CFE Exam Topics and Tips

CFE Exam Topics and Tips

Updated: Sep 2, 2019

Some of our readers are studying for the CFE exams (Canadian CPA Board Exams) and have been asking for advice and a list of potential exam topics.


The Canadian CPA organization does provide extremely long guidance which includes absolutely all of the possible topics covered and the depth/degree to which you are supposed to understand them. Given how difficult it is to juggle studying, working and other priorities, we've put together a list of tips and common topics to help focus your study time.


Study Topics:


Capstone 2 provides students with a number of different case studies from which to learn. These are taken from old CFE examinations. We've put together a list of topics covered in those case studies, along with other possible topics, in an Excel file. Download the Excel file, and use it as a working sheet - adding your own notes and topics.


Click below to download the Excel file:

CFE Exam Topics



Revenue Recognition:

Revenue recognition is almost always tested on the CFE exams. Depending on the case study chosen, you will likely either be tested on Revenue Recognition under ASPE, or Revenue Recognition under IFRS. Know these well because they are one of the few topics that are almost guaranteed to be on the exam.


Obscure Topics:

Each year, CPA likes to include one obscure, difficult or not-previously-tested topic in the CFE exams. Most students will not know how to approach, navigate or solve the question. Examples of topics include: Gain versus Revenue, Pension Accounting, Auditing under a custom reporting framework, etc... These topics are meant to separate those on the Honor-Roll (top 1% of students who have passed) and the rest of the students. If your goal is to simply pass the CFEs, then you may wish to leave this tricky question for last.


Remember that the CFEs are extremely time constrained - so do the things you know FIRST. Get all the points you can on the topics you are familiar with, and if time permits, only then should you move onto the tricky questions. Also remember that you are not alone. If you reach a topic and have no idea how to approach it, chances are - most of the people around you feel the same way. We're fairly certain that the CFEs are bell-curved (given that the pass rates are so similar from year to year), so if everyone does poorly on a topic, that topic will likely end up with a lower weighting, or all scores will be adjusted upwards for that question.


Something that CPA has done in the past, is to put the tricky topic first on the CFEs. This is to test your prioritization skills. If you open your examination booklet and find that you have no idea how to approach the first question - DO NOT PANIC. This was done intentionally. Your job is to STAY CALM and immediately move onto the next question. You can circle back to the tricky question when you have finished answering the questions you know how to answer.


New Reporting Guidance:

CPA also likes to test to see if you are staying up to date on the new guidance for major topics. In 2018, the CFEs tested students on the new IFRS 15 Revenue Recognition standards, the first year in which they were released! We would not be surprised if the CFEs tested new Leasing standards (IFRS 16) in upcoming exams. Remember that just because you studied something for years in a certain way, does not mean that you'll get marks for using outdated guidance. You won't. So keep up to date with those CPA emails, and notifications that remind you about new guidance. This principle applies to major topics only. Obscure topics with changes in guidance will fall under the "Obscure Topic" category, above. Treat those as you would other obscure topics (i.e. read the section above).


Study Tips:


1. Start your study journey by learning the basics. You can use our Learning Resources section to help accomplish this (click here).


2. Once you have a good grasp of the basics, you should ABSOLUTELY start practicing case studies under exam-like conditions.


This includes the following:

  • Time yourself when practicing case studies.

  • If the exam is early, wake up early to do your practice exams (I know - this sucks, but it's better to be prepared).

  • Try practicing case studies in rooms that feel like your upcoming exam room. For example: if you are accustomed to studying in bed, try writing practice exams in a university study hall or a library instead.

  • Use the same computer for studying and practicing, as you will for the exam. Note that many people go to the exam and have computer issues when they are borrowing a friend/family member's computer. The computer keys may be in different locations, copy-and-paste functions might not work, or you just simply aren't used to the setup. Don't create obstacles and make your life more difficult during the exam. Practice with the same computer.

  • Use the CPA Handbook to answer your practice case studies. Practice copy and pasting the relevant sections into your answers, as you would on the exam.

