What the examiner wants

August 2021

When it comes to the CIMA case study exams, Clancy Peiris knows what type of answers the examiners love to see CIMA case study exams are designed to test our students’ ability to deal with tasks and solve challenges in a real-life business environment.

Generally speaking, examiners love to see answers where students demonstrate good technical understanding and can apply their knowledge to the particular business scenario presented in the exam. They also love to see answers where students can showcase sound professional judgement when applying the syllabus content to their case study exam.

To this effect, examiners have instructed markers to adopt a holistic approach to marking, which means that your answer to each sub-task is read in full before being assessed on its own merits.

Here are top five things you should be familiar with and grasp to produce CIMA case study exam answers examiners love to see.

1: Understand your role

To better understand the examiners’ expectations at each level, you should start by looking at the specific role being simulated in the CIMA exam blueprints. This includes understanding the role of finance, the job role being simulated as well as the related job tasks.

The simulation will require you to demonstrate that you have acquired the knowledge, skills and mindset of the CIMA finance professional along with an appreciation of the impact of the features of the simulation such as the context, organisational structures, environment and ecosystem within which the organisation operates.

For instance, in the CIMA Operational case study exam the role simulated is that of an entry level finance professional, called ‘Finance Officer’ in the exam. The Finance Officer is responsible for planning and coordinating business operations through the preparation of budgets and financial reports based on data collected by the organisation’s information systems. At this level, you’ll be assessed on six core activities that accurately represent the most frequent and critical tasks an entry level finance professional should be able to perform.

Being familiar with the role and the job tasks simulated along with the core activities and assessment outcomes for each case study exam is extremely useful for students. So don’t forget to read the CIMA examinations blueprint for your level available on the CIMA website – it’ll help you get in the right mindset, think like a finance professional and keep your answers relevant.

2: Sharpen your technical knowledge

Each level of the CIMA Professional Qualification culminates in a case study exam, which integrates the knowledge, skills and techniques from across the three pillars into one synoptic capstone examination. The case study exam is a role simulation. It requires candidates to perform authentic work-based activities presented during the course of the exam, drawing together learning from each of the three subjects to provide solutions to the issues and challenges asked – just as a CIMA qualified professional does every day, you need to draw on your knowledge and skills to support the business.

To pass the case study exams, you’ll need to have solid technical knowledge and understanding of all the syllabus topics across each of the core activities. It’s not sufficient to rely on what you remember from sitting your objective tests, because chances are you won’t – so revise the technical materials! You’ll also need to strike the right balance between technical understanding and practical application to the issues and challenges raised in the scenario.

Simply reproducing rote-learned answers or pure technical knowledge will score very few or no marks.

If you successfully complete the core activities (or business-related tasks) for the role being simulated, you’ll be demonstrating your technical knowledge of course – but most importantly, you’ll demonstrate that you have the skills and mindset expected of a finance professional at that level. To help you prepare for this, I’d again recommend that you have a look at the CIMA exam blueprints to shed some light on what’s examinable by helping you understand the core activities, assessment outcomes and weightings for that level.

3: Check the performance descriptors

For each case study exam, CIMA has developed performance descriptors to help you make sense of your exam results feedback. Don’t overlook them, here’s why.

If you have done well across the board, your performance descriptors will highlight what you should continue to do and which skills you can build on for future exams. If you haven’t reached the passing standard for one or more core activity, the performance descriptor will capture where you have fallen short, give you advice on how to meet the requirements and help you adjust your future study sessions.

When preparing for your exams, use these performance descriptors in conjunction with other resources such as the exam blueprints to self-assess your performance and see what you need to do to fully be exam ready. You can access the performance descriptors and all other study resources through the CIMA Planner under the resources section.

4: Read the Examiner’s Report

For each level of the CIMA professional qualification, CIMA publishes a very comprehensive Examiner’s Report, where you can get valuable hints and tips directly from the examiner.

Examiner’s Reports include the main focus for each of the exam variant, the examiners’ observations and feedback for each task for all exam variants, common mistakes made by candidates, and – perhaps most importantly – their advice to future candidates. For example, one Examiner’s Report mentions that exam answers can often be improved if candidates add ‘because of…’ at the end of the sentence.

In other words, how are you supporting the statement you are making? Are you clearly explaining ‘why’ and ‘how’? Are you using the information, especially the financial information, included in the pre-seen materials?

I’d highly recommend that you read the Examiner’s Reports from past exams to get further insights into the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of the Case Study exam for your level. And of course, make sure to read my February 2021 PQ magazine column on this topic too.

5: Make the most of the pre-seen material

”To produce a good Case Study exam answer, you must have analysed the pre-seen material in depth. Ensure that you are very familiar with the business, especially the financial information, before the exam as this will help you with applying your knowledge and will save you time. Similarly, an awareness of the industry that the business is in will help you to think of the wider issues that might impact on decisions that you could be asked to comment on.’’ CIMA Examiner

I want to stress that we don’t expect you to remember everything that’s included in the pre-seen material, but remembering the key themes is critical. My advice to you isn’t just to read, underline and annotate the pre-seen material – you should ‘smart read’ it. What does that mean? Simply that you need to thoroughly analyse it.

You may want to do this in two rounds. When you read the pre-seen for the first time, aim to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the organisation in the scenario.

When you read it for the second time, start to consider ‘why you think’ they are strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. After reading the pre-seen smartly twice, you should now have a detailed SWOT analysis based on your own reasoning. In addition, you may prepare a list of key issues (business, ethical, financial and performance) and risks the organisation faces. Then, try to understand what your role is within the organisation and your relationship to other stakeholders. In other words, assume that you are preparing for a job interview where the exam is the job interview.

Remember that the case study exam focuses on practical application rather than regurgitating technical knowledge. As one examiner points out ‘demonstrating good technical understanding is not enough on its own to pass’. To pass, 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.

Check the CIMA Planner for detailed advice and guidance on what you should and should not do when you analyse the pre-seen. You can get more advice on this in my June 2021 PQ magazine column.

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