How to Pass CIMA Case Study Exams: Detailed Guide to Success
This CIMA case study article shows you how to write an answer that puts you ahead of 90% of candidates, offers expert preparation tips, and increases your chances of obtaining your qualification.
How to Pass CIMA Case Study Exams: An Introduction to Our CIMA Exam Experience
In the last five years, we’ve helped over 10,000 CIMA students from 94 countries prepare for and pass their CIMA exams. In that time, VIVA’s tutors have seen every kind of exam answer you can imagine. As an official CIMA tuition provider, we've seen everything; the good, the bad, and the downright baffling! But more importantly, we’ve also seen what works, and what definitely does not work.
In this article, we’ve compiled all of the key DOs and DON’Ts our CIMA tutors have gleaned from their years marking VIVA students’ CIMA mock exam answers. We see the same kinds of mistakes made over and over again. And the great news for you is — these mistakes can be very quickly rectified to help you pass your CIMA exams the first time around.
The Starting Point: What to Be Aware of before Learning More about CIMA Exam Strategies
The first step is being aware of what to avoid in exams. This sets the foundation for you to go on refining and perfecting your approach. As in any other walk of life, perhaps the most important thing is to avoid doing foolish things, rather than seeking perfection. In the words of the very wise Charlie Munger: “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent”.
All of the advice below comes directly from our CIMA case study professional tutors, who mark thousands of student scripts throughout the year. If you wish to get your VIVA mock exam answers corrected, check out our CIMA course builder where you can obtain professional marking services as part of one of our study packs.
What to Expect on Exam Day
Before we get into the meat of the matter, let’s just review what exactly you can expect to be presented with on exam day. (Feel free to skip on to the next section if you are already well acquainted with the CIMA case study exam format):
- You will be faced with 1 of 3 CIMA exam variants during any specific exam window (that's a total of 6 variants per pre-seen document, under the 2019 CIMA syllabus)
- Each variant is broken down into timed sections (maximum of 5, minimum of 3)
- Each section will include either emails, records of conversations, schedules of information or combinations of all 3
- These give new information that leads on from the pre-seen document information
- Within each section there will be a task or tasks for the candidate to complete (e.g. write a report, write sections of a report, write an email)
- These tasks might be embedded in the body of the email or conversation
- The task or tasks might include a number of different elements that pull from different pillars and competencies
- Candidates are NOT expected to perform any detailed calculations
- Each section will move through time (you cannot go back to a previous section once you move on to a subsequent section)
Of course, the best way to familiarise yourself with the real life experience of a CIMA case study exam is to practice as many different mock exams as you can (VIVA's OCS, MCS and SCS courses come with up to 5 different professionally prepared CIMA mock exams based on the current pre-seen, which you can practice online under timed exam conditions), and to review past CIMA exam variants to familiarise yourself with the different question styles that can come up. However, there’s no substitute for timed practice based on the current pre-seen material – and that’s what you’ll get with us.
Reading the Question: Establishing the Case Study Exam Tasks and Requirements
One common error that our tutors report is that students do not answer all the requirements included in the task. In some cases of course, this is simply down to the student not knowing how to answer the particular requirement. However, we have seen many scenarios in which students have simply missed the requirement due to not having read the question carefully enough! Consider the sample below taken from a case study exam:
Here we have examples of what are sometimes called “triggers”. These are the places in the question where the requirements are explicitly stated. Triggers are sometimes in the form of questions, sometimes not. Look out for phrases like “I need you to”, “I would welcome your suggestions for”, “Please draft”, “Can you please include in your report”. These are the sections that you really need to pay close attention to, because it is there that you will be presented with the requirements.
As you can see in the screenshot above, there is one “task”, i.e. the report that you must draft. But the task has two requirements. One being a comparison of financial performance, and the other being dealing with the introduction of the balanced scorecard. However, notice that each requirement contains a number of sub-requirements. In the case of the first requirement, notice the “and”. You have to both “compare” and “analyse the implications”. Too many students will simply read the “Compare” part and completely pass over the analysis of the implications:
Likewise in the case of the second requirement. There’s even more going on here, and so it’s vital that you pay close attention as you’re reading through these “triggers”. Not only do you have to offer your “suggestions for the other three quadrants”, but you also have to “explain why we have chosen the measures for each quadrant”, and “how they will influence behaviours in the company”. All of these elements must be addressed in order to gain full marks. But too often, students only pay attention to the first one or two. It is not necessarily the case that the first thing asked is the most important, or even carries the most weight in terms of marks! So, it’s essential that you carefully read these trigger sections thoroughly, making a note of each requirement as you go.
