The exercise had many of the marks of another day at the office for the three principals of WFS Financial. They greeted their clients warmly, shaking hands and smiling, before getting down to the details of financial planning. Except the setting wasn’t a true office, the company name was invented, the principals weren’t financial planners and their “clients” weren’t the real thing, either.

The principals members of the winning team of financial planning students from Kitchener, Ont.-based Conestoga College’s Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning were participating in the 2013 Canadian Institute of Financial Planning (CIFP) Case Challenge held at Centennial College in Toronto in April. And the “clients” were the competition’s judges.

The annual competition, now in its third year, is open to colleges and universities across the country. The exercise is meant to provide financial services students with the opportunity to apply the skills they’ve learned in the classroom to a “real life” scenario.

“It’s just a great learning experience overall,” says Rebekah Snow, 20, one of the members of WFS Financial and the S in the mock firm’s name. “Even the prep [work], while it seemed tough, was a lot of fun.”

Brittany Frank, 22, and David Wania, 26 were Snow’s team members. The three students are in their third and final year of Conestoga’s business administration (financial planning) diploma program.

Eight teams from six schools competed this year. In addition to the Conestoga College team, participants came from Centennial College, Humber College’s Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning and Ryerson University (all based in Toronto), as well as from Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Mississauga, Ont., and the Kentville, N.S., campus of Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC).

WFS Financial team members stood out from their peers because of their ability to craft a comprehensive plan, says Anthony Williams, the CIFP’s vice president, academic affairs, and a judge in the competition.

“All the teams were very good, and all the teams were very competitive,” Williams says. “But the team from Conestoga seemed to be the team [that] was able to identify best all of the issues that were facing the [clients] and then formulate a plan to address those issues.”

NSCC took second place in the competition, while the team from Sheridan College was third.

Students were given a case study about a big-spending, common-law couple in their 30s who are hoping to start a family in the near future. Teams were given two hours to create a financial plan for the fictional couple. Each team then had 20 minutes to present its plan to the panel of four judges made up of certified financial planners (CFPs).

The judges had 10 minutes to ask questions. The judges, in addition to assessing the substance of the plans, emphasized the importance of the students’ soft skills by sometimes taking on the persona of a client to ask questions.

“So much of planning is the relationships; the communication skills,” says Williams. “We wanted to test [students] on those as well.”

In fact, the Conestoga team even handed out business cards with a followup appointment written on the back as a reminder for their “clients.”

Competing in the CIFP challenge shows students the value of their studies, says Tom Barker, a professor with Centennial’s School

of Business, as well as the opportunities in the field.

“It highlights the value of a [CFP designation] and the path to professional financial planning,” says Barker. “It underscores an extremely viable career path for our students.”

The competition also is valuable for the financial services industry as a whole, says Williams, because it makes for a stronger future workforce: “It’s one thing to read a textbook and understand how to do a calculation. But to actually put that into practice, that’s the real skill and that’s the real test as a [financial] planner.”

Teams consist of three students with one or two faculty coaches. Participating schools can enter up to two teams in the challenge. To be eligible, students must have a valid student ID card and be enrolled in a financial services program at a post-secondary institution. Most students competing in the challenge are in the final year or semester of their programs.

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