What markers want

The case study exam presents a complex business issue that will challenge your ability to problem solve, identify the ethical implications and provide an effective solution. Now that the exam has moved to computer, the markers give their tips on preparing for the exam and what to expect on the exam day.

Before the exam

• It goes without saying that you should always read and digested the previous Vital articles written by the examiners. It would also be excellent preparation to read the examiners’ reports on recent exams, look at published illustrative scripts, and review the general layout of past marking keys for examples of the sort of analysis, judgement, conclusions and recommendations that are rewarded. You can find these at icaew.com/casestudy

• Make sure you are familiar with the exam software before the exam – good preparation reduces anxiety. Avoid widening columns: if the page is wider than about half the screen, your script will be difficult to view when marking.

• It is a common error to type your report in the wrong sections – take some time to avoid doing this. Here is an overview of what each tab means and explains where you will add your Executive Summary and responses to Requirement 1, 2 and 3 during your case study exam:

← Tab 1 = Executive Summary
← Tab 2 = Requirement 1
← Tab 3 = Requirement 2
← Tab 4 = Requirement 3

The first cell in each tab will be labelled to remind you where to add your response.

• Make sure you are familiar with the figures within the Advance Information, how they are derived, and the direction the company is going in. All this will help with any financial analysis or strategy.

During the exam

• Plan your time carefully – spread your time evenly over the three requirements, allowing time to write the Executive Summary. Many students provide detailed answers to Requirement 1 and then their answers become progressively shorter (and weaker) as they move on to Requirements 2 and 3.

• Use formal language – try reading real business reports for some style tips on how to use business langauge. Jargon will be penalised, as will writing in the first person, referring to the directors by their first names, or using informal terminology. Writing tactless or unethical comments will also lose this mark.

Don’t refer to pages or items within the Advance Information or exam in your report – the company directors will not have these to hand.

• Headings – each section and subsection needs a heading, appendices need headings and so do columns in calculations (eg 2019 £000). Formatting such as underlining is not necessary.

• Style – the report should be from the firm (for an external report) and include a disclaimer of liability in the event of further distribution.

• Spelling – while typing, spelling errors are almost inevitable, make sure the marker can make sense of what you have written. If you find accurate typing a problem, type more slowly so that you make fewer mistakes.

• Layout – split the requirements up into their constituent parts and make sure you address all parts of the question asked (rather than the question you wanted the examiner to ask). Putting in headings at this point can help make sure parts of the answer are not missed by mistake. A good, clear layout also helps markers easily find all your relevant comments and reward them appropriately.

• Appendices – make sure these are clearly laid out and that the marker can understand what you are doing so that they can give you the appropriate reward. The markers cannot view the formulae behind the numbers, so these calculations need to be explained (eg, £300 x 12 months). It is easiest if you complete your appendices at the start of the requirement; that way, you can refer to the figures as you write your report.

• Analysis – this is all about looking at the numbers, what has changed and some of the reasons why. Structuring problems and solutions includes looking at comparisons, suggesting explanations and considering assumptions.

• Judgement – looks at evaluating key points (‘this is key because…’), looking at implications (‘this means…’), considering limitations and linkages, possible bias and scepticism.

• Conclusions – these should briefly cover all parts of the requirement. Ensure that you include any key figures from your analysis here too. There is often no right or wrong answer, but the markers like to see students come to a justified decision when one is asked for. There is no need to rewrite your entire report here.

• Recommendations – these should be case-specific, action points covering a number of different areas. Recommendations that you could have written before you saw the exam are unlikely to be adding any value (or marks) to your report. Avoid recommendations that state the obvious, such as ‘increase your sales’.

• Executive Summary – this should highlight the key findings from your report. It needs to summarise the main findings from each requirement, including the key matters that you consider the directors of the company would be most interested in.

• Keep re-reading the requirement to check that you have covered all aspects in the report and in the conclusions, and to avoid doing work not asked for, for example analysing operating expenses if an analysis just to gross profit is required.

• It helps the markers (and who wouldn’t want to do that!) if paragraphs are kept short and to the point. Long, woolly, generic sentences do not score highly and pages of dense text are difficult to mark.

• This exam isn’t about quantity – a good answer can be short and to the point. It isn’t a ‘technical’ exam, although you should avoid making basic bookkeeping or accounting errors at this stage in your career.

It is about assimilating all the information and writing a common sense report which adds value for the reader and, crucially, answers the questions asked.

The case study exam is now on computer, so make sure you get to know the functionality and formatting of the exam software before the exam day. Access the exam guide for an overview of the case study exam software, listen to on-demand webinars and practise using the blank practise software or software with sample exams.

Explore more at icaew.com/casestudy

• Thanks to the ICAEW for this article Reproduced with the permission of ICAEW, this article was first published in Vital (October 2019)