Exam Technique: The Readiness is All!

Results have just been released for the recent global CIMA exams November 2009.  A candidate who failed P1 Managerial Level is disappointed to receive just 35% after believing that he had done well at the time and requested advice.

I write:

35% looked at another way is just 15% off the pass mark. Assuming you have the ability, the knowledge and have put in all the hard work, the reason for this could be one of several things. It is a very good idea to get an adminstrative review (your college may do this free as part of a “pass guarantee” or you may have to pay a nominal admin fee) this will tell you exactly where you scored poorly. You would be surprised to know that something like 50% of available marks in P1 are to do with written parts and yet many candidates focus on the mathematical part.

Exam technique: if you found you had trouble finishing questions or sections on time, or left out any all together, this could indicate you need to raise your time management skills. This is where lots of timed question practice is essential. I would recommend investing in a cheap sports stopwatch, set it to “zero” at the start of your exam and keep a very close eye on how you are doing for time all the way through.

For example, say the question is to do with Just in Time, or whatever, and seems like a very simple question. It is all too easy to jot down a very quick but dull trite answer of a couple of paragraphs, believing you have got it “sown” so that you can move on and concentrate on the harder questions. Or, alternatively, you spiel out whatever comes to mind. In fact, you may only get two or three marks for this approach because the marker perceives your answer as superficial and lacking in depth.

You deserve the full five or ten marks!

In the time you have, write your answer – using an answer plan – with as much depth and as insight that you can muster. Be sure it relates directly to what the question asks. If the question says “how?” do not write about “what” “when”or “why” as you won’t get any marks for it. This is why you may think you have done well on leaving the exam hall, but your answer is not on the marker’s crib sheet.

To add depth, instead of just putting, say, “JIT means lean manufacturing” add the word, which can be imaginary, “…because…” “…stockpiling does not add value”.

As you will only have 8 – 18 minutes to write essay-type questions, it is important to have practised writing these in advance, keeping your sentences pithy and punchy. Introduce the point/s you are making as early on as possible.

As soon as you are reaching the end of the time allowed for the question or section you are on, quickly sum up in a good sentence that relates both to the topic syllabus area and the thrust of the question.

For example, Just in Time = modern business environment = competitive advantage = revision acronym [use them!] = Full Concentration Gives Quick Clear Thinking = FCGQCT = Flexibility, Customer-Focused, Global, Quality, Costs, Technology.

So, to sum up the question “Explain how quality control systems help Just in Time” you are ready to conclude, “In the modern business environment, which is flexible, customer focused, global and utilises high technology and cost controls, quality systems are important in giving Company X the competitive advantage in the market.”

State the obvious.

The other way to improve on time is to practise being able to do pro-forma type questions at top speed, blind-fold and with one hand tied behind your back, so that when the invigilator shouts out, “you have fifteen minutes left!” (and you hear the flurry of panic and gasps in the hall, including your own!) you WILL be able to throw down the pro-forma and bung in your figures. You WILL learn how to use your calculator as speedily as possible using ONE fell calculation for each column instead of several separate ones (use the brackets function for long-winded expected values calculations). Put the Discount Factor values in first on the NPV proforma so that you can automatically multiply by this when you get to your end total.

Make sure you can sling together a balance sheet, income statement and cash flow proforma in two shakes of a cat’s tail. Be able to go straight into workings one to and three, with little to no thought, and transfer your figures over to the proforma systematically.

Markers will be looking at your time management skills, as the examiners like to throw in complicated calculations early on to try to trick the unwary candidate into taking too long over a question. It is important to attempt and finish all questions for this reason.

Often, the obscure tricky calculations are only worth a couple of marks anyway, so just move on instead of getting bogged down. Make sure you state that you have not just ignored it, if you can. If it is an area not really in the syllabus, nor within your skill range in the time given, or you just do not have time, put, “Assumption: the contribution for Supplier X is at a special rate, but it will be assumed here that it is calculated at the normal contribution rate, which can be adjusted for in the financial statements.”

Put, “Assumption: this is relevant because of inflation” [when normally it would not be]. If you are wrong, this tells the marker it was not because of carelessness or ignorance.

If you know your figure is wrong acknowledge this (eg, say, you mess up with the decimal places but there are only a few minutes left). State in brackets afterwards “figures need to be checked” and then on the basis of your wrong figure carry on with the next part. You can only be penalised once for this incorrect figure. Don’t waste time by starting over again, as P1, P2 and P8 are deliberately designed to be extremely time-pressured.

Spend most, if not all, of the 20 minutes reading time studying the Section C question/s jotting down notes in pencil and highlighting key facts. Read the “requirements” part of the question first. Invest a lot of time reading this section very carefully, while your mind is fresh. Only make a choice of which questions to do when you have read them all. Do the question/s that will give you the most marks – not the most interesting one!

We all know all of this, of course, but still we leave ourselves five or ten minutes short on the last question…

“A person who cannot state what they do as a process, does not know what they are doing.” ~ W E Deming


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