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The Three Main Things Accountancy and Tax Students get wrong in the exam

Posted on: Monday, February 12, 2018

When it comes to passing an exam, each student, regardless of the subject, knows that every single mark counts.

In addition to a solid knowledge of the subject, good exam technique and strict time management skills can often be the difference between passing and failing.

Based on a detailed survey carried out among Examiners and Course Providers, we have compiled the three main reasons why students don’t pass their exams. 

1. Not reading the question properly

Would it surprise you to know that one of the main reasons for not passing the professional exams is not actually answering the question you’ve been asked.

From the first exam you have ever sat as far back as primary school, the advice “read the question properly” has been relevant.

When you’re under pressure, the brain can easily trick you into misinterpreting the exam question which can result in your answering a question you weren’t actually asked.   Even though the answer you may have written is technically excellent, if it wasn’t what the Examiner intended then you won’t score any marks for it.

It is always recommended that you read through your entire exam paper before you start writing and then re-read the questions, as often as you feel necessary, to ensure you understand exactly what is being asked.

Once you’ve done this then choose the question you’re most confident of and answer it first. 

To ensure you understand exactly what the question is asking, you should underline or highlight the most relevant words and phrases.  This is particularly important if the question is long and wordy with a number of possible situations to consider.

Although most Examiners don’t intentionally write questions to catch out students, they prepare questions that require evaluation, analysis, planning and strategic thinking under time constraints.

Student who have been unsuccessful in their professional tax and accountancy exams have often written a memorised response based on a few key words rather than writing a relevant answer in response to the actual question being asked.

To avoid making this mistake, students should take the time to reflect on the actual question being asked and not rush into writing down everything they know about the topic.  Keep your answers relevant and keep referring back to the question to ensure you stay on the right track.

2. Poor Time Management

You have a set amount of time to complete your P6 ACCA, CPA P2 (Advanced Taxation), FAE Tax Elective or Chartered Tax Advisers’ exams. 

You should plan your time effectively to allow for enough time to read the questions properly, complete the exam to the standard required to pass and review your answers at the end.

In every exam, it's vital that you take the first five or ten minutes to read through the entire paper and plan the questions you're going to answer.   Personally I always answer the easiest question first.  The reasons being (a) it’s a good start to the exam and it boosts my confidence and (b) it usually takes up less time that the other questions which means I will have more time to devote to the trickier, more complex ones.

It is imperative that you plan your time properly based on the weighting of the marks and stick to that plan.

The classic mistake is spending too long on the first question and not leaving sufficient time to complete the exam paper.  The best way to overcome this is to practice plenty of past exam papers under strict exam conditions.  This will help you to realistically calculate just how long each question will require.  If you finish writing an answer ahead of time then move on to the next question which may be more complex and could therefore require the additional time to complete. Alternatively this extra time may be used to review your answers at the end of the exam before handing up your script.

Another common mistake is attempting a new question just as you’re running out of time.  Rather than writing out this answer in long hand, it is advisable to write down the relevant bullet points.  By doing this, your Examiner can see what you would have written about if you’d had more time.  You certainly won’t score all the available marks but you may gain more marks than if you had to stop abruptly part way through the answer.

3. Lack of analysis

This is particularly evident in the open book exam setting.

Often students copy vast sections from their manuals to produce a one size fits all solution.  They don’t take the time to really understand the requirements of the question properly, they haven’t familiarized themselves with the marking scheme based on past exam papers and they haven’t analysed the material in line with the specific scenario outlined in the question.

For any student who wasn’t successful in his/her professional exams, you may have been told one or all of the following:

(a) Your answer was generic.  This means you over generalised in your answer.  You didn’t deal with the specifics of the question.  You should have focused on the question and selected the material in your answer carefully to ensure it was relevant to what was being asked.

(b)  You didn’t give enough information in your answer.  Look at the marks given for each question and compare it with the number of points you need to discuss.  Don’t just write out a list; always make sure you expand on each bullet point to ensure you’ve provided a detailed explanation or description.

(c) Your calculations were incorrect.  It is essential that you practice computations ahead of the exam so that you’re familiar with the different formulas.  Examiners like to see workings and not just the final figure.  Students often underestimate the usefulness of accurate calculations as a means of securing high marks within a short timeframe. 

(d) Your answers were careless.  Getting legislative references and other basic facts wrong is not acceptable in the professional exams.  The areas of Accountancy and Tax are completely dependent on accuracy, analysis and facts so your answers need to show the relevant Professional examining Body that you have the requisite skills, knowledge and aptitude to work in these fields.


To answer any exam question effectively, it is vital that you properly structure your answer before you start.

I cannot stress enough the importance of writing a plan first.  The reasons being:

(i) It prevents you from losing your train of thought and helps to keep your answer focused.

(ii) It ensures your answer follows the correct order.

(iii) It jogs your memory and stops you overlooking important information.

(iv) Once you write your plan you can go back and fill in the specific detail.

(v) It reduces the chances of a situation where you’ve started a question, half way through you realise you’re on the wrong track and have no option but to go back to begin your answer all over again with limited time left.

We wish you every success in your upcoming exams.


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