APM – Retakes

February 2023

Failed ACCA APM? In order to plot a route to success you need to know where you are, says Geoff Cordwell.

Failing a paper at the Strategic level of ACCA is a blow, of course. Many might say, “well, I learnt something and so I am now in a better position”. I think that this is true.

Studying something will improve knowledge and practising questions will help improve technique.

However, there is a problem when failing APM which isn’t present in some of the other papers at this level.

If you attempt an ATX question, it should be obvious, at least some of the time, where you have gone wrong. Maybe you couldn’t remember a rule? Or maybe you used the wrong tax rate?

In SBR errors can be made with the IFRS rules, either in principle or in application to the question. Either way, you know what you don’t know.

In APM this is a little different. APM, at its core, is a management accounting/performance management paper. There are very few ‘rules’ to learn. Every scenario is different, and the only constraint in the questions is the imagination of the examiner. What is ‘right’ in one business might be ‘wrong’ in another. For example, incremental budgeting works great for a well-established coffee shop chain but is a disaster for a mobile phone start up facing huge technological changes every week.

Equally, in APM, the questions can be subtly different to each other. You’re asked to create a justified KPI, and you forget to justify it or merely talk about the financial effect of having it. Which means that you don’t score well at all. In the exam, therefore, you are writing what you think are good points, but in the end you score 43%.

What this can lead to is confusion and that awful question, “where did I go wrong here?”.
Clearly, if you don’t know why you have failed, then there is a difficulty with the next question – “what do I need to do differently”.

So, what would I advise?

1. Get advice. This may be the first thing you have ever failed. There are tutors out there that have seen it all before and can help.

2. Deal with any emotional baggage that you may have. Failing a paper can undermine confidence, and this is common. Speaking to a coach or your tutor can help. How you respond to a setback is key to your future progress.

3. Carefully read the examiner’s report for the paper you sat. Frequently, common faults in the student cohort are mentioned, and it could be that what you did wrong is included.

4. Take another look at the exam paper (this might be painful), try to remember what you did and seek advice from tutors about the approach you took.

5. Audit your personal position, you need to know why you have failed…
Generally, what you need to do is diagnose yourself. Did you know enough? Were there gaps in your knowledge? Was your technique strong enough?
In my view this is hard to do alone. Being aware of your own weaknesses, although important, is tricky. Maybe you don’t know what you don’t know? This suggests you need help to diagnose your specific problems along with professional advice as to what to do about them.
This is my solution to the diagnosis issue, but your own tutor might have something else.
Diagnostic Knowledge Test: A test of the critical aspects of APM knowledge – do you know enough? Once you have identified what you don’t know well enough then it is easier to work towards improving.
Diagnostic Writing Assessment: Based in a relatively simple knowledge, area this assessment provides feedback on your approach and technique. Are you good at structure choices? Do you use enough of the specifics in the questions and so apply yourself well? Is your writing clear?
Do you adopt good professional skills? Again, armed with good quality feedback you are better placed to improve.
Both these products are included in my new diagnostic revision course plus mock course.

6. Book an appropriate course.

If you scored less than 40% then a revision-only course might not be enough. I sometimes recommend a re-set, to start again. APM, in my opinion, cannot easily be studied from a book, it needs to be explained by an expert. A common reason for failure is lack of understanding stemming from an attempt to self-study APM. If you score very lowly, then starting again with a competent tutor is wise.
If you score between 40% and 47% then a revision course is sensible. You should get concise revision notes, a reminder of the key principles and plenty of questions to practice. Marking of some of your work is also vital. You need expert guidance on how to improve in APM. I certainly mark at least four questions from every student on my revision courses. The feedback is crucially important.
If you score 48% or 49%, then a mock exam only might be enough, but consult your tutor.
I cannot recommend the ACCA’s own mock exam. They are NOT new questions and are NOT marked. They may be free, but the questions can be found in most revision kits as they are merely old exam questions from years ago. You get what you pay for here I am afraid.
In my view, retaking students need to better understand where they are going wrong, since only then can they plot a route towards a pass.

• Geoff Cordwell is a tutor at FMELearnonline.com. See GeoffCordwell.com