90-Day CFE Exam Challenge Success Story: Brenda Auner


Brenda Auner, CFE, has been in government auditing for 10 years. She started out conducting compliance audits of social service contractors for Los Angeles County, and now she’s the Lead Internal Auditor at Santa Ana Unified School District. 

Earlier this year, Brenda participated in the 90-Day CFE Exam Challenge. She’d been studying off and on for a while and had even participated in a previous challenge. But this time, she got really involved — posting regularly and using the challenge framework to keep herself on track. By doing this, she was able to stay dedicated to her goal and passed the CFE Exam in May 2019.

Here’s some helpful advice and tips from Brenda for those who will join the upcoming 90-Day CFE Exam Challenge.

Why did you join the 90-Day CFE Exam Challenge?

I had tried several times to study on my own prior to joining the 90-Day CFE Exam Challenge, but life always seemed to get in the way. I'd start strong and then fizzle out and just stop studying. Add to that I have terrible study skills. So even when I did find the time to study — which was rare — I always felt like I walked away without retaining very much. I tried studying early in the morning, but that would often get cut short if my daughter woke up needing me. Then I tried to study late at night after my daughter fell asleep, and that didn't work well for me either because I was exhausted by then and lacked focus. I finally decided to join the challenge. My main reasons were to get study tips and be held accountable. I promised myself I would participate in check-ins and discussions. I also felt like I had a bit of an advantage since I had already studied three sections prior to joining the challenge. My goal was to do something accelerated but still participate for the sake of accountability.

What did your study method look like?

Since I had learned that early-morning and late-night studying were not for me, I decided to dedicate my work breaks and lunch hour to studying. I also knew I would most likely not be able to study at home on the weekends, so I had to make sure I made the most of my time at work to study when I could. As I mentioned before, I do not have good study skills. I also don't take tests well. I followed the suggested methods of studying, which include taking the Pre-Assessment and studying in order of the strongest section to the weakest section. So again, it helped that I had studied previously. I knew I might breeze through the sections I had already studied and could spend more time on the ones I hadn't studied for yet. Here’s how I structured my studying:

  • I ran through the review questions over and over (the biggest challenge was to not memorize the right answer).

  • I marked the questions I had a hard time answering correctly so that they constantly came up in my study sessions, and I forced myself to read each explanation when I got something wrong or even if I got it right but didn't feel like I fully understood why.

  • Once I completed a section, I'd take the Practice Exam for that section, but I'd also take the Practice Exam for the other section(s) I had already completed so that the information stayed fresh in my mind.

  • For topics I really struggled with, I took handwritten notes in a notebook or created process maps.

How did the challenge help you accomplish your goal of passing the CFE Exam?

The support I received from ACFE staff was so helpful. I reached out to ask how I could participate in the challenge but on an accelerated track. I had a goal test date in mind of 60 days, but I think I ended up doing it after 30 days instead. Using the study guides they provided for the 90-Day CFE Exam Challenge, I created my own version to meet my goal date. The weekly check-ins were really helpful, too. They kept me on track, and it was a bit of a confidence booster to post passing scores! On days when I didn't feel like studying, I'd see posts from other people who were doing great, and it motivated me to pull out my study materials and get to it. Also, people would ask questions that I was wondering but was too shy to ask myself. Or, people would ask questions that I knew the answer to, so that also helped...explaining something to someone else helped me realize, "Hey, I do get this!!"

What did it feel like when you got the email saying you'd passed? How did you celebrate?

I was so anxious to get that email because as I was taking the exam, I remember feeling like, "Oh my gosh, I don't remember this at all from studying." I don't think it was necessarily the case, but that's just the anxiety I get when I take a test. But when I got the email that I had passed, I yelled "YES!" and I did a little happy dance. I felt ecstatic, relieved and accomplished (and smart, haha). And then I called everyone who knew I was taking the exam to share my great news. I was so excited. I celebrated with ice cream immediately, and then my husband took me out to my favorite restaurant for dinner that weekend. 

What advice do you have for challenge participants who are preparing for the CFE Exam?

  • Do not memorize. It won't help at all if you don't have a good grasp on the concept behind each question and answer.

  • Follow the suggested methods from the ACFE and take the Pre-Assessment. Then do the sections in order. 

  • I strongly suggest that you continue to take Practice Exams for sections you've already completed.

  • Take advantage of the support that the challenge provides, from the moderators and other participants.

Throughout the challenge, it helps to know that there are people in the same boat as you, struggling to find the time or understand a particular topic. The moderators are great at responding to questions in the discussion forum and via email, and the encouragement from other participants is seriously invaluable.

The 90-Day CFE Exam Challenge provides participants with study tips and peer support to help them stay motivated and on track to reach their goal of passing the CFE Exam. The upcoming challenge begins October 1 and ends December 31.