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The Profession

The CFE: How to tackle the “mental marathon”

It’s challenging, it’s rigorous and the clock is ticking. Past CFE writers offer study tips to help you prepare.

Young lady using laptop between library bookshelves to studyDeveloping the perfect study routine means finding a plan that matches your character, says Michael Richardson, one of the 2018 CPA Canada regional Gold Medal award winners (Getty Images/Hero Images)

Those who have been through it, already know. Those currently preparing are about to find out. The three-day Common Final Examination (CFE) is a challenging enterprise.

Designed to assess knowledge, judgment and skills, the evaluation is a critical part to attaining the Canadian CPA designation.

“I suspect the most challenging aspect of the CFE is that it is the culmination of all of a candidate’s learning and development to date,” says CPA Silka Millman, director, CFE, at CPA Canada. “And at three days long, it’s a bit of a mental marathon.”

While there are a number of ways to effectively prepare for the rigors of the CFE, Millman suggests not to get caught up in specific exam writing strategies.

“Passing the CFE is just one milestone in what will be a long and illustrious career as a CPA and as such, they should focus on developing their judgment and their professional skills as those will not only ensure their success on the CFE but throughout their career as a CPA,” she says.

Here, a couple past CFE writers describe what made them successful. 


Developing the perfect study routine means finding a plan that matches your character, says Michael Richardson, one of the 2018 CPA Canada regional Gold Medal award winners. 

“For some, that means studying from 9-5,” he says. “For others, that means studying in short bursts.” Richardson would often study late on a typical study day, but on weekends only lightly review material, while spending time with family and friends. 

Andrew Knapman, CPA, sat the CFE in September 2018 and says the key for him was focusing on the main topics he was confident would show up. “Going through the Capstone 2 module and keeping a record of topics that showed up a lot was key to this preparation,” he shares.


Many find studying with others helpful and motivating—if done correctly. 

“Work with a study group that works like you, but that thinks differently than you,” says Richardson. “This allows you to challenge each other at the same calibre, all while gaining a new perspective on how to tackle an issue.”

So you might want to find a study group outside your regular group of friends, Richardson adds.

However, studying with others or in a group isn’t for everyone. Knapman says he preferred to study alone, trusting the CPA PEP’s guidance, which recommended completing the work assignments the profession sets out and self-study outside of that. 

“Personally, I find the subjective feedback of other students and mentors to be stressful and debilitating, making you constantly second guess yourself,” he explains.


Millman says the CFE Board of Examiners’ (BOE) report is an excellent resource for current candidates preparing to write the CFE. 

“Not only can candidates use it to practice writing prior years’ exams but the BOE’s comments provide invaluable insight into where past CFE writers performed well and where they fell short so current candidates can have a better sense of what will be expected of them,” she says.

While there are some articles online from past CFE writers, Knapman felt that there wasn’t enough information out there about the exam—so he decided to add his voice. He was inspired to share his own experience preparing and writing the exam in a series of blogs for Canadian Accountant.

“I would have valued having some content to read from somebody who had been through it all and got out of the other end unscathed,” he says. 


Knapman says Day 3 was the biggest challenge in terms of time management. 

“No matter how much you prepare, I think everybody will always struggle to finish Day 3,” he says. “There are so many questions in such a short amount of time…the last hour of the last day will probably stick long in your memory.”

There’s no easy answer to conquering the time management dilemma. But the essentials include knowing how much time you need for each section; starting with what you can and then moving back to answer other questions more thoroughly; and simply practicing time management on your case writing and technical subjects prior to the exam.

No matter your approach, Richardson says to be confident and believe you can do it.

“You know yourself best—it has gotten you this far.”


Get additional tips from the recipient of last year’s Governor General’s Gold Medal award and learn why CPA Canada is offering two opportunities to write the CFE in 2020.