Each person studies differently. Each person comprehends differently. I won’t pretend I have all the answers to how you should study for CPA Canada’s Common Final Exam (CFE). I did, however, pass the CPA Canada CFE on the Honour Roll. Honour Roll recipients score in the top 1% of all exam writers. It’s probably the biggest achievement of my life. There were only 6 individuals on the Honour Roll list across Canada.
It took until after receiving my results to discover a flourishing Reddit community of CFE candidates. There are scores of subreddits of candidates exchanging ideas, asking each other questions, and providing valuable study tips.
I’m not sure if it was a blessing or a curse to discover this Reddit culture after I wrote the CFE. There are many good study tips in Accounting Reddit, but there are also some very bad tips.
Here’s how I studied for the CPA Canada Common Final Exam and how I placed in the top 1% of writers nationwide.
Back in January 2021 (six months before the three-day exam), I spent a weekend researching how to study. I didn’t research study tips and tricks. I didn’t research essential habits to adopt.
I researched how to study.
Being in the geekier part of the Apple tech world, I follow Ali Abdaal pretty closely. Abdaal is a doctor in the United Kingdom who has one of the useful Youtube channels available for students and exam writers. You can discover all sorts of amazing productivity hacks, efficient workflows, and study tricks on Abdaal’s channel.
Abdaal discusses the idea of “Active Recall” on both his YouTube channel and his website. His definition of Active Recall is as follows:
Active recall involves retrieving information from memory through, essentially, testing yourself at every stage of the revision process. The very act of retrieving information and data from our brains not only strengthens our ability to retain information but also improves connections in our brains between different concepts.
So, as you’re reading, highlighting, and note-taking, it is imperative to retrieve what you’ve stored in your brain.
And you need to retrieve that information over, and over, and over, until it’s instant. You need to actively recall information from all parts of your brain.
Doing this requires practice, repetition, and endless self-testing.
Abdaal provides a few different strategies to help you use Active Recall in your studies. The method I chose to utilize was AnkiApp, a flashcard app designed for the iPhone and iPad that uses algorithms to help you study. AnkiApp tracks your flashcard performance based on your own self-ratings and works you through your card decks until you’re an ace at each flashcard.
The concept is very, very simple really. AnkiApp tests you 10 cards at a time. Those 10 cards are algorithmically ordered. The set will produce cards until you tell AnkiApp the flashcard is easy. Then the app will put that card on the back-burner while you are tested on other cards. AnkiApp will still resurface the cards you’ve already aced, just to keep you fresh.
Creating flashcards in AnkiApp is pretty easy. Word-based flashcards are provided to candidates as study tools. I spent about an hour in early January copying the front and back of each flashcard in the provided Word document and pasting the information into AnkiApp. I did this in AnkiApp’s web app (best used in Google Chrome), as it was the easiest way to multi-task between Word and AnkiApp. When finished, the flashcards synced to the iPad app.
AnkiApp isn’t a free app, but it’s the next best thing to free. Accounting Reddit suggests candidates pay tutors and study coaches huge money for extra courses to guide them through CFE studying. While I can’t attest to the success of those third-party courses, I can attest to the cost.
Gevorg CPA’s CFE Review course costs $797. AnkiApp costs just $13.
Flashcards were the key to my success on the CFE. They harnessed the power of Active Recall and ensured I knew every topic like the back of my hand. I responded to two specific issues in the Day 2 case with verbatim text from the flashcards provided in the CFE study tools.
I won’t get into details regarding how you should structure your study days. Some folks have families to take care of while studying. Others are able to take time off work to focus on their studies. I had to schedule around the lives of a 1.5 year old and a 3.5 year old who needed dad-time each night.
But I read countless Accounting Reddit posts of candidates sitting down to study two weeks before the CFE. Two weeks. Perhaps the folks who studied for two weeks were able to pass. Perhaps all my extra effort was for nothing.
But I began working through flashcards in January for the end-of-May CFE. As soon as flashcards were available as part of Capstone 1, I began the process of converting them into AnkiApp cards and studying them each night. For the most part, for 15 minutes each day, I’d stare at my iPad screen and test myself.
Of course, there was other studying going on as well. You have to read the eBooks. You have to write the practice cases.
But the flashcards dialled in all those topics. In many cases, the flashcards introduced topics for study. Then I’d come across them in my eBook reading. Then I’d come across them in the practice cases in Capstone 2. And finally, I’d review them over and over and over again in AnkiApp.
I won’t tell you that you need to start studying five months ahead of time. But that’s how I did it. And I had good success.
I had no idea courses like Gevorg even existed until after I received my results for the Common Final Exam. Clearly, these courses have great success in producing successful candidates. These courses are expensive, but will increase your chances at successfully passing the CFE.
I went my own path. It worked really well. There were many people who helped me along the way. There were great experiences in my professional experience which I tapped into during the CFE as well.
But the core of all my success was the fact I studied how to study ahead of time and implemented Active Recall. Active Recall and flashcard use led me to an Honour Roll spot.
I have no doubt it’ll help future candidates achieve their goals as well.