Michelle Bergsma is part of the first cohort of CFE writers who obtained the prestigious honour roll status as part of the September, 2015 Common Final Examination. Michelle kindly gave CFE Blog some time to ask a few questions.
How did you find your undergrad program trained you towards writing the CFE?
My undergrad degree is a B.Comm with a major in Marketing Management from the University of Guelph. Although the technical material obviously was quite different, the skills that transferred to the CFE included understanding exam strategies, focusing under pressure, managing stress, and using time efficiently. These cannot be underestimated for the CFE!
What was your study schedule like leading up to the exam? Would you change anything?
I took eight weeks away from work to focus on studying. A typical day would include writing, marking and debriefing a case, and some case-based technical review. I stuck to my schedule closely and felt prepared when the exam came. I think it was the right amount of time for me to study adequately while maintaining balance.
What kind of support did you get from your firm/office?
Crowe MacKay LLP has an awesome mentorship program and support system. During CFE leave, I met with my mentor weekly to check-in, receive feedback on cases, and track my progress. The firm provided valuable resources, advice and additional practice cases and kept on top of any new information about the exam.
Did you work with a partner or group as part of your studying for the CFE?
I am so grateful for my study partner, Megan Coyne. As the first and only two Yukon CFE writers, we spent an enormous amount of time together, not only during CFE prep but throughout the entire Professional Education program. During the eight weeks leading up the CFE, we would write cases together almost every morning at 9am, mark each other’s responses and discuss any areas of uncertainty. She helped me stay focused and positive.
How important was rest and mental health for you as part of the studying process?
I was very conscious of balancing my study schedule to avoid burning out since that’s something I’m often prone to. My boyfriend and I ended up getting a German Shepherd puppy three weeks before I started study leave, which kept a huge smile on my face! Studying promptly ended when they came home each evening. I also made sure I got plenty of exercise and fresh air to keep my brain going.
What gave you the most trouble in your case writing?
I had to learn how to prioritize the issues and let go of perfection. As a very detail-oriented person, that was a challenge. I also found I was constantly reminding myself to focus on the qualitative aspects of the issues, since I have a tendency to get completely absorbed in my quants.
What do you think many people do wrong as part of the CFE prep process?
Too many people believe the saying “practice makes perfect”. Someone once told me “practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes habits” which I think is entirely true. As part of the CFE prep process, you have to take your errors from every practice case and use them as an opportunity to improve. If you don’t focus on improving your weaknesses, they’ll become habits and you’ll likely end up making the same mistakes on the CFE. Allowing yourself to stray from your time budget can be one of the hardest, and most critical, habits to break.
What was the most challenging for you on the exam?
In general, the first day was the most challenging for me due to the broad scope of the case and open-ended nature of the response. I preferred the more technical structure of Days 2 & 3 because I felt I could approach the cases in a more logical and organized manner.
Also, this sounds strange but I had a hard time containing my excitement. Even going into Day 1, I had to force myself to focus on my execution and not get ahead of myself by thinking about that Friday afternoon feeling of relief.
How did you feel walking out of the exam? Did you know you did so well?
I felt confident because I knew I had put in the hard work leading up to the exam, went in with a clear approach and stuck with my plan. I thought I had passed but I had absolutely no idea that I would make the honour roll.
If you were tutoring future candidates, what would be your top tips for them?
Focus on your case writing approach over your technical skills. Practice critical reading, planning and outlining to write a well-organized response. Approach every practice case as if it were the real thing. Put yourself in the marker’s shoes. Stick to your time allocations.
Any last advice you’d like to impart on future writers?
Find an activity that allows you to relieve stress and recharge, whatever that may be, and prioritize that activity daily. Challenge yourself to think positively and trust in your abilities, even on the low days when everything seems like a struggle.
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