Caleb Hagemeister is part of a small group of CFE writers that achieved Medallist standing on the first Common Final Examination (CFE). Caleb received the Western Region Gold Medal for highest standing in Western Canada. To achieve honour roll standing is to rank above the thousands of CFE writers who wrote the exam this sitting. Caleb is presently working for MNP LLP in Medicine Hat, Alberta and received his Bachelor of Management(Accounting) from the University of Lethbridge in 2012.
After the CFE results came out I got in touch with Caleb and he kindly agreed to answer some questions and offer advice to CFE Blog readers.
Interview with Caleb Hagemeister, 2015 CFE Western Canada Gold Medallist:
How well did your undergrad program train you towards writing the CFE?
I would say that my undergrad program provided me with the basic accounting knowledge necessary to get hired at my job and allow me to perform my duties there. Also, the undergrad program provided me with the entry level of knowledge to begin the CPA PEP program through CPA Western School of Business (CPAWSB). It is a necessary stepping stone in order to begin your accounting career. In CPA PEP you are given scenarios that are relatively life-like, but are still quite “perfect world” scenarios, compared to what you actually see at work. University was always that “perfect world” scenario where everything worked out nicely, but when you’re preparing for and writing the CFE, it never quite works out that way. CPAWSB and the preparation for the CFE were definitely an eye opener for me, as they challenged me more than anything I had seen in my undergrad program. Ultimately I would say that the undergrad program provided the beginning of the foundation or the “starter kit” building blocks for my accounting career.
What was your study schedule like leading up to the exam? Would you change anything?
I studied Monday to Friday 8am to 4pm from July 27 to September 11 in an office I have at my house. I allotted myself two 15 minute breaks, one after I wrote my first case in the morning (usually around 10am) and one after I wrote my afternoon case (usually around 2pm). I would also allow myself 30 minutes for lunch. I would take weekends off completely during that time frame. I did some review September 12 – September 15, but it was very, very minimal. On days where I would write cases, the first case would be at 8am and I wrote until it was done, and then take my break and debrief until lunch. If there was a case in the afternoon I would repeat these steps after lunch. On days where I would write one of the 4 hour or 5 hour cases, I would ignore my 15 minute morning break and lunch until the cases were completed.
All cases were written under exam conditions and in Securexam. On days where I just studied technical I followed the break schedules noted above. I also kept very detailed notes on how I assessed myself on the indicators of each case and where I needed to improve.
The one thing that I would change is how I treated myself after we wrote the mock exam and I had a couple of bad cases. I was very negative and hard on myself for about a week and it was truly counterproductive. It is crucial to maintain a positive attitude and build yourself up, not knock yourself down.
What kind of support did you get from your firm/office?
My firm provided excellent support for the exam preparation. We were allowed to take the duration of Capstone 2 off and they provided a certain number of study days during that period. Additionally, I had two mentors from within the firm that helped mark my cases and provide feedback whenever I asked. My mentors really helped give me the confidence I needed to keep slugging through the cases after some of the tougher ones. Furthermore, the firm also put on a CFE prep course, which was 3 days long, if I remember correctly. This course involved going over various techniques writers had used in the past, writing cases and debriefing with some of our designated professionals. All in all they provided tremendous support in order to best prepare us for the test.
Did you take any prep courses? What advice did you find most helpful?
I took the CFE prep course that my firm put on and I went through Capstone 2 in CPAWSB, which was a prep course. I didn’t take the Densmore course, but I did purchase the books.
The advice that I found most useful were probably the acronyms:
- IGAR – Issue, GAAP, Analysis Recommendation;
- ITAR – Issue, Tax Act Reference, Analysis, Recommendation;
- WIR – Weakness, Implication, Recommendation;
- RAMP – Risk, Approach, Materiality, Procedures; and
- RASP – Risk, Assertion, Specific Risk Area and Procedure).
As simple as it sounds, these acronyms truly helped ensure that I hit depth on the indicators. Also, repeatedly being told that I needed to take it a step further and say to myself “so what?” This is a weakness… so what or because… It is crucial not just to regurgitate case facts, but to apply them and take it that step further. Making sure your procedures were specific enough was also very important, or basically describing your procedures as if you were talking to someone with no formal accounting training. Listening to past writers who were successful is a great idea, as they can impart wisdom and provide insight on how to best prepare your response.
Are there any must have materials (books, videos, marking, tutoring, etc.)?
It’s not necessarily a material, but I would say having a mentor is a “must have material”. Having someone to coach you and provide you with feedback is a great way to help yourself succeed. As far as actual materials go, the CPA Densmore book was fairly helpful for some of the topics (Assurance, Tax, Finance, Strategy & Governance). I personally preferred Densmore’s UFE book for Financial Reporting compared to the Densmore CFE book, as I preferred the organization better, but that may just be me being picky.
Having plenty of cases to write is also a “must have material”, so I would highly recommend that future writers have as many cases on hand as possible. CPAWSB provided quite a few cases to help prepare, but the additional cases I wrote over the summer really helped with the case writing and making sure I was hitting depth where I needed to.
Did you work with a partner or group as part of your studying for the CFE?
I did not have a partner or work in a group as a part of my studying for the CFE. I spoke with several people that I went through CPA PEP with about the cases and got their thoughts and opinions on the cases we were writing, but I did not have a designated partner. I generally prefer to study alone, and then bounce ideas off friends / colleagues after I have spent time writing the case or going over the material to discuss their thoughts. I’ve heard of the partner / group system working for others, the writers just need to find what works best for them.
How important was rest and mental health for you as part of the studying process?
