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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

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