Interview with Brent Vandenbrink, 2015 Common Final Examination Honour Roll Standing

Brent Vandenbrink 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. Brent is presently working for Collins Barrow and finished his Bachelor of Commerce, Accounting from the University of Alberta in 2013.

After the CFE results came out I got in touch with Brent and he kindly agreed to answer some questions and offer advice to CFE Blog readers.

Interview with Brent Vandenbrink, 2015 CFE Honour Roll Recipient


How did you find your undergrad program trained you towards writing the CFE?

I did the Bachelor of Commerce program at the University of Alberta. During this time I learned how to manage the pressure and time limitations that are part of exams. I also learned most of the technical skills in tax and financial accounting that I used when writing the CFE.

Exam Studying:

What was your study schedule like leading up to the exam? Would you change anything?

I took two months off of work leading up to the exam, from about the middle of July until we wrote in mid September. The first week I spent at Densmore’s course in Calgary. After that I spent the rest of my time studying at the University of Alberta. I tried to study normal workdays, 9 to 5, five days a week. I studied with a couple of friends from University during this time. The last week, we all studied on our own at home as we felt like this would help us become more focused.

What kind of support did you get from your firm/office?

I was mentored by one of the partners at Collins Barrow Edmonton LLP, who used to teach university accounting courses and has been on the board for the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Alberta. He helped me with understanding how to approach the exam and the best way to write cases. He also marked a few of the cases I wrote and gave me feedback on those.

Did you take any prep courses? What advice did you find most helpful?

As I mentioned, I took a weeklong prep course with Densmore Consulting Services Inc. My firm also purchased their practice cases and marking services. Densmore gave me a step-by-step process for how to approach the case for each day of the exam. This helped me to organize my thoughts while I was writing and gave me something to fall back on when the cases made me start to panic.

Are there any must have materials (books, videos, marking, tutoring, etc.)?

In terms of how to write a case, I got the most help from the Densmore approach. The approach that they provide in the Capstone 2 of the CPA program is also good though. The study material that I found the most helpful for technical review was the notes on These gave me quick summaries of accounting handbook sections that helped me to quickly summarize accounting issues when I found them on a case. (I should mention that a couple of the notes on this site didn`t reflect changes made to handbook sections, it’s important to compare what you read with the most recent version of the handbook, as well)

Did you work with a partner or group as part of your studying for the CFE?

I studied with two other people. They were both friends that I had met in University and went through the CPA PEP modules with. One friend and I both worked in public accounting and chose the Assurance elective. My other friend worked at a not for profit organization and chose the Tax elective. I think it was important for me to have a group of people to study with as this helped me get different perspectives on things I didn’t understand. It also helped keep me from becoming frustrated with having to study for an entire summer.

How important was rest and mental health for you as part of the studying process?

I tried to remain conscious of my mental health throughout the process. I only let myself study 9 to 5 on weekdays to try to make sure I didn’t burn out before the exam. This also gave me time to spend with my family, friends and church. It was important for me to keep my faith as my top priority. This helped me remind myself that the exam wasn’t the most important thing in my life.

What gave you the most trouble in your case writing?

The hardest part was knowing how much to write for each issue. On a lot of cases there is so much more I would wish I could have written. I just didn’t have the time. It was a challenge for me to learn when to cut myself off from writing on a certain issue so that I would have enough time to deal with the rest of the exam.

Would you say you had any unique strengths or weaknesses?

I think that I came into the studying process with a fairly strong understanding of the technical areas of financial reporting, assurance and tax. I had put a lot of effort into the CPA PEP modules and my time with Collins Barrow had also taught me a lot. I also think that I tend to write concisely, which can work as an advantage in the CFE.

I think I had a weakness of not always explaining my reasoning clearly enough. It was easy for me to assume that the marker would know how I reached a certain conclusion, but this wasn’t necessarily the case. I had to force myself to write down my entire thought process to make sure that I showed at the steps in my reasoning.

What do you think many people do wrong as part of the CFE prep process?

I think that sometimes people don’t realize how important time management is for the CFE. Students can decide not to time themselves when they write practice cases. I can see why they do this-it’s embarrassing to have your friend mark a case that you ran out of time on. I would say though, that it’s better to go through this embarrassment when you’re doing your practice cases than on exam day.

Exam Day:

What was the most challenging for you on the exam?

I found that Day 3 of the exam was the hardest. You don’t have to time to adequately address anything on this day. It turned into a continual race with the clock and in went by in a blur. The most important thing for me was to allocate time to each issue before I started writing a case and to make sure that I stuck to the plan.

How did you feel walking out of the exam? Did you know you did so well?

To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I passed. I didn’t seem to find many financial accounting issues to talk about on Day 2 of the exam and I wasn’t sure if I had done enough to make up for it on Day 3. It definitely came as a surprise for me to do as well as I did.


If you were tutoring future candidates, what would be your top tips for them?

I would try to make sure that they have a plan for approaching a case that they can stick to no matter what the case throws at them. I would try to also make sure that they understand how valuable time management is for this exam and that they learn how to make to most of each minute they are writing.

Any last advice you’d like to impart on future writers?

Don’t make the exam bigger and scarier than it already is. There is more to life than the exam.

I want to thank Brent for taking the time to share his CFE experience and actionable tips. I think every candidate can get some take aways here. I asked Brent what was next for him in his career.

What’s next for you in your career, any aspirations?

I don’t have that completely figured out. I’m enjoying my work at Collins Barrow and I’m learning lots there. Maybe one day I’ll specialize in tax, but for now I’m happy where I’m at.

Where can people learn more about you or connect?

People can find me on LinkedIn if they want to talk.

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