time management

How I Bounced Back after Failing the 2016 CFE

Hey everyone,

If you are reading this blog and you ended up passing the 2017 CFE, congratulations! You have successfully reached a milestone in your professional career. Make sure that you cherish this special time in your life.

If you did not end up passing the CFE this year, I know what kind of thoughts are going through your head right now:

“This program isn’t fair. Someone must have made a mistake.”

“There’s no way I can recover from this. I gave it my all and got nothing in return.”

“I’m not mentally fit to pass the CFE & become a CPA.”

“So many people passed but I didn’t, which makes me feel embarrassed.”

If this is you, I highly recommend that you continue reading.

 

My Story

I started the CPA PEP program in late 2014. This was eighteen months after I graduated from a highly competitive university undergraduate program in Toronto. Unlike many of my peers, I did not get hired by a Big 4 CPA firm right after I graduated. Instead, I worked for a bookkeeping & tax preparation office for a little over a year, and I later transitioned over to working at a small CPA firm.

At the time I entered the program, CPA Canada was still offering the “challenge exam” option for CA legacy students. Given the significant cost savings that this option entailed, I challenged the Core 1, Core 2, Assurance & Tax PEP exams throughout 2015, and I was very fortunate to pass each of them on my first attempt. During the spring of 2016, I got paired with an awesome group of other candidates as part of Capstone 1, and I was able to get through the module without any major hiccups.

Now it was the summer of 2016: the CFE was two months away. I fixated my efforts on doing whatever it would take to get a competitive edge over the other candidates, such as:
• Hiring an experienced CPA marker to help me mark my cases and give me one-to-one feedback (something that was unprecedented across other CFE prep courses offered in Canada);
• Studying with another student who had failed the May 2016 CFE by a small margin but was willing to go hard-core until the CFE;
• Taking two full months of unpaid study leave from work (let’s not even talk about what my bank account looked like during the summer);
• Practicing over sixty cases from old UFEs, the Capstone 2 content, my marker’s cases, and even old SOA exams, all under time restraints;
• Reading binders and binders full of technical notes.

And then September came around. And I wrote the CFE. And then I waited two months for the results.

 

The September 2016 CFE Results

Day 1: FAIL

Days 2 & 3: FAILED on Levels 1 & 3

Just imagine that. After going to all ends of the earth to prepare for this exam, I failed all three days. I felt numb. As much as people were calling me to offer consolation, I really didn’t want to speak to anyone because I couldn’t explain what happened. I began telling myself,

“This program isn’t fair. Someone must have made a mistake.”

“There’s no way I can recover from this.”

And so on. For the weeks that passed, I tried to preoccupy myself with other thoughts, like Christmas, upcoming birthdays, etc. But deep down, I was in search for answers as to why I had failed the CFE, and I had begun to believe that I was just playing a game of chance.

Then I got a call from a close friend who I had not heard from in a while. And the recovery process started.

 

The Recovery Process

My friend had called me to see how I was doing. I told him how great things had been for me over the past month, and the first thing he said was,

“Yeah, so?”

My reaction to him was, “What do mean, ‘Yeah, so?’ The CFE is a big deal! If I don’t figure out where I went wrong, I’m screwed!” I went off telling him all the things I had done to get ready for that exam. Then he posed the following questions to me,

“Do you think you may have put too much on your plate? How many breaks did you take over that two-month period? Were you experiencing burnout before the exam?”

At that point, I had found my answer. During that two-month study period before the CFE, while I was so focused on planning & making sure I had all my bases covered, I totally missed out on a vital part of the process: maintaining myself. As much as the CFE tests you on technical & “enabling” competencies, it also tests you on stress management. I vividly remember the last week of CFE study being the week when I experienced the most amount of stress. Little did I know that overdoing it was just as bad, if not worse, than not doing enough.

So what was my game plan for 2017? The first thing I did was focus on me: I started going back to the gym, I began to write really good articles on LinkedIn, and once busy season was over at work, I enrolled to rewrite the CFE in September.

