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How to prepare for your next exam - today

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John Cunningham
By John Cunningham, Head of Education for Europe and Americas, ACCA Link to John Cunningham's LinkedIn profile

John Cunningham is the regional Head of Education for Europe and Americas, at ACCA. He offers some tips for those looking to get back into their ACCA exams.

No matter where you are in the world, COVID has been massively disruptive. You have this extra challenge now in the sense that it’s affected all areas of your life, and you may be considering how to get ‘back on track’.

Given that exams are starting to resume soon, in many countries, there are various things you can be doing to get you where you want to be.


Ask yourself ‘What is my plan?’. Pick a target date, establish when you want your next exam to be, mentally commit, and work back from there.

You might simply mentally commit to getting your exam entry in. That first mental commitment is the all important first step.

Once you’ve done that think ‘What do I need to do now to reasonably prepare for that exam?’.

There are planning resources out there such as the ACCA study planner, on the ACCA website, which is a great new tool to help manage your time in the run up to an exam. For the other main accountancy qualifications I am sure they have their own versions.

Learning is a habit, so make sure you get into that habit and stick at it.

Get good tuition

I recommend to all students that they should make the use of an expert tuition provider. As you may already know, the qualifications are very difficult and this really helps.

Some students out there choose to buy the books and study entirely by themselves. This works for some but this is the more difficult way to do it. In my role I look at a large volume of student data, it shows that by using a platinum training provider like Kaplan you’d be significantly more likely to pass.

Make studying, habitual

Another thing I look at are ‘risk categories’. Meaning, what are the trends we see when students start to wobble and risk not getting qualified?

Learning is a habit, so make sure you get into that habit and stick at it. It’s like the gym, if you miss one session and then another and another then the longer it goes on, the less likely you are to get back into it.

Also, prepare yourself for potential failure. We know that once a student fails an exam, it’s too easy to doubt yourself and step back. So resilience is so important with exams to ensure you have that bounce-back-ability, if you fail an exam.

It’s vital right now that we are kind to ourselves about our learning.

Camaraderie and well-being

Camaraderie is important. Get yourself into a cohort; find other like minded students who you can study with, and feed off. This is really important in helping you get through it and find motivation.

In terms of well-being, it’s important that we recognise the unusual circumstances we live in right now. It’s been an unsettling and disruptive time, which tests our resilience and adaptability.

So it’s vital right now that we are kind to ourselves about our learning. Make realistic targets, given the circumstances. Make sure you have balance. Yes, have ambition about your studies - but make achievable targets.

Also create opportunities for you to be able to express how you’re feeling, either with your tutor or other students. Look after your wellbeing, it’s important.

The resources at your disposal

Don’t just pick the book up and dive head first into the syllabus. Use resources available to help contextualise the concepts.

We have launched something called ACCA bite-sized videos, which help to bring to life and set the scene for the context around the concepts.

Also look at past exam papers. The research shows that students who go through past exam papers do better in the exams. It’s just a fact.

We can’t underestimate the importance of good exam technique.

Finally, focus on exam technique

We can’t underestimate the importance of good exam technique. When I speak to examiners they always tell me that students leave many ‘marks on the table’, and this is down to exam technique.

Time management is important - Avoid putting all your time into the first part of the exam, therefore leaving little for the end. Timing is crucial. Really focus on the question, and the wording - even the verb used is important.

Look out for the verbs in the question - When the examiner uses words like ‘list’, ‘detail’, ‘compare’, ‘contrast’, etc make sure that is what you do.

For those taking the computer based exams (CBE) make sure you’re familiar with the software and functionality. We see some students wasting a lot of time because they clearly didn’t know how to use the functions.

Finally, mock exams are really important, so take them. And be serious with the way you take them. Take them in exam conditions, without the resources you wouldn’t have access to in the real exam, and apply the same time constraints.

Once complete, get your tuition provider to mark it, and make use of the feedback they provide - their feedback is gold and will direct you on the areas you need to focus on during revision. It really will make the difference.

Best of luck everyone!! And be kind to yourself!

John Cunningham has many years of experience in Accounting education with ACCA and formerly AAT. He says his main responsibility is to ‘help people to pass exams’.

For the full interview with our Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley Smith, watch the 30 minute interview.