3. Learn how to find the major topics within the CPA Handbook quickly. Make a list of the major topics (see CFE Exam Topics), and practice finding the relevant sections in lightning speed. As practice, try the following exercise: pick a topic and time how long it takes you to find the relevant section(s) within the handbook. Keep practicing until can navigate to sections in under 20 seconds. The faster the better.


4. The CFEs are a marathon. Marathon runners prepare both mentally and physically. You should do the same. A couple of months before your exams:

  • Eat healthy foods.

  • Go to bed at the same time you would on your exam days. This will help you get used to going to bed and waking up at the relevant time.

  • Use techniques to relax and decompress after studying. Examples can include meditation and watching relaxing/funny movies after a day of studying.


CFE Writing Tips:


1. Save time by writing in bullet-point form on the exam.


2. Use the "Issue, Analysis and Recommendation" framework to address the issues throughout your exam. An explanation of how to address issues using this framework can be found in this article.


3. Make very explicit connections between your facts, analyses and suggestions.


For example: The case states X, which is incorrect because ASPE or IFRS Y guidance states:"...", therefore we need to do Z to correct for this mistake.

The sentence above is likely all you need to address each topic.

Words like "because" and "therefore" are important because they signal to the marker that you understand the implications of the stated problem. Once you have established the link, do not belabor the point. You don't have time for anything other than simplicity.


Keep it simple.


4. Separate each issue and use headings as much as possible. The people who mark your exam have limited time to review each booklet. Don't make their lives more difficult. Don't bury topics in too much text, and don't merge issues. Do not give them the opportunity to accidentally miss giving you points.


5. The CFEs have a very specific format, and are meant to be answered in a very specific way. This might sound cryptic, so let's review a possible scenario. Let's pretend you are an international student, who was taught accounting principles using a traditional approach: you studied for an exam by memorizing accounting fundamentals, and then took the exam - relying on your memory of the rules to know how to solve each numerical question. While it is important to know the basics, in general, this is NOT how the CFEs are written. This is NOT how they are marked. And this is NOT how you should approach the questions.


The CFEs are "open book". You are given full access to the CPA Handbook during your exam. And you are expected to use it. This is why finding topics quickly within the handbook is so important.


The CPA Handbook is provided for several reasons:

  • You are not expected to memorize each accounting rule (because in reality, they change all the time).

  • You are, however, expected to be able to interpret the rules and use them in practice.

  • You are also expected to explicitly cite rules from the handbook during the exam - even if you know them from memory. You still are encouraged to copy and paste sections of the rules from the handbook as evidence for why you believe there was an issue in the case study, and how it should be corrected. Always use quotations and referencing to show that you have used an excerpt from the handbook. E.g.: IFRS 15 states ".......".

  • You are often asked convoluted questions with several parts and many of these parts are not explicitly taught. These tricky parts are often found within subsections of the relevant guidance. The CFEs are testing your ability to find these relevant subsections, interpret them and use them in your case studies.

  • In actual accounting practice, you will have access to the CPA Handbook. The CFEs are primarily testing your ability to act as accountant would, in her/his professional practice and refer to the appropriate, up-to-date guidance when solving accounting problems.

CFEs are a very special type of exam, that are focused on solving case studies using the "Issue, Analysis and Recommendation" framework, and providing evidence for your claims. Heavy use of the CPA Handbook is expected.


6. Do not ignore topics you feel are less important or irrelevant. Many aspiring accountants are strong with numbers, but weak with qualitative analysis. The marking scheme is such that you need to obtain sufficient breadth of knowledge across ALL topics. If you do not, you will fail. It is not unheard of for students to fail in soft areas, such as "Strategy and Governance" because they didn't spend time responding to fairly simple questions. Don't spend all of your time on the "hard stuff" and neglect answering simple qualitative questions.


Key Takeaways:


Before the Exam:

  • Review the commonly tested topics and any major reporting changes.

  • Prepare as one would for a marathon: mentally and physically.

During the Exam:

  • Do not panic when you encounter difficult topics. Move onto the next topic - time is of the essence.

  • Use the "Issue, Analysis and Recommendation" framework to answer case study questions.

  • Do not ignore "easy" qualitative questions.


If you have any additional study tips that you would like to share with our community, add them to the comments section below. We would love to hear from you!


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