Accounting | The Profession

CFE Gold Medal winner talks being number one

Many Common Final Examination writers simply strive to pass the rigorous exam. Here’s what you can learn from this year’s top performer.

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CFE Honour Roll Gold: Lawrence ZhangLawrence (Qianyu) Zhang is the 2018 CFE’s top writer and recipient of the Governor General’s Gold Medal award. (Image provided)

Lawrence (Qianyu) Zhang had been working for less than two months at MNP LLP—one of Canada’s largest accountancy firms—when one of the partners asked if she could speak to him. It was the first time he was called into one of the partner’s offices, and he couldn’t help but wonder if he’d done something wrong. While she kept a straight face for a while, she eventually shared the news—he was the 2018 CFE’s top writer and the recipient of the Governor General’s Gold Medal award. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I thought I did fine on the exam, but I did not expect to be number one. I was just pretty relieved that I passed.” Along with top honours, Lawrence, who lives in Toronto, receives a cash prize of $5,000.


The annual CFE Honour Roll list acknowledges the hard work of the top one per cent of CPA candidates who passed the rigorous three-day examination. Designed to assess their knowledge, judgment and skills, the evaluation is a critical part to attaining the Canadian CPA designation. And, Lawrence says, it’s hard to predict exactly what topics will be part of the CFE.

“This year there were some surprises—some things people didn’t expect, including myself,” he shares. “I think that’s what makes the test challenging.”

Taking the CPA path has helped the gold medal winner develop his skills in a variety of ways. He mentions gaining expertise in audit, tax, finance and strategy, as well as in soft skills, such as teamwork, communication and problem-solving. “All these skills give me the potential to explore different opportunities and industries,” says Lawrence.

After studying at the University of Waterloo until July, writing the exam in September and starting a new job in October, there hasn’t been much of a break for the top writer. He’s looking forward to a longer break and returning to China for the first time since arriving in Canada in 2003.


For those planning to write the CFE, Lawrence has some key preparation tips.

“The things that really helped me was focusing on understanding the case-writing process and navigating the CPA Handbook, instead of trying to memorize all the technical material,” he says.

He also reminded himself to stay calm during both the study period and the exam itself. “Don’t stress out if you don’t know the right answer, just keep going,” he says.

Lawrence also suggests getting advice from a previous writer or mentor. Having accepted an offer at MNP before writing the CFE, he was able to participate in the organization’s mentoring program and was paired with a University of Waterloo graduate who helped him throughout the process. “My mentor was able to provide useful feedback for my audit procedures and help me improve in that aspect,” he says.

Future CFE candidates might be lucky enough to have Lawrence as mentor. He plans to participate in his company’s mentorship program and help budding CPAs strive to be number one. 


View the complete list of honour roll recipients, and learn why CPA Canada is offering two opportunities to write the CFE in 2020.