Before I knew it, I was only two months away from writing the CFE – all over again! Here’s what I did during that period:
• I found a new study buddy, who carried an open mindset & who was also willing to put in the time to help me with my weaknesses;
• I rehired my CPA marker, who provided me with new cases to try that were more reflective of the CFE along with useful online webinars covering technical & case writing strategies;
• I again took unpaid study leave for the entire two months (work stress is just as bad as study stress);
• I practiced only 30 CPA cases, one-half the amount that I did in the prior year, and I tracked my progress on Level 1 (hitting a sufficient number of requireds) & Level 3 (depth in assurance);
• I did not touch anything related to the exam after 7PM on (most) weeknights & weekends;
• The week before the CFE, I reduced my study load significantly. I also did not give in to other students who were doing the complete opposite.

And then September came around, again. And I rewrote the CFE. And then I waited two months for the results.

 

The September 2017 CFE Results

Days 1, 2 & 3: PASS

Ten seconds after CPA Canada released the results, I see a message on my phone that says, “It’s all over homie. Congrats.” You can guess who sent me that message.

 

Conclusion

Don’t be afraid of failure. I truly believe that failure has put me in a much better position than if I had passed on my first attempt in 2016. Failure gives you that opportunity to see what your weaknesses are and to figure out how you’re going to overcome them. As a future practitioner, I think it was so much more valuable for me to experience failure in my 20s than later on in my career, when the ability to bounce back becomes more difficult (but still possible).

Lastly, I want to address those statements I posted at the beginning of this blog:

“This program isn’t fair. Someone must have made a mistake.”
• What’s “fair” is very subjective. I would treat the CPA program as a source to obtain life lessons rather than simply start, write, and get out as fast as possible.
• Some of you may want to appeal your results. Unless if you got really close to passing (i.e. you only failed on Level 1 & received a Decile 1), there is a high likelihood that you will be blowing away money that you can instead put towards something more valuable. Remember that CPA Canada’s pass rates are highly controlled.

“There’s no way I can recover from this. I gave it my all and got nothing in return.”
• Yes you can. I recovered from it and you can too. As I alluded to in my personal story above, sometimes giving it your all is not the only means to success.

“I’m not mentally fit to pass the CFE & become a CPA.”
• There is no such thing as a “born CPA.” Yes, there may be some that are naturally able to read & write fast, or who have “photographic memories,” but don’t think that passing this exam is some sort of an elitist game. You can pick up the skills to pass through practice.

“So many people passed but I didn’t, which makes me feel embarrassed.”
• It’s really easy to compare yourself to others in this process. In my case, I felt that I was years behind the people I went to university with. However, every single writer has a different story. Maybe that guy or girl who’s boasting about his/her success on social media had to write more than twice before they passed. Maybe the difference between your paper and theirs was one or two sentences. Rather than trying to measure success just based on results (like the majority of people have a tendency to do), I think you should instead measure success based on what you’ve learned after failing.
• If you’re hanging around people that are making you feel embarrassed and are brining you down, whether it be your peers, your employer, etc., cut them loose. They will become irrelevant to you sooner than you know it.

I really hope that this blog post helps you get back on the right track. If you want to reach out to me, please give me a shout at stevenp2c@gmail.com.

 

All the best, and good luck!

Steven

How Do I Keep Track Of 2017 CFE progress?

You should be tracking your CFE progress when you begin writing daily simulations (weekends off!).

For those who don’t have some kind of simulation tracking sheet, create one in Excel! You can build on every easily..

At minimum, you can use a tracking sheet to track your results per indicator per case. You should be noting what kind of indicator it is. This tracks the meat of your CFE performance but if you want to go all out, I would also recommend tracking certain other things that might be going wrong with your cases. For example:

  • Time management – did you run out of time or did you use your time well given how you scored. Write how you felt about this before your case is marked. Afterwards you can compare how you scored to how you felt and make a better judgment on whether you are using your time well.
  • Ranking issues – perhaps track if you messed up in your ranking, this will ID this important issue quickly.
  • Technical problems – Again, write how you felt about this before your case is marked and then compare. Maybe you didn’t need as much technical as you thought.

Those are the three major ones I can think of but it’s endless what you could potentially track. At minimum you should know which types of indicators need more work and which need less at which point you can write cases that test more of your problem indicators. Just keep in mind, if you’re not tracking something for a purpose (if it’s not helping you by tracking it) then you could be wasting time so make sure to find balance. Happy tracking!

Why should I listen to the suggested times for each CFE case?

