Optimising exam performance

What should students do to deliver a top exam score? We ask our June 2018 prizewinners for their top tips

Prepare for the challenge

‘Be ready to put in the hard work and commitment required to pass the exams, and to make a few sacrifices,’ says Katharyn Froggett, silver medal winner, ‘but remember that it all leads to ACCA membership,’ she adds.

Gold medal winner Alexa Williams admits that she was ‘not prepared for the step up from university and a part-time job to working full-time and studying for a professional qualification. It can be a major transition,’ she says, ‘and you need to adapt quickly to balance the pressures of a new job with studying an unfamiliar course.’

Create a study plan – and measure your progress

‘Students who don’t plan or track their progress can find that they don’t have enough time to cover the syllabus, even though they’ve been working industriously,’ says Audit and Assurance prizewinner Ali Ahmet.

Alexa Williams also recommends a structured revision plan: ‘Give yourself enough time to complete all the work required before the exam, rather than trying to fit everything into a short space of time, and then becoming stressed.’

‘I followed a 12-week course that allowed me to devote the right amount of time each week to study, followed by an intensive revision period that prepared me for the exam. Even with limited study leave, I felt confident as I knew I had covered the essential study material’

Ahead of her Advanced Audit and Assurance exam, joint prize winner Odelyn Barreto received valuable planning support from her learning provider: ‘I followed a 12-week course that allowed me to devote the right amount of time each week to study, followed by an intensive revision period that prepared me for the exam. Even with limited study leave, I felt confident as I knew I had covered the essential study material.’

Corporate Reporting prizewinner Michael Greengrass also recommends some contingency planning: ‘There will be unexpected demands from your workplace or personal life, so be ready to say "no" and to make some tough decisions. There may be more important things in life than professional study, but it should rank high on your list of priorities.’

Cover the syllabus

A good plan will help you cover the entire syllabus, essential for exam success, says Financial Management prizewinner Dr Victoria Roelofs, who also advises students to ‘try to understand how the different parts of the syllabus fit together and impact on each other’.

For Jennifer Brown, Taxation prizewinner, syllabus breadth was also a challenging aspect of ACCA exams: ‘I found it hard to cover the wide range of topics in each module in the detail required to ensure a comfortable and confident pass, but I found Kaplan study materials a great source of information and support.’

Find your own study method

Advanced Taxation prizewinner Ben Allen used free notes from Opentuition.com ‘together with the BPP textbook, study banks and flash cards’ to prepare for his exam, adding: ‘I had to memorise lots of information for the exam, so I annoyed my friends and family by asking them to test me repeatedly!’

Cement your understanding

Victoria Adams, joint Advanced Audit and Assurance prizewinner, kept stress at bay by making sure she thoroughly understood each topic as she went along: ‘Don’t leave it too close to the exam. Ask questions when you don’t understand and make the most of your tutors. You will be more effective when studying – and in the exam – if you are calm and confident in your knowledge.’

A failed attempt at the Audit and Assurance exam (‘which came as quite a shock’) also made Irene Kimani appreciate the importance of ‘understanding syllabus topics and then learning how to relate this knowledge to exam questions’.

Read what examiners have to say

When he prepared for his Advanced Performance Management exam, prizewinner Philip Ryan studied the examiner’s reports, which showed that previous students ‘had struggled to evaluate the quality of the performance report, rather than the performance of the business, based on the data provided. I therefore knew not to make the same mistake in my exam,’ he says. ‘It was also very helpful to read the examiner’s article on reading question requirements. It helped me understand exactly what the examiner wants when different verbs are used in the question.’ 

‘Good time management is essential. Many ACCA syllabuses are extensive, and often cover highly technical areas, so it can be challenging to find the study time required to cover everything’

Timing is everything…

‘Good time management is essential,’ says Katharyn Froggett. ’Many ACCA syllabuses are extensive, and often cover highly technical areas, so it can be challenging to find the study time required to cover everything.’

