Passing Strategic Professional exams

This article looks at what you can do to improve your chances of passing ACCA’s Strategic Professional exams.

Strategic Professional exams are a step up from the Applied Skills level and candidates require a different approach to these exams in order to pass and move on towards becoming an ACCA member.

A useful resource is the articles about stepping up from the Applied Skills underlying papers. These are full of useful guidance and are highly recommended reading if you are taking one of these exams.

At Strategic Professional, candidates are expected to have a good level of technical knowledge across the full range of topic areas in the Study Guide. While technical knowledge is essential, on its own it will not be enough to obtain a pass mark.

What is important is an understanding of the skills the examining team are testing. What they are looking for is the application of the detailed knowledge and, how it is used in context.

Strategic Professional exams are at the higher end of learning skills, and require such skills as analysis, evaluation, assessment, decision making, critical analysis and discussion. Repetition of textbook material or model answers to a different question is highly unlikely to be awarded many marks. For the Strategic Business Leader exam, the integrated case study, you will be required to demonstrate the professional skills that employers deem as most in demand in the accountancy sector, such as analysis, scepticism, evaluation, commercial acumen, and communication.

There are a number of things you can do, once you have completed your learning phase, to give yourself the best chance of passing your Strategic Professional exams and we will look at these in turn.

Timed question practice

To allow yourself the best chance of passing the exam on the day, you should practice answering questions to the time that you would have available in the exam. ACCA’s approved content providers have question and answer banks with plenty of exam standard and style questions for you to practice with.

Once you have answered the question to time, it is important to look at your answer against the published answer – are you making the same kind of points or do your calculations follow the correct approach?

Don’t be disheartened if your answer does not appear to be the same as the published answer. These are usually comprehensive answers for learning purposes and are not intended to be representative of what can be achieved in the time available.  If you are able to understand where you went wrong, this is good learning for future questions. Also remember that calculation mistakes are only penalised once under the own figure rule so if you make a mistake at the start of a calculation you are still able to pick up the remaining marks.

Read the question requirements

Although many candidates may want to read the scenario first, it is beneficial to read the question requirements before the scenario. This will ensure that when you read the scenario, it is with a clear idea of what you are looking for.

Read the question very carefully – what is the requirement? This is absolutely crucial in the exam. A significant number of students produce an answer to a different question than the one which has been asked. In an exam situation, to ensure that you do not misunderstand the question you should adopt the following approach. Read the question once and then read it again, trying to be as objective in your reading as possible and do not make the question appear to be the one that you wanted to be asked.

Read the question scenario and plan your answer

Now that you are clear on the question requirements, you can read the question scenario, identifying key points which relate to the question requirements.

Then make a quick plan of what you are going to write taking into account the mark allocation. Then, before actually starting your answer, check that the plan and the question match up. It is almost impossible to misinterpret the question when taking this approach.

Your answer plan will have identified key areas that you wish to address in your answer. It is a valuable skill to be able to prioritise the problems/issues within the scenario and to show the marker that you are able to think strategically. It will help you focus on key strategic issues in the scenario and mean you are likely to score higher marks.

Time management

Your approach to planning your time in the exam is crucial for completing the exam and to ensure best use of the time available.

If you do not manage your time well, the penalty can be quite severe. It is often seen that there are candidates who reach 46% with one or two requirements still to be answered, only to find that there is nothing left to mark. If you manage your time badly your chances of passing are reduced – it is much tougher to get 50 marks if you only answer 90, 80, or 75 marks of the 100 available.

Explaining points in appropriate detail

When answering business scenarios candidates need the following skills:

  • To identify key issues/defects from the question scenario
  • The ability to use analysis to make inferences from the question and to delve deeper into the problems.
  • To identify things noticeable by their absence. That is, things the organisation should be doing but is not doing at present.

It is the ability to add value to the scenario in this way that scores marks in the exam – repetition of information from the scenario or long introductions or descriptions score very little, if any, marks.

A common mistake is that candidates will write a lot about a single point on which they are very knowledgeable with the following point being a single short sentence. The balance of time and content should be about the same for each point made. Once the marker is satisfied that you have made the point, you will score the mark.

Once you have made the point, extra marks can be obtained from explaining the consequences from this point and what needs to be done about it.

You can add these points into your answer through the use of phrases such as:

  • this indicates…
  • the impact of this is…
  • to address this problem management need to…

Additionally markers can only give marks for what has actually been written and so it is important to ensure the significance of the point and its main consequence has been fully explained.  Even if you believe it is really obvious, include an explanation of any consequences in your answer. You cannot be awarded a mark for something that you haven’t included in the answer.

You may have reached this stage of your studies without needing to do some of the above tips. However, as stated earlier, the Strategic Professional exams are a step up from the lower level and different skills are needed here and these methods will significantly improve your chances of passing your exams.

Good luck with your Strategic Professional exams and your journey towards ACCA membership.

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