Rest and mental health are incredibly important while you are preparing for the exam, or at least in my opinion. At 4pm each day or shortly thereafter I would power down the laptop and go and enjoy my evening. I worked out 5 days a week to help keep stress levels down during the summer. The first 4 to 5 weeks weren’t overly stressful, as you still had that sense of “there is still time left to turn it around”, but once it started to get into September reality began to set in. I kept very firm to that schedule I outlined above. Between September 12 to September 15, I put in a few hours here and there, but by the end you either know it or you don’t. There is no sense trying to learn something new and scaring yourself resulting in a downward spiral. Taking weekends off was also very important, as I was able to unwind on the weekends and prepare myself for another week of hard studying. Keep in mind that I had the luxury of taking the summer off to study, because I’m with a public accounting firm. The people in industry did not have that same luxury. I feel for the people who had to work 8 – 10 hours a day and then go home and study. Regardless, I still believe it is important to provide yourself with some rest or mental health breaks, whenever possible. Studying for the CFE is a marathon, not a sprint.
What gave you’re the most trouble in your case writing?
There were many things that gave me trouble during the summer. Probably not hitting sufficient depth most of the time was what gave me the most trouble during the summer with my case writing, or hitting sufficient depth on a couple of topics, but not enough to achieve ‘‘Competent’’. Time management was never particularly an issue, but getting enough information out in such a short timespan could be tricky depending on how many accounting issues needed to be addressed to hit competent or what have you. I’ve been told on several occasions that I’m a wordy writer, so cutting down and getting to the point was also something I had to work on over the course of the summer.
Would you say you had any unique strengths or weaknesses?
I was fortunate enough to work in a mid-size firm in a smaller city, so I saw plenty of assurance and taxation and other crucial components in my day to day tasks. My assurance experience was also well rounded as I saw PSAB, ASPE, IFRS and NPO. I dealt with personal and corporate tax on a daily basis as well, which also helped. Seeing such a breadth of issues in my job helped with my studying and preparation for the exam. I don’t know if this necessarily is a ‘‘unique strength’’, but I definitely think it helped me in the long run. As far as unique weaknesses go, I would say my own personal criticism of myself could be considered a weakness. I’m critical of myself, so if I think I’m not performing where I need to be, I can become quite hard on myself. It came up a couple times over the course of the summer and my mentors had to provide me with some confidence that I was on the right track. You need to make sure you don’t let you beat yourself before you even get into the exam.
What do you think many people do wrong as part of the CFE prep process?
I’m not exactly sure, because everyone is different, but I think that not taking the process or the exam serious enough is where many people go wrong in their CFE prep process. Many of the successful writers from prior years would tell me to treat the studying like it’s a job. Work hard, take it seriously and try your absolute best. Your results ultimately reflect the level of effort you put in. If you don’t practice how you plan to play you can’t expect to be successful. Write the cases under exam conditions. Write the practice cases in Securexam. Stick to the time guidelines for the cases. Properly debrief your cases and don’t just look at the solution.
What was the most challenging for you on the exam?
Day 1 was quite different than what we had seen in the practice cases that CPAWSB had designed for us. I walked out of Day 1 thinking to myself, “What the heck did I just write about?”. Adapting to the Day 1 scenario that they gave us was particularly difficult, but once I accepted that the indicators just were what they were, I wrote about them and hoped that what I had written was sufficient. I found Day 2 to be the most challenging. I can’t really go into any of the specifics of the case, but there was one indicator where I was legitimately stumped. I was able to type up some stuff that I thought was right, based on prior courses / experience, but I was entirely unsure of what they were actually looking for. They also threw a couple of curves at us with this case, but I suppose that is to be expected with the CFE/UFE.
How did you feel walking out of the exam? Did you know you did so well?
After Day 1 I was confused and had no idea how I actually did on the case. I felt like I was having writers block and I wasn’t able to get out everything that I wanted to, but that was probably for the best as I’m too wordy anyways. After Day 2 I was convinced that I had failed, because I found the case to be incredibly difficult and just wasn’t sure if I hit sufficient depth on the indicators. After Day 3, I felt like there was some hope that I could still pass. Day 3 was the only day I walked out of and thought I actually did OK. I was honestly just hoping to pass, because I thought I had failed after that Day 2 case. It was the biggest surprise to find out that I had won the Regional Gold Medal for Western Canada.
If you were tutoring future candidates, what would be your top tips for them?
Write the cases under exam conditions (ear plugs – if you use them, calculator, pencils, scrap paper, paper copies of the cases, following the time frames to complete the cases, writing in Securexam, etc.). Use acronyms to help you achieve depth in your cases (IGAR, ITAR, WIR, RAMP, RASP – explained earlier). Organize your cases so that they are easy for the marker to read and understand. Treat your studying and preparation seriously, put in your best effort and you will likely be rewarded for efforts. This may be the most important … properly debrief the cases. Don’t just look at the solution and think “Oh yeah, I totally would have got that”. Go back and see where in the case that information was triggered, review their analysis and review your technical knowledge pertaining to that topic. You should take just as long to debrief the case as it did to write it, maybe even a bit longer.
Any last advice you’d like to impart on future writers?
I think I pretty much covered everything above, but my last bit of advice would be to rest and relax throughout your studying to ensure that you are able to perform at your best while studying. Pick up some activities, if there is spare time available, to help reduce stress. Physical activity definitely helped me get through the exam preparation.
I want to thank Caleb 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 Caleb what was next for him in his career.
I’m working with the Tax team at my firm, but I miss working in Assurance, so I will have to decide at some point if I’m going to take In-Depth or if I’m going to go back to Assurance. I don’t really know where my career is going to take me from here. I want to end up doing something that I enjoy and can be passionate about it.
You can connect with Caleb Hagemeister on LinkedIn or Facebook. If you have any questions, Caleb has also agreed to keep an eye on the comments and stop by to answer so, what would you like to ask Caleb?
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