This is one of those issues that can have strong opinions on both sides. On the one side, some say the outline is critical in organizing your thoughts and response and on the other end, people consider it a waste of time since you can just take notes on the simulation sheet.
For comprehensive cases I say the outline is critical and you cannot go on without it. For shorter cases (multis), I’ve seen people go both ways and write fine cases so it’s a personal choice but I recommend using one. I found it helpful to stay organized and especially helpful with ranking and time management which are especially tested on the shorter cases.
What is on a good outline?
A good outline will have the following elements:
- A purpose and role. So you never forget what your role in the simulation is, and I like to have a purpose to all quants on the outline so that you understand why you need this quant. It helps you to avoid starting a quant and later realizing you didn’t need it or you went in the wrong direction. It also helps me step back and look at the bigger picture.
- Who you are addressing and what kind of communication is it? You may have to do an audit memo to a partner to start and a report about a tax situation to the client afterwards. An outline helps keep this straight. The CFE may ask you to do more than one report in a single case.
- A timeline should be used unless dates are not an issue in the simulation. Write down every date you are given and keep track of where you are in proximity on a timeline.
- A diagram or organizational chart to keep track of who owns what or works where. This is often an issue in taxation indicators and will help keep things clear.
- A list of the “required” for the case which ensures that you address everything that was asked of you. Most people recommend you write the required out word for word from the simulation so that you don’t misunderstand what is being asked of you.
- Identify issues in the simulations. This is not the same as writing down case facts which should not be written down on your outline but referenced from it. Write down the issues you identify and then indicate on your outline which page(s) they come from and refer back to them once you are writing your response. Highlight the actual case facts on your exam paper.
- You’ll want quant information easily available if there is a lot of it. Consider having a separate page full of quant information so you can easily refer back to it rather than searching (and possibly missing) the data in your question sheet.
- Finally, after all is said and done, rank the issues and allocate time to them. You are going to need to know which issues you’ll be dropping and which you’ll be tackling before you begin writing and it’s best done when you have the whole case in front of you on an outline. This will take a little practice and experience before you master it. Remember to always stay on time.
How long should an outline take?
I’ve heard that some people dedicate up to 1/3 of the time to outlining, which is probably a good ceiling. You don’t want outlining to start impacting your actual case but it is where a lot of the hard work of composing your response occurs so don’t fly over it, either. For a comp I don’t think it’s unreasonable to outline for up to 1.5 hours.