Tips for debriefing a case

Tips for debriefing a case

By Adrian Serban CPA, MBA

 Adrian passed the CFE in 2017. He is a Corporate Accountant at Wolf Midstream.

 As the three-day Common Final Examination (CFE) is entirely case-based, knowing how to write a case is critical to passing the CFE. Becoming proficient in case writing doesn’t happen overnight, though. It takes practice, and an important component of developing case writing skills is learning to debrief each case well.

Adrian Serban CPA, Corporate Accountant, Wolf Midstream

My debrief process

  1. Receive feedback from the marker.
  2. Look over the feedback to see assessment opportunities (AOs) where I scored lower than competent (C). When I was just starting out in Core 1, I got less than C in most of the AOs.
  3. For AOs where I didn’t achieve a C, I compared what I wrote to the sample solution provided. This helped me see how far I was from the solution. I took my time to make sure I really understood the difference between what I wrote and the sample solution. Here’s the important part: It sometimes took me longer to debrief than it did to write the case—I often spent 70 to 80 minutes debriefing a 60-minute case.
  4. I debriefed each AO differently, depending on what I scored on it.
    • For example, if I received Not Addressed (NA) on an AO, I asked myself what I could have done differently to identify the issue. What in the case should have been a trigger to let me know this was an issue? Did I just run out of time?
    • If I scored Nominal Competence (NC) on an AO, I asked myself: What was I supposed to write about? Was I going in the right direction? Did I know it was an issue but didn’t know what to write? Or did I write for the sake of writing, hoping that the marker would find something good in my response? Did I run out of time? What would it have taken to get from NC to Reaching Competent (RC)?
    • If I scored a Reaching Competence (RC), I asked myself: Was it because I spent too much time on another AO, achieving a mark of distinction elsewhere at the expense of this AO? Did I write too much, but not get all the issues? Did I run out of time? What would it have taken to get from RC to C?
    • If I scored a C, I asked: Could I have written less? How could I have been more efficient? Getting a C is interesting because you might imagine that everything is great and there is no need to worry. But you also have to look at the whole case. Did you get a C on two of the five AOs? Out of what you wrote, where did you score Cs—was it from a few lines or from everything you wrote? It is important to look at your response holistically and critically debrief each piece, so that you can refine your case writing technique.
    • If I scored a Competent with Distinction (CD), I asked myself: Did I write too much and got RCs and NCs on the other AOs? If I did, chances are I managed my time poorly. I tried not to aim for a CD because I found it generally meant I ended up with a CD only on one AO and poor marks on the others, which didn’t help at all.

You’ll notice that a lot of the above questions throughout the debrief process relate to time management. As you ask yourself these questions, it can be helpful to also look back at your plan and edit it according to what you should have done differently. For example, you may need to shift some of your time allocations from one AO to a different one.

In addition to revising your plan, you may want to rewrite portions (or all) of your response under your new time limits. For more tips on time management in case writing, please see the blog post series from Jeff Herzog CPA: Jeff’s Hot Tips for Time Management.

The views expressed in this post are those of the guest writer, Adrian Serban CPA, MBA. Please refer to for the latest guidelines from the CPA Western School of Business.