Secrets of success

May 2021

Clancy Peiris discovers from top PQs how they passed the CIMA case study.

We interviewed our November 2020 Case Study top performers, who were delighted to share some of their secrets for exam success with us. We hope that you will find their insights useful and that they will provide you with practical tips to use during your own exam preparation sessions and Case Study exams.

Find your memory technique

Regardless of the topic and exam type, shortterm memory recall is proven to be a key factor in exam success. However, our learning styles are unique so you will need to find a memory technique that works for you.

All of our top performers recommended using succinct notes such as bite-sized chunks of imagery or narrative to aid recall. Rachel Knott, who reached the joint-first position in the Strategic Case Study exam, said: “I write down my own notes, make posters and use different colours.” Our Operational Case Study exam top performer, Sanuja Rajasinghe, added: “While self-studying for many of my Objective Test exams, I found it very helpful to write up my own short notes while going through the material. This helped me remember those points during my Objective Test exams, as well as during the Operational Case Study.”

The key here is not to think of the compilation of these revision notes as a critical step for success, what’s more important is how it helps you remember and retain information.

In other words, simply writing out text will have little benefit. Using succinct notes, spider diagrams, mnemonics, and post-it notes can all aid recall and avoid cognitive overload.

Plan your answers

You only have a set amount of time to answer each task in the Case Study exam. Therefore, producing answers that score high marks requires careful planning. A CIMA examiner recommends you “take time to plan your answer so that you are able to apply your knowledge to the specifics of the case”.

In fact, all of our top performers mentioned that they plan their answers before physically writing them out. Danielle Pye, who reached the joint-first position for the Management Case Study exam, explained: “I read the question carefully and then split my time based on the question weightings.” Why is this a good approach? Well, it helps Danielle deconstruct the exam into manageable pieces and accurately break down the time that she should be spending on each question, ensuring that her answers provide further depth when required.

In addition, Sanuja emphasised the importance of structure. He first listed out the key points and then prioritised them. He also used sub-headings, paragraphs and bullet points in his exam answers, so that his answers appeared well signposted and are very easy to mark. This way Sanuja can also easily double-check that he’s clearly made his point and is sensibly answering the exam questions.

Develop your exam skills

We also asked our top exam performers about how they made sure that their exam skills were on point. All of them highlighted the importance of practising with past exam questions to help refine their exam technique.

“Practise, practise, practise past exam tasks. Practising past tasks and then checking against the published answers will help you to understand what the examiner is looking for,” said one examiner in the May–August 2020 examiner’s report. We know that reading notes or listening to audio lectures is relatively easy and comforting, whereas question practice is harder, time-consuming and challenging, so candidates often leave it to the last minute.

However, performing a mock exam significantly improves your chances of exam success so make sure you include it in your revision plan. “Through question practice I improved my time management. I ran out of time during my first mock exam, but I had a few minutes left at the end of the real exam to review my points and correct mistakes,” said Sanuja. The key to question practice is to do a thorough review of what you answered well and what you need to improve once you’re finished. If you’re finding many of your answers are incorrect, don’t be disheartened. Learning from your mistakes is an effective way to improve.

Practical application is key

We sometimes spot candidates trying to crowbar knowledge into their Case Study exam scripts where it’s not relevant and doesn’t help answer the question. In exam feedback, CIMA examiners regularly emphasise that “demonstrating good technical understanding is not enough on its own to pass”. In short, simply regurgitating theoretical knowledge will not get you very far.

To successfully pass your Case Study exams, you must apply this knowledge to the business scenario in front of you, not the one you wish you had, and make sure that you only incorporate relevant information from the exam and pre-seen materials in your answers.

Danielle mentioned that she made great use the exam blueprints, which set out in detail what is examinable in each CIMA exam. All exam questions are based on the content of the exam blueprints and helpfully map out the skills and competencies you need to acquire to pass using ‘I can’ statements. They are really useful to identify gaps in your knowledge, what you need to improve and what the examiners expect from candidates in the Case Study exam.

Make the most of the pre-seen materials We asked our top performers to share their insights on how to best use the pre-seen materials before the Case Study exams.

They all agreed that having a thorough understanding of the pre-seen materials is critical for success.

The more immersed into the pre-seen materials they felt, the easier it was for our top performers to use and apply the relevant knowledge in their answers for the Case Study exam.

Danielle recommended pretending to work for the organisation outlined in the preseen. In addition, Rachel suggested writing your answers using the first-person (e.g. use “I/we should” rather than “they should”), so that you can better simulate the level-specific role you are expected to fill in the exam as explained in the exam blueprint. It’s worth remembering that it’s also useful to analyse the industry the organisation operates in as this will help you understand the wider context.

This is also supported by our annual examiners’ feedback. They always emphasise that you need to carefully review any financial information provided, and your answers must demonstrate understanding of the financials.

For example, if a business has major cashflow issues, any solutions you outline to improve business performance must be mindful of the shortages of funds and sources of finance.

To put it a different way, if you are unable to demonstrate your understanding of the pre-seen materials, your answers will look too generic and won’t address the issues presented in the scenario. The examiner will think you’ve simply not read the pre-seen materials and you are unlikely to pass.

Focus on wellbeing

Finally, we asked our top performers about their approach to wellbeing and how they looked after themselves as the exam approached.

A common habit among top performers is timetabling – in other words creating a study plan they can stick to. Joshua, who reached joint-first position in the Management Case Study exam, told us that he built “a realistic overall schedule for studying; that included time for me to completely shut-down”. All our top performers did incorporate time out from study into their plans and plenty of breaks, during the days they do study, so they have something to look forward to.

Allowing for flexibility with timetables is also important. Our top performers designed study plans that allowed them to complete their revision and exam preparation a couple of days ahead of the actual exam day. “I aim not to learn anything new right before the Case Study; I leave one or two contingency days,” said Rachel – taking time to relax and unwind before the big day, rather than trying to learn new topics, will benefit your final exam performance. You should also make sure that you get enough sleep before your exam, it will be vital for effective exam performance.

Thank you to our November 2020 Case Study top performers for taking the time to share their insights with us. And to all of our students, best of luck with your CIMA journey!

• Clancy Peiris, Senior Learning Development Manager, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA & CIMA)