Exam Techniques Tips For Trainee Accountants

Having marked the ITC a couple of times, and after having survived this journey myself, I have learned there are a number of tactics students can implement to improve their chances of overcoming the academic challenges we have to overcome.

One of the most important things to realise is that passing PGDA, ITC (soon to be IAC) and APC level exams is as much a psychological game as it is an academic feat. If you (as the student) feel underprepared, it is easy to psych yourself out, so let’s go into what you can do ahead of the exam.

Before the day

You should remember to take care of yourself by ensuring you have sufficient nutritious food and rest; this includes monitoring your state of mind. If you slip into a state of panic and tell yourself that you can’t pass these exams, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So how do you keep calm and take care of yourself without compromising exam preparation time? A simple rule of quality over quantity. You should spend time reflecting on development areas. If management accounting is a problem, for example, drill down into the specific problem. Is it a specific class of costing? Do you lack an understanding of the costs that are considered? Or why, or how? Is that true of all costing methods or only one? Is it every cost in the method or only a few? By asking yourself these questions, you will be able to structure your studies and practice more effectively to address the key issues, as well as knowing what questions to ask your lecturers if you choose to consult.

A common mistake students make is to practice exams under exam conditions when they are not ready to do so, demoralising themselves further. This is because they struggle with what we know for APC preparation as Trigger Identification. Simply speaking, this is the ability to identify issues for which the exam setters and markers are specifically looking. Whether these are issues raised in an ethics question, specific guidance on a Double Tax Agreement (DTA) to consider in a tax discussion, or a condition indicating whether or not a cost is relevant, these are examples of key information points often missed by students when attempting a question.

If you struggle with trigger identification, it will be inefficient to practice every question under exam conditions, especially if you are working and studying at the same time. The technique I used when I studied, and continue to recommend to students, is to take the question, read it thoroughly, read the required, read them both again, and prepare a “plan” for an answer. You will jot down notes in bullet form, using 3-5 words noting everything identified in the question that could link to the required or have an impact on your answer, then jot down a few notes of other theoretical considerations that were not directly mentioned but that you feel may be relevant.

You will then compare your summarised answer to the solution to assess how much work is needed on your Trigger Identification. You may notice a trend in items you miss or do not understand. This will direct you to areas that may need revision or to consult with a lecturer or your study buddies. You are advised to attempt a question under exam conditions after every 3-5, depending on your confidence in your Trigger Identification.

This serves two additional benefits, namely, teaching you to plan your answer so that you do not forget points you noted in your initial reading, while attempting to answer, as well as teaching you to get to the point in your answer instead of rambling for 3 pages and only earning 2 marks.

When attempting a question under exam conditions, the new focus is on Time Management. The above measures should help to reduce one of the biggest time wasters: Panic. Students need to be strict with themselves in terms of time, implementing a time limit based on the number of marks available for the question, such as 1 minute per mark, meaning if there are 20 marks available, no more than 20 minutes should be spent on that question. This may seem impossible, but there is another principle that you need to remember, this is called the 80-20 Rule.

In terms of attempting an exam, you will find that 80% of the marks are achieved in the first 20% of the time spent on the question, meaning you work against yourself by spending extra time on questions you believe you know well, instead of making a start on questions you are not as confident in, as there are always easy marks to be earned.

In recent years, the universities and SAICA have made a habit of asking for the presentation of notes that take you outside of your comfort zone. This can be avoided if you look for financial statements of companies that are readily available, such as Mr Price or Shoprite Holdings, and spend time looking through them. This will give you the opportunity to see the financial statements and notes in practice, including common notes that you may not have seen before. Additionally, you will understand why your auditing studies go on so much about ethics and governance as you will realise the significant impact each of these companies have on society.

Lastly, a simple but important point is to work on your handwriting and make sure it is close to neat and legible. Many students lose marks because the markers could not figure out what they had written.

Most of the battle to win against this exam is in practicing the above tactics, but there is still a bit of fighting left to do.

On exam day

You should think of the exam as just another practice question to avoid the crushing pressure that hovers over you in the exam venue. You have memorised the theory, and practiced application, so you will need to trust yourself on this day and know that everything you could possibly have done, has been done.

The first step is to ensure the question is understood and the answer planned out, with said plan clearly labelled so the marker knows where the plan is and where your attempt at the question begins. On the topic of understanding the question, you will need to learn to trust your gut. There have been many times when a student second guessed what the question was asking, crossed out their first try and tried again in a completely different direction, when the first attempt was actually on the right track.

When answering a discussion question, you will need to remember these pointers:

  • Identify a trigger in the scenario to make the point. Theory dumping for the sake of it, will only waste time and not count for any marks.
  • If a key point is identified in the scenario to include in the answer, you must not forget to note down why it is relevant and worth mentioning.
  • The full thought process should be written out. Markers can’t ask you what you were doing and aren’t allowed to assume what you are trying to say, so bring the thought full circle.
  • Try to use those general interview questions to structure an answer (who, what, when, where, how, why.)

The objective of PGDA, ITC and APC are to assess your ability to apply the theory you spent your bachelor's degree memorising. None of your examiners are looking for your ability to retain knowledge anymore, but rather your ability to use it.

In between papers, it helps to avoid discussion of the previous paper as it might make you second guess yourself and your preparation, impairing your self confidence in the next attempt.

All the best in preparing for your tests or exams. The key to success is in effective preparation.

Jordan van der Merwe CA(SA)

Assistant Manager: Audit Technical Training, Johannesburg