Another crucial point: answer the questions that have been asked! This might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how many students fail to do this. There are two main reasons students fail to answer the question asked: (i) because they answer a question that they wish they had been asked instead; or (ii) because they don't read the trigger verbs carefully enough, and misinterpret what is being asked. The first reason has to do with the fact that sometimes, students will carefully prepare for particular kinds of questions during their exam preparation or practice. They will feel much more confident about some particular question types than others, and will have prepared very effectively for those question types. So strong is their hope that this kind of question will come up on exam day, that when they read a question that is superficially similar to it, they will "shoehorn" their prepared answer into that question. The result is an answer that is either only partly relevant, or in the worst case, completely irrelevant to the question actually being asked! So remember: don't let your hopes/preferences/strengths influence the kind of answer that you give. Allow the question to dictate what kind of answer you write.
The second reason that students fail to answer the question asked, is because they misinterpret a key term or phrase, or forget what exactly they were asked after they start writing. Consider the example below:
In this example, an incorrect interpretation of the question might be to think about identifying the "limitations" or "drawbacks" of TQM, instead of the "obstacles" that might be encountered when implementing TQM. The second part of the requirement is about how to overcome those obstacles. An incorrect interpretation might be "what the benefits of TQM would be, after implementing". You can see that these are "similar" kinds of questions, but strictly speaking, they are different. So be very careful when reading the requirements or trigger sections, that you identify the key verbs and key terms, so you are certain that you are answering what is being asked.
A final point: ensure that your answers are in alignment with the question asked. This is essentially about making sure that you do not go off task as you write your answer - that your answer tracks the requirement, and corresponds to each part of the requirement. Too often students go off task, padding or filling out their answers with irrelevant information. The key is, while you are writing each new paragraph, that you briefly refer back to the question and quickly ask yourself: "is this relevant and contributing to answering the question?". This is a good "check" to make sure you keep your answers in alignment with the question.
Good Structure and Planning Can Help You Pass Your CIMA Case Study Exam
We really can’t overemphasise the importance of proper structure for your answers when it comes to achieving the required CIMA pass rates. There are three main reasons why structure and careful planning is important for getting your CIMA certificate:
1. It helps to ensure you have enough points raised to obtain top marks
2. It helps to prevent the duplication of content
3. It makes life easier for the marker – more precisely, it makes it easier for the marker to see that you have indeed addressed each requirement adequately, where you have done so, and how much you have written for each requirement. Consider good structure as being key to a more positive examiner experience.
If you clearly signal where each task starts and ends with headings and sub-headings, and give each relevant point a full, separate paragraph, you will be making the examiner’s life easier (a happy examiner is likely to be more generous with marks!). The post-exam reports ALWAYS mention the importance of structure. An orderly answer indicates an orderly and clear thought process behind your answer and shows evidence of planning.
Our Top Tips for CIMA Case Study Exam Structure and Planning
Firstly, a common question from students is: how do I know how many paragraphs to write for each task? Now sometimes, we get lucky and a task or requirement will say something like: "Identify five risks..." or "Give three benefits...". In such questions, it's obvious how many paragraphs there should be! For five risks, we will write five paragraphs, one for each risk. For the three benefits, we will write three paragraphs, one for each benefit. Unfortunately, CIMA isn't alway so generous! We are not always given the specific number of points explicitly. And so the question then becomes: how do we decide on the number of paragraphs to write?
The key is to look at the percentage of marks allocated for that particular task. CIMA now includes a percentage allocation for each task. A good rule of thumb here is that for every 10% allocated to a particular task, you add one paragraph. So if a task is worth, say, 33%, you will write approximately three paragraphs. If a task is worth 60%, you will write approximately six paragraphs. Note that this is a "rule of thumb". This of course isn't supposed to be a perfect formula, but rather a guideline to get you started. There may be cases where four paragraphs are sufficient for a 60% task, if the paragraphs are long and substantial enough in terms of content. Nevertheless, this is a useful general guideline.
We recommend that you plan and structure your answers before you begin writing. However, many people lose valuable time at the beginning of each section planning their answers out elaborately on the separate whiteboard provided on exam day. Instead we recommend planning your answer within the answer box itself, not on the whiteboard or outside of the answer box. A great way to plan on the fly is to work up a structure and fill in the gaps as you pro ceed. This forces you to get writing immediately, and by the time your structure is "filled out", the answer pretty much writes itself as you just go back and flesh out each heading and sub-heading:
Requirement A (this would correspond to the first requirement, so use an appropriate title, e.g. “Financial Performance”)
- Paragraph 1 (relates to first major point): idea 1, idea 2, idea 3 (If you have time, it’s worth emphasising the title of this key point by underlining it or putting it in bold, for example)
- Paragraph 2 (relates to second major point): idea 1, idea 2, idea 3
- Paragraph 3 (relates to third major point) etc etc: idea 1, idea 2, idea 3
Requirement B (this would correspond to the second requirement, e.g., "Balanced Scorecard")
…repeat as per above
TASK 2…repeat as per above
Remember, get straight to the point. Write a 1-2 line introduction at the beginning of your answer, restating briefly what you were asked and the order in which you’re going to address each point in the body of your answer. Too many students waste time in their opening remarks repeating information that we already know, or rehearsing irrelevant information. (You will see in VIVA’s model answers how short the introductions are -> you want to give yourself as much time and space as possible to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding! No marks are given for pleasantries).
