocating enough time to that particular issue and saving it for last, I didn’t really panic at all because I had time to read those sections for the first time ever and do some learning during the exam.
How did you feel walking out of the exam? Did you know you did so well?
No, not at all. I’m sure like most people I thought I failed after the exam. My largest concern was the Day 1 case. People in general thought that was the easiest day since it focused more on enabling competencies instead of technical competencies. However, I thought I made a “fatal flaw” (whatever that means) by not doing a single exhibit since quantitative analysis is an enabling competency. I basically only used Excel as a calculator since I didn’t like the calculator that the CPAO provided and so the only quantitative analysis I did were quick one-to-two line calculations within Word. Although it turned out okay for me, I don’t recommend doing this on Day 1.
I wasn’t too worried about Day 2. You don’t need to get competent on every indicator to get depth in your role so I was fine if I messed up an issue or two (particular that one random one mentioned earlier).
Day 3 was so-so for me. I feel that it’s harder to get breadth on all the competencies if you only have three cases to do so (compared to having two days of multis for the UFE). In my opinion, if you mess up on one case then you really have to hit reaching competence on the other cases or else you might not hit the breadth requirement.
With that being said, I was worried about tax and strategy. The tax issues were not the ones that I am more comfortable with and the Income Tax Act in Securexam is completely useless so there was a lot of educated guessing going on there. As for the strategy issues, I sometimes struggled with those throughout my prepping. Strategy indicators are not as obvious to me as the other issues and so I was afraid that I didn’t pick up on all of them. Also, Day 3 was heavy on management accounting (not guaranteed to be like this in the future) so a lot of quants were involved if I recall correctly. Although I’ve been preaching time management this entire time, I was over my time budget from the get go and ended up using more than the allotted time for the first and second multis, resulting in 15 less minutes than suggested for the last case. It actually could have been worse, but by at least being conscious about it, I was able to cut back on some of my other issues to help gain back some time that I lost for the last case.
If you were tutoring future candidates, what would be your top tips for them?
After you do your planning, rank your issues and consider if any issues feed into other issues. It’s frustrating and can result in an inefficient use of time trying to address an issue when your answer requires something from another issue that you haven’t done yet.
After you rank, estimate how much time is required to address each issue and keep track of the time. If you’re about to go over budget, move onto the next issue. Don’t risk spending too much time on one issue as this could result in a subpar answer for another issue.
Learn how to use the handbook efficiently. Know where certain criteria can be found by making use of the table of contents or the search function. If you know keywords (ex. Searching up “feasibility” in HB3064 will get you to the six criteria for internally developed intangibles), use them.
Know your tax well. The Income Tax Act in Securexam is more than useless in my opinion (at least the search function). If you can use the ITA as effectively as the handbook, you deserve the gold medal.
Aim for competent, not competent with distinction. As you study for the exam, learn what is expected to achieve competent. For example, you do not need to be 100% accurate and use all the available numbers for a quant. Based on my experience, using 50-75% of the numbers correctly should be good enough for competent.
Any last advice you’d like to impart on future writers?
Try to have fun at the same time. Don’t just focus on studying the entire time. Once it is 5 pm, stop thinking about this and enjoy the rest of your day. At the end of the day, it’s just an exam and you can always rewrite it if you don’t pass.
I want to thank Richard for taking the time to give us such a detailed account of his CFE experience and actionable tips. I think every candidate can get some take aways here. I asked Richard what was next for him in his career.
I’m not too sure since my work experience has been limited to public accounting. For now, I’m just focused on getting the rest of my hours, but I’ll see where life takes me afterwards. My firm treats me pretty well so if anything, I’ll just stay in public accounting. I would love to work abroad at some point in my life though.
You can connect with Richard Huynh on LinkedIn. If you have any questions, Richard has also agreed to keep an eye on the comments and stop by to answer so, what would you like to ask Richard?
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