Taking Beautiful CPA Exam Notes


Shawn is a weekly Club 75 Blogger as he documents his journey through the CPA Exam. He has been a member of Another71.com's Club 75 since December 2010.

I am in the midst of rewriting my notes as recommended by Jeff. This is a great idea, except for one problem: I am a horrible note-taker. Despite a lack of any medical knowledge, I have a doctorate in chicken scratch and my college notes may or may not include an impressive assortment of doodles.

What are good notes? I recently bought a book in Japanese called The Notes of Tokyo University Students are Always Beautiful. Tokyo University is the equivalent of Harvard in Japan, a prestigious school that is extremely competitive to get into.

Ms. Aya Ota, a journalist, analyzed some students and noted the trend in the title. The actual book comprises of sample notebooks used by the students for the admission exam and some explanations by various academics as to its effectiveness.

Although everyone differed in their notes, there were 7 rules that were commonly shared. They are:

1. Uniform:the header/indents were always uniform
2. Xerox: If there is no need to rewrite, use a copy
3. Blanks:are used boldly
4. Index: all the notes
5. Breaks: breaking up topics is important
6. Original: format
7. Even: pencil pressure and size

I’ll be trying to sum up my notes using the suggestions from the book. Here is what I will be striving for:

Uniform: Whatever format you decide, keeping the header and indents uniform allows the information to flow consistently. This also makes the indexing later on much easier, not to mention the aesthetic aspect. This one should be easy.

Xerox: Some information is already summed up in the most effective manner. Particularly for charts/graphs in your study material, if you do not need to “memorize” it, don’t be afraid to Xerox, cut and paste. I think determining what is useful and what is not will be the most difficult aspect for me.

Blanks: Using blanks boldly allows me to add in additional fact nuggets that I discover later on and also to use arrows/references to connect ideas that may be on different pages. For instance, after I write my notes, I may want to include a “fact nugget” that is useful, something learned from a MCQ later on or reference notes on the next page, etc. I’ll either leave room to the right or increase the space in between each line.

Index: Indexing the topics effectively so I can jump to and from different areas. I plan to create a table of contents in the first page of the notes to help me jump between ideas. For instance, my notes may be separated by individual and corporate taxation but being able to quickly compare “capital gains” or “charitable contributions” treatment between the two would be useful.

Breaks: According to the book, visual memorization can also trigger your memory by activating the “right side” of your brain. So if a topic can be summarized in a quarter-page, do not hesitate to move on to the next page, rather than cramming multiple ideas. Ideally, one page or two pages (open book) are most suited for triggering your memory through the image of your notes.

Original: Have an original format that works best for me. Each study material has different formats such as pictures, songs, anecdotes, mnemonics, etc… My preference is flowcharts combined with mnemonics so I will be striving to incorporate as much of those as possible.

Even: This seems like overkill but according to the book it is important for two reasons. First, it’s easier on your eyes when reading later. Secondly, if you are writing everything consistently it means you are more relaxed and paying equal attention to the topic. If you are rushing to copy something, your letters will be messier and the topic may not stick with you as well. I throw in the towel on this one; as mentioned, I have a PhD.

I had done the notes last time but regret one thing: typing the notes. Jeff recommends hand writing it as well but apparently there is also some scientific data to back it up. When they did a CAT scan, “hand writing” engaged the part of your brain associated with memory far more significantly than when “typing”. The material should stick better this time.

I understand that a university admission exam and the CPA will be different but it honestly sounds like good advice. It is taking longer than expected so I’m pushing back my timeframe for notes an extra week. How many of the above rules do you use?