It's also a good idea to have a "time plan" for each section of the exam. Now some students worry when they hear this: "ANOTHER PLAN!? Isn't that just going to waste even more of my time!?" But there is no need to worry here, because a time plan is really very simple - but also crucially important! You need to know roughly how much time you can spend on each task, so you don't run out of time!
The first thing to do is, note the length of time allocated per section. In the case of the OCS and MCS, that will typically be 45 minutes per section (with 4 sections in total). In the case of the SCS, it will typically be 60 minutes per section (with 3 sections in total). The next thing to note is that not all of that time will be or can be spent literally answering the question. Because of course some of that time will be needed for reading the question! So it's a good idea to deduct a short amount of time from the total allocated to a section, and consider this your "reading time". A good target is around 5 or 6 minutes maximum for reading the question. The amount left over after you deduct the reading time is the amount that you can allocate to actually writing your answer.
Now remember: writing your answer should include the planning process. So you don't need to allocate a separate portion of time to the "planning". Consider planning and writing part of the whole answering process.
So after you deduct the reading time, you now need to decide how to allocate the "answer time". And this is a relatively simple process. Note the percentages allocated to each task/subtask. Then use that to calculate that percentage of the answer time. So for example, let's say that you have a section of 45 minutes. You deduct 5 minutes for reading time. Which leaves 40 minutes. Let's say there are two tasks: the first one is worth 60%, the second one is worth 40%. 60% of 40 minutes is 24 minutes. 40% of 40 minutes is 16 minutes. And there you have it! You would have 24 minutes to write your answer for the first task, and 16 minutes to write your answer for the second task.
A Quick Word on CIMA Case Study Answer Length
I'm sure you've all heard the cliche, "it's about quality, not quantity"! Of course, there's a kernel of truth to that. But let's be realistic: you're not going to pass your exam if you write 2 lines of text, even if they're the best lines ever written by a CIMA student! So the cliche only gets us so far. The reality is that markers consistently report that longer answers do tend to score higher marks. And that shouldn't be surprising. Other things being equal, the longer an answer is, the more likely it is that it will contain more points - or more detailed points.
When it comes to the OCS and MCS exams, you should be aiming for a minimum of 2 pages, but ideally 3 pages in a typical 45-minute section would be best, if you want to score well. Each relevant point you make should get a separate paragraph and be supported by examples, reference to the pre-seen and perhaps the real-life industry if applicable, and relevant theories from the Enterprise, Performance and Financial pillars. In the case of the SCS exam, you should aim for a minimum of 2.5 pages, but ideally 3.5 pages + in a typical 60-minute section if you want to score well.
What about the Content of Your CIMA Exam Answers?
Of course, we can’t tell you exactly what to write – that depends on the questions asked on the day! But there are some very important rules of thumb and principles that you should bear in mind.
(i) Justify and Explain
One very simple but crucial point is the following: you have to justify all your arguments, and should explain technical terms. Now that might appear obvious. But you’d be surprised how frequently students fail to do these basic things. And our tutors believe they know why. This is the error of assuming that the marker will already know what you are talking about. The thing is, they probably will! But that’s not the point. The point of the exam is to demonstrate your understanding! So even if you think your marker will probably know what you mean, you should act as if they might not. Show them that you understand, and leave no room for doubt. A good tip here is to try to really adopt the role that you have been assigned - and correspondingly, speak to the character whom you are addressing in the scenario as if they really are that person! That way, you are more likely to consider terms that they may not fully understand, and give more comprehensive explanations of your arguments and conclusions.