For Financial Reporting prizewinner Ahmad Fauzee Bin Mohd Hassan, time management was ‘the most difficult obstacle’ when preparing for the exam, even for a full-time student: ‘I had to efficiently divide my evening between self-study and other activities, as I spent my day in class – but self-study is vital as classroom tuition is not enough,’ he says. Sebastien Johnson, Advanced Financial Management prizewinner and Bronze medal winner, works full time in a high-profile position – his advice is ‘to be as dedicated to your studies as you are to your job. Make sure you spend enough time studying and stick to your routine of when to start – and stop – every day.’

Practice, practice, practice

‘Practice is king!’ says Performance Management prizewinner Zeli Cheng.

‘The exam room is very different to a study session,’ adds Jennifer Brown, ‘so use an approved exam kit, and read past exams, exam debriefs and supporting documents – use all the tools available to you.’

Odelyn Barreto adds that ‘past papers give you the feel of writing the actual exam, which I felt was an advantage in my last session as I wasn’t taken by surprise by any questions.’

Ali Ahmet suggests using practice answers ‘as a springboard to revisit the textbook and to hone theoretical knowledge. It’s a chance to see how theory is treated in different exam questions – if you can’t cope with these slight variations, then go back to the theory to improve your understanding.’

Know the mark scheme

‘If you understand the mark scheme, then even if you don’t know some of the question requirements you can still pick up marks,’ says Philip Ryan. ‘Practise time management in the exam to give yourself the opportunity to earn as many marks as possible, and sit at least one mock exam before the big day. When I answer scenario-based questions I also try to apply my knowledge rather than give generic answers,’ he adds, ‘as, by linking answer points back to the scenario, you can gain better marks than if you write about broader topics.’

For the Performance Management exam, Zeli Cheng also had a clear, mark-driven strategy: ‘In this exam, I knew I could gain easy marks from almost all the calculations, so I paid more attention to the analysis and comments sections, improving my performance with reading and writing practice, especially writing.’

The added challenge of work and study

Combining ACCA study with a demanding job can be one of the biggest challenges, says Michael Greengrass: ‘I work in internal audit – I travel a lot – and often work weekends and evenings, which leaves little time for study. Effective time management is the only way to progress through the exams while continuing to lead an enjoyable life. Organise yourself and your priorities,’ he says. ‘Plan ahead for commitments with friends and family, and continue to enjoy holidays where you can recharge, to support you through future obstacles.’

Emma Bardsley finds it a struggle to ‘switch off’ from work: ‘I also have a hectic social life, so squeezing study in while having some fun is always tough.’

Sebastien Johnson admits that balancing ‘an important job, with growing responsibility, with hugely demanding ACCA studies’ was a challenge: ‘I pride myself on being a team player,’ he says, ‘but it was hard to fit everything in, and I had to adapt accordingly.’

Victoria Adams advises working students to ‘build study into your routine as much as possible – find a good place to study, separate from your working environment and which has good coffee nearby!’

‘You need passion and interest, and a willingness to continue learning after the exams – but it can lead to a very fulfilling future with many options’

Keep your eye on the prize

‘Persevere with your studies – it may seem daunting at times but it’s worth it in the end,’ says Dr Victoria Roelofs, who also found that ‘the practical application of my studies also really improved my understanding of accountancy’.

Lysann McKay adds: ‘You need passion and interest, and a willingness to continue learning after the exams – but it can lead to a very fulfilling future with many options.’

Ahmad Fauzee Bin Mohd Hassan sometimes wondered how he was going to cover everything in the syllabus and, he says, ‘the exam is also a test of your ability to reason, rather than to blindly memorise – but I like a challenge and that’s the beauty of ACCA.’

And, as Ben Allen says: ‘It can be hard when it feels that you have no life outside work and study, but it’s worth it for a career that is both worthwhile and rewarding.’