How to get ready for Capstone 1 in the CPA Professional Education Program
Capstone 1 is all about teamwork, communication and collaboration, says CPA PEP coach and mentor Gevorg Grigoryan, CPA, who presents his study tips and hacks
Gevorg Grigoryan, CPA, is an instructor, mentor and coach to students in the CPA program. Visit Gevorg CPA to learn more and subscribe to Gevorg’s YouTube channel to access CPA program videos.
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Once you pass the CPA PEP core and elective modules, you’ll be faced with the next obstacle: Capstone 1. This module can be confusing in terms of format, examination style, and group dynamics, because it’s unlike all prior modules.
In this article, I’ll break down the Capstone 1 format, its assessment, how it’s linked with Common Final Examination (CFE), and my study tips to help you pass.
What’s Capstone 1?
The Capstone 1 module is designed to teach you soft skills, which are called "Enabling Competencies" in CPA Canada’s The CPA Competency Map. Examples of Enabling Competencies include teamwork, oral communication and collaboration.
The entire Capstone 1 module is about working in a team setting. You will be put in a team with four to five randomly chosen candidates and you’ll be working together on one large case study, typically 55-65 pages long. This case is the same for everyone taking your Capstone 1 module that semester. You can find the name of your Capstone 1 case on CPA Canada’s website.
How to pass Capstone 1
Capstone 1 has no written exams. To pass it, you have to successfully complete a written report and a 30-minute oral presentation, both in a team setting. The written report is divided into several parts, with feedback provided by your facilitator after each section. Your presentation is made to a panel of volunteer CPAs who will assess your presentation skills, how you answer questions, your understanding of the strategic issues, and teamwork effectiveness.
I’ve been a Capstone 1 lead panelist many times and the biggest challenge I’ve seen candidates face is effective teamwork. You must communicate with your team and make sure everyone presents equally and participates in answering questions, otherwise your team may fail. Having said this, in years of coaching CPA Canada candidates on Capstone 1 and the Common Final Examination, I have not seen anyone fail Capstone 1. Though it’s technically possible, the chances are low, so your strategy with Capstone 1 is to complete your assigned sections quickly and effectively, and use your extra time to prepare for the CFE, which is the real challenge.
Capstone 1 to CFE Day 1
The CFE Day 1 case is based on the Capstone 1 case: it’s the same company some years into the future. CFE Day 1 will start with an update on strategic issues from Capstone 1, industry changes, new financing information, big picture issues, new strategic options and operating issues. Both Capstone 1 and CFE Day 1 need to be answered using the “CPA Way” format, including qualitative and quantitative analysis of all options.
CPA Canada offers two versions of the Day 1 case in the CFE to allow experienced writers to re-attempt the same case without the need to re-learn a new case. If you’re a first-time CFE writer, you don’t have a choice of which version of the Day 1 case to write, you must write your Capstone 1 case version. However, if you were previously unsuccessful on the CFE, you can choose from either of the available versions. I recommend the first version because it helps you with future proofing: if you are unsuccessful yet again, you can write the same case on your third try, without the need to learn a new case, while version two cases expire.
Additionally, experienced CFE writers frequently ask me whether they need to re-take Capstone 1 before the next CFE attempt. I don’t recommend this. Capstone 1 is meant to teach you teamwork and presentation skills, it does little to prepare you CFE Day 1.
Similarly, if you’re an international trained accountant under Memorandum of Understanding, such as Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) and Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), you have the option to take Capstone 1 or to skip it. I suggest skipping it. Both experienced writers and international candidates should download the Capstone 1 case from CPA Canada’s website and study independently, or with a help of a CPA tutor, as this approach is more efficient and focused on the key areas needed for success.
Capstone 1 study tips
Let’s look at Capstone 1 strategies. Here are my top tips to help you pass Capstone 1:
- Review the submission guidelines: There are many intricacies in the Capstone 1 written report submissions. For example, you must use 12-point Arial font in Word and “fit to page” function in Word is not permitted. Make sure to review the Capstone 1 Candidate Guide, which you’ll receive at the start of the module, to understand these strict requirements.
- Practise your part: To successfully pass the oral presentation component, you must present using PowerPoint slides and answer questions from the panel. Scripts and cue cards are not allowed, so I suggest that you rehearse your part several time so that you’re comfortable with the material and can present confidently without prompts.
- Outline the case: The Capstone 1 case is divided into several sections: company information, industry background, the management team, banking information, board dialogue and appendices. Read all these sections in detail and create an outline to organize your thoughts and find key points.
- Note the page numbers: The Capstone 1 case has lots of detail, but not all of it is relevant for CFE Day 1. The most important sections for CFE Day 1 are users, company information, and banking information. For example, the company’s key success factors, mission, vision, and values need to be addressed in CFE Day 1, and the company’s interest rate may be needed in CFE Day 1 to solve the quantitative analysis. A good study hack here is to highlight and memorize what page number this information is located on so that you can quickly look up during CFE Day 1.
- Divide and conquer: Don’t be a perfectionist and try to complete the entire Capstone 1 written report yourself. Leverage your team strengths and divide the tasks into equal chunks. For example, if someone in your team is strong with finance, assign them the complex finance calculations. Your goal is to moderate your time and start preparing for the CFE, which is your main obstacle.
Candidates I have coached in the current and previous Capstone 1 modules have said they enjoyed the module and learned a great deal. Though it has no written exams, the Capstone 1 module provides an opportunity to learn and apply professional business writing skills, oral communication and collaboration skills, which are all necessary to become a successful Canadian CPA. You should approach both the Capstone 1 module and the Day 1 of the CFE with a strong understanding of the CFE structure and a solid study plan.