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How to pass the ACCA Strategic Business Leader exam

Young male student working hard
Iryna Mcdonald
By Iryna Mcdonald, Tutor at Kaplan Link to Iryna Mcdonald's LinkedIn profile

Many students take the ACCA Strategic Business Leader (SBL) paper as one of their first exams at the Strategic professional level. So, what are they to expect?

SBL has quite a reputation, the first thing students often say is:

“Oh, my God! The exam is 4 hours long?!”.

Its reputation precedes it, and many expect that the exam is going to be rather different from what they experienced before and thus will require a new set of skills and techniques.

For example, at previous levels, the exams emphasise applying the knowledge of the accounting or reporting practices to short scenarios, whereas the SBL exam is expecting students to look at the big picture. Students will now have to handle a whole case study.

What is a case study?

A case study is a story about an organisation.

Due to its length, it will be broken down into a number of exhibits to make it more digestible. The organisation, on which the case is based, could be in any industry or sector, so you can equally expect to deal with issues arising in a charity or in a commercial environment.

Therefore, practical business awareness helps a lot when it comes to quickly grasping the situation. On the positive side, many of the organisations featured in the exam are similar to those you would encounter in everyday life.

I’ve also heard that SBL requires students to demonstrate professional skills.

You’re absolutely correct, 20% of the available marks are for professional skills. As SBL aims to reflect the issues finance professionals deal with in the course of the work, there are marks for professional skills, such as analysis, scepticism and communication.

For example, finance professionals often deliver presentations to communicate information to parties within and outside of their organisation, therefore an examiner would expect you to be able to prepare slides and supporting notes in the exam too.

In addition, scepticism is something finance professionals often rely on in determining whether the information they are provided with is of good quality and can be used in decision-making. So in the exam you might need to demonstrate scepticism when reviewing assumptions made in calculations.

What support does ACCA provide to students to help them acquire these professional skills?

You might have heard of the Ethics and Professional skills module (EPSM) that was introduced by ACCA. It’s a great way to start practicing these professional skills, even before you commence your SBL course.

EPSM is done entirely online so you can work through it at your own pace, it uses practical mini-scenarios and real-life examples to demonstrate how professional skills apply to work context and beyond.

Coming back to SBL, how hard is the exam?

The average pass rate is about 50%, but with expert tutor support, you are much more likely to pass.

When attending a course, your tutor will draw attention to the key syllabus aspects that are likely to feature in the exam. For instance, finance professionals are famous for having to deal with lots of numbers and the SBL exam will be no exception. You might be asked to analyse the performance of your organisation over time, compare it to competitors or use figures to identify the causes of underperformance.

Based on analysis of past papers, the topic of risk and control also features frequently. As a finance professional, you often find yourself checking whether the appropriate procedures are in place to help safeguard a company’s assets, to minimise error or fraud.

This meticulous attention to practicalities will come very handy in the exam as you could be asked to identify and address risk in any aspect of an organisation’s functioning – this might even include procurements or health and safety. As you know, accountants are supermen and superwomen, they can fix any problem!

We want you to pass your exams and succeed in the next steps of your career. If you don’t get the results you were expecting and have enrolled on an eligible course, you can take advantage of our ACCA Pass Guarantee.

It seems like the SBL exam requires some thorough preparation. Where would you advise a student to start?

It’s best to start at the beginning – with the study plan. At this stage in your, you’re likely to already have to balance significant work and personal commitments. Consider what time you’ve got available for studying. Kaplan has a range of study methods available to fit around students’ busy lives.

You can also give yourself a boost by starting to develop your commercial awareness from early on. For example, even if just a few minutes of your daily commute could be spent on reading business articles from BBC News, Financial Times or Economist, over time you will acquire significant commercial awareness that will come in very handy in the exam.

As you progress with your learning, you need to achieve a balance between having the knowledge of underlying theories and being confident with putting forward practical common sense ideas. By practicing past exam papers, particularly when using the ACCA CBE platform, you will give yourself the best chance of getting to know the examiner’s style as well as familiarising yourself with the exam software functionality.


That seems like a great plan! When can I start?

SBL exam can be set four times a year in March, June, September, and December. Lots of luck and do get in touch if you need support with your learning.