Exam preparation with no overheating

Back in 1999 when I started preparing for my first ACCA exam, I had a colleague, who was also starting from the lowest step of the qualification ladder. We were about the same age and were working at the same company. Overall, we were to go through the same journey, but, it soon turned out, we were leveraging completely opposite approaches to training. Read on…

After hearing a lot from my senior colleagues on their failures at the exam and how big of a blow that was for their self-esteem, I firmly decided to “aspire to get to stars or higher”. I was measuring my progress with no look on the standard ACCA 50% benchmark but trying to get to the 85 marks level, which was in line with the А grade in my university. I was studying, studying and then studying some more… I was reading through thick textbooks, while the criterion that I used to determine whether I prepared well for the exam was, at least, one fully used-up pen and solving through all (or almost all) past exam questions.

Why was I acting like this? Well, maybe, I was still feeling the drive that I hadn’t used up in full during my university years. At the same time, I really liked the finance subjects as such. And, probably, I might have been dreaming about showing up at the pages of the Student Accountant magazine as the student, who managed to get the highest mark in the world for a particular subject. There was a section in that magazine, in which the ACCA President congratulated such “nerds” and presented them a 100-pound cheque. Maybe, it was all that together. And, maybe, I just didn’t want to fail the exam and wanted to get a cushion of some 35 marks.

Anyhow, for one of the first papers, I managed to get 97 marks (and 80 for the other one) and, being propelled by the mix of awe and jealousy from my peers, I was looking forward to getting an invitation to Glasgow, where the ACCA HQ was then located. You can’t imagine how disappointed I felt, when I received a copy of the Student Accountant where – instead of my name – I saw that of some Nepali guy who managed to get 98 marks! That’s how I lost trust in justice…

And what about my colleague from the beginning of the story? Well, having patiently listened to my lamentations, he said: “As for me – I overstudied. I got 51 marks”.

And that’s how our long journey up started, from paper to paper, from level to level, always side by side: me getting 86 marks, him getting 50 marks (excellent!), me getting 75 marks, him – 52 marks (terribly overstudied!)… You might be thinking that he would eventually fail an exam? I was expecting that too. It’s not easy to acknowledge that I, being generally a kind person, was desperately waiting for him to fail. It’s not because I wished him anything bad, but it was more a competition of approaches, visions and paradigms in the end!

We commenced the programme at the same session. We finished it at the same session too. Neither I, nor him failed a paper. As a ridicule (or consolation) from the fate, I got my diploma by post one day before he got his. When I left the company, we were at the same career level.

The moral is? Now, when I am on the other side of the barricades and have acted as a marker on multiple occasions, I, of course, see that you can actually guarantee the pass mark, even though you might have no idea on many nuances of a specific paper. And it’s not just about the celebrated exam techniques.

Don’t get me wrong, in no way am I trying to discourage those, who seek to get the “gold” in the exam, i.e. know and do almost everything. I respect this choice. We all have different priorities and views on opportunity costs. I just want to stress that you can plan and assure that you pass the exam, even though you have not crammed all and everything from the textbook. And, still, you can get a lot of valuable insights from this ACCA journey.

How? Well, not everyone is so lucky that they can get through 12-14 papers, always “strolling on the tightrope”, but a reasonable and safe goal of 55-60 marks is fully feasible. Without getting into specifics for individual papers, these are the generalised recommendations:

  1. Learn to manage time
  2. Practice rather than read
  3. Get easy marks first
  4. Presentation makes the difference
  5. Fall in love with the “essay” format

These five rules will help you successfully get through the exams. Keep to these tips and you will drastically improve your chances of passing. I am not saying that they alone will enable you to pass exams; you will need – surprise – some skills and knowledge too. But I have seen many times in my tutoring and marking experience: many bright and insightful student wouldn’t pass an exam because they can’t locate the easy marks to grab, they can’t let go of the question when they run out of the allocated time or they write too watered-down essays.

In the next articles, we will look deep into each of these five facets of the examination technique.

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