Since I want you to have good habits from the start, I’m going to encourage you to stick to whatever time the exam gives you and never go over your allotted time! Real thing or mocks, this rule applies.

While with the comprehensive cases you don’t have a choice since examiners will cut you off, with the multis (shorter cases of Day 3), there is some flexibility. Cases ranged from 45-90 minutes each but your total time will be four hours at which point you are cut off.

The time guidelines are not just there to tell you how long someone thinks the case should take but they are one of the mechanisms used to test ranking which an important factor on the CFE. The CPA Canada Board of Examiners wants to judge how you look at issues and whether you can determine what is critically important and what is less important. They do this through giving you, on some cases, a time crunch and forcing you to only tackle the most important stuff and leave behind the less important stuff. It’s a strange feeling ignoring an obvious issue that you see but in some cases you will have to do just that.

So if you happen to get a 60 minute exam and it feels like you need another 20 to do it properly, this could be one of those cases where you need to rank. You need to recognize this on your outline.

Why it’s risky to ignore the time allocations

The problem is that if you take 15 more minutes on this one exam, you won’t score much higher since the examiners only give points for the top issues which you could have conquered in 60 minutes and not the additional issues you did in the extra 20 minutes. You lose.

You lose because in the remaining two exams you’ll short change yourself. You won’t have the time to go into greater depth where marks are given because you spent your time talking more issues where marks were not given.

So I’ll repeat: never go over your allotted time and get in the habit of this from the start.

The suggested times on the UFE are not guidelines

You should be starting your UFE study period today. Congratulations! The next four weeks might feel unpleasant at times but you can also have a lot of fun and you will most certainly learn a lot. Hopefully you’ll see yourself improving through your tracking sheet sooner rather than later. Remember to stay balanced to to take weekends off to rest and recover.

Today’s topic is about UFE cut off times. Since we want you to have good habits from the start I’m going to encourage you to stick with whatever the exam tells you to do and never go over your allotted time!

While with the Comps you don’t have a choice since examiners will cut you off, with the multis, there is some flexibility. Simulations have ranged from 60-90 minutes each in past years but your total time will be four hours.

The time guidelines are not just there as someone’s suggestion as to how long they think the exam should take but they are one of the mechanisms used to test ranking, a very important factor on the UFE. The CICA wants to judge how you look at issues and whether you can determine what is critically important and what is less important. They do this through giving you, sometimes, a time crunch on the exam and forcing you to only tackle the most important stuff and leave behind the less important stuff.

So, if you happen to get a 60 minute exam, and it feels like you need another 20 to do it properly, this could be one of those cases.

The problem is, that if you take 20 more minutes on this one exam, you won’t score much higher since in their grading scheme the CICA only gives points for the top issues which you could have conquered in 60 minutes and not the additionally issues you did in the extra 20 minutes. You lose.

You lose because in the remaining two exams you’ll short change yourself. You won’t have the time to go into greater depth where marks are given because you spent your time talking more issues where marks were not given.

So get in the habit right now if you’re not already.  Always practice with strict cut offs and enforce them during the real UFE.

Don’t fall into the time trap

Time management is one of the most critical skills to master for both SOA and the UFE.

When writing individual cases, as you will most of the time, it’s a little easier to keep time and hopefully you are disciplined enough to cut yourself off after the time has passed. When writing the real thing, and you have three multis in one sitting it can be very tempting to go over your time on an individual case.

I’ve fallen into this pitfall and occasionally gone over a few minutes but I’m going to give everyone the advice that you should avoid this at all costs.

Each simulation is specifically designed to be written in 60 – 90 minutes – whatever the sheet tells you.  This is forced to make you rank and if you don’t rank properly this is indeed a true time trap. If you spend more time on one case, you’re just stealing from yourself in another and that could be the one with an indicator that you need in order to succeed. Sure, maybe you’ll nail all the PMR indicators in simulation #1 and get an HC (when you only need a C) but it might be simulation #3 where you have all the assurance indicators. If you take 5 or 10 minutes extra on one case or two you could have a deficit of 10 or 20 minutes for simulation #3. If that’s a 60 minute simulation, you’re in trouble.

Always remember that the time limit is there to force you to rank and the marking guide is setup so that you are given fair marks based on the time allotted for the exam. If you do too much it’s only taking away from your other marks while not adding much.

So, don’t do it, don’t go overtime!

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