Perfecting your exam technique to help you achieve exam success

A reminder of the key principles of exam technique.

Sean Purcell

Congratulations on following my advice for the last few months via these articles and be assured that you are well on your way to passing your exam, which is very close.

However, you need to make sure that you demonstrate your knowledge to the examining team in a way that maximises your score and I want to use this article to remind you about the key principles of exam technique.

Think of your exam as a project management exercise in mark acquisition. To demonstrate your competency in a subject, you need to demonstrate that you can get at least 50% of the marks to achieve a pass, and ideally you should aim higher to give yourself a clear margin of safety.

If you think of it like a project it should be broken down into manageable chunks of time, with clear targets for each chunk. As someone who has worked with students and ACCA for over 25 years, I have seen lots of potentially good candidates not get rewarded for their obvious knowledge. Some of the reasons for this are as follows.

Poor time management

This could be the result of poor CBE platform familiarity, but if you have done what we discussed in the last article this will not be your problem. For most students it comes down to not being competent in allocating and then sticking to time, so you need to have a strict budget for how long you spend on each question.

As accountants we are instilled with a need to get things perfect and all balanced correctly. In an exam we do not need to be 100% perfect and, therefore, you must balance your time with the marks available in each question and be prepared to move on if you run out of time, even if your answer isn’t perfect or complete.  So, if you were taking the Applied Skills Performance Management exam, which is three hours long and has 100 marks available, you would be looking at about 1.8 minutes per mark.

I would advise you to be strict on your time allocation, so in section A where the objective test questions are worth two marks each, you should spend, on average, no longer than 3.6 minutes (1.8 x 2) per question. If you cannot do a particular question, move on to the next one. If you finish the section early you can return to any questions you have missed.

For some exams that require a significant amount of reading and planning – for example, Strategic Business Leader, you will need to factor in time to do this and then plan your time allocation accordingly. SBL is an interesting one as the exam can be up to 14 pages long with many exhibits to read. It also has 20 professional skills marks available, which don’t actually require specific time to earn, so you need to allocate the time after planning and reading to only 80 technical marks.

So, for the four-hour SBL exam, it may take 40 minutes of reading and planning time, which leaves you with 200 minutes to allocate to 80 technical marks and, in this case, you would be budgeting a time allocation of 2.5 minutes per mark (200/80).

Help the marker to give you marks

Your answer should have a clear logical flow and structure, separating the points you want to gain marks for with a line space. This will make the job of a marker much easier and, therefore, make mark allocation easier. Constructing a well-structured and mark-focused answer requires practice and planning, so make sure you practise planning and completing practice questions to time.

Reading the question requirements carefully

This advice has been given to you for as long as you probably have been sitting exams, but is still very important to follow. We must realise that most of us get a little stressed when sitting exams, which often causes chemicals in our brains to hijack normal thought processes. This is the same for everyone and the way around it is to read the question requirements twice, maybe do a quick brainstorm, read the detailed scenario you are given, plan your answer and then read the requirements a third time to make sure you’re answering the actual question asked.

Think about yourself

In addition to all of the above, you need to make sure you keep your body in the best condition possible to give yourself the best chance in the exam. There is lots you can research on this, but the two main contributing factors are sleep and nutrition. Do you think those Olympic athletes we mentioned in the first article run a marathon the night before their race and fuel themselves on junk food?

Well done on your focus and I am pleased that many of you turned study into a habit, resulting in very little willpower being needed to do it as it just became normal.

I would like to wish you all the very best in your exams in which you are going to do brilliantly.

Sean Purcell BA ACMA CGMA is an ACCA expert tutor who regularly contributes to ACCA programmes around the world. He was recently voted 2020 lecturer of the year by PQ magazine.