Consider the following passage, which is taken verbatim from a past student’s mock exam answer for the Strategic Case Study of May 2018:
“Mr. Winston however may not understand the online streaming industry, where consumers just want to watch movies and tv series without interruptions of advertisement in between. His presence may also de-motivate other employees who are looking to grow within the business. The cultures may be diffierent and it will take him a long time to get used to the streaming business”
The student left it at that, and then moved on to the next requirement. You should be able to see clearly what is wrong here, even without knowing what question was asked. Each of the three sentences above could (and should have) been explained. Take the first. The obvious question is: why may Mr Winston not understand the streaming industry? Consider then the second sentence. The obvious question that arises here is, why might his presence de-motivate other employees? There’s a hint when he mentions other employees having been willing to “grow within the business”, but the student still fails to make his argument explicit. What he might be trying to say is that, given that existing employees have grown with the business and have been loyal to the company for a long time, they might feel some resentment towards an external person being given a high-ranking position – instead of hiring from within the company. But this is not what the student wrote. And so, he lost potential marks by not spelling it out. In the case of the final sentence, there are two more key points left undeveloped: in what way exactly may the cultures be different? And why might it take Mr Winston a long time to get used to the business?
It’s clear that these points seemed obvious to the student, but he ultimately lost marks because he did not demonstrate understanding. What you’ll often find is that, once you begin to explain something that seems to “go without saying”, you actually think of interesting points that you hadn’t considered before, or that you had forgotten. You want to give yourself as much opportunity to make as many points as possible in support of your answer.
(ii) Give Specific Examples in Terms of the Pre-seen Company
It is not enough to simply define a theory or principle, or even to explain a theory or principle in the abstract. You have to apply it as well. What does that mean? Basically, you have to be able to say why or how a particular theory/principle/method is relevant to the specifics of the unseen and pre-seen information. Ask yourself: How can this theory be applied to the current case? What are some concrete examples of the abstract concepts I am using here in terms of the current company?
To follow my own advice, let’s look at another example from another real student’s answer. In this particular case, the student is asked to give examples for each category in a cost of quality report (OCS May 2018). The student’s answer to this requirement is as follows:
“A) Examples of costs to be included in each category of the report are as below:
1. Wastage of materials when errors are found.
2. Duplication of work load when errors are found
3. Damage to morale when work has to be repeated
1. Loss of consumer confidence
2. Damage to reputation
3. Cost of replacing the product
1.Invest in better trained staff to ensure that there are less errors in production.
2. Invest in higher quality materials to ensure that the material doesn't fail.
3. lnvestment in automating processes to reduce human error
1. Inspection of raw materials on arrival
2. Inspection of completed goods before they leave the factory
Notice that this segment of the answer is quite well-structured. The student uses headings and sub-headings, and orders the answer logically. However, the problem is that the student doesn’t actually give specific examples for each category that are derived from the company in question (a luxury bag manufacturer in this case). Rather, she gives generic examples that could come from almost any company that manufactures any product. In this case, the student would need to give specific examples. So instead of simply saying “wastage of materials when errors are found”, the student should give concrete examples of errors that could possibly occur in the context of this company, a luxury bag manufacturer. What kinds of materials are likely to be wasted? What kinds of errors might be found?
These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself when applying a particular theory or model to the current case. The marker needs to see that you can actually use the theories and models you have learned during your objective studies in a real-world scenario, and in a realistic way. This is you showing that you’re ready for the real world as a management accountant! Simply giving generic examples that could equally well apply to any number of companies or scenarios is not sufficient to score full marks.
(iii) Avoid List-style Answers
Another common error is that students will give their answer in the form of bullet points. Unfortunately, this is not what markers are looking for. It might seem neat and tidy and concise to you, but to a marker it will simply give the impression of superficial engagement. Lists also give the impression that you are rushing through the answer.
Try to write your answers in prose style. It should be conversational but professional. You are trying to engage with and guide the fictional person who has asked for your assistance. Throwing a list of bullet points without elaboration is not going to be acceptable!
Now that’s not to say that you can’t use bullet points to structure your answers. But this is different from simply having a list of one-liners alongside bullet points. You may organize your sub-headings in a bullet-point style, but what follows should be in prose style, with full sentences, explanations, examples and justifications.
Managing Technical CIMA Questions That Appear in Exams
Many students mistakenly believe that when it comes to more technical questions involving the financial statements and “the numbers”, a different approach is necessary. Students feel that they need to spend much of their time performing calculations and showing off their ability to use various formulae from their objective studies. However, this is not the case. In fact you are not expected to perform lengthy calculations when it comes to technical components in the case study exam. Rather, the extent to which you will be expected to demonstrate your technical capacities corresponds to the following:
You will need to be able to:
- explain how the content of a schedule/table/financial statement has been prepared
- interpret the solution from a schedule/table/financial statement
- interpret the information within the schedule/table/financial statement
- explain the accounting treatment for a certain type of transaction and the impact on the financial statements
The occasional basic calculation can be made to illustrate a point or to support your interpretation, but that interpretation should be written in prose form. Markers do not want to see long strings of calculations and formulae without any written explanation or justification. If you do include calculations, keep them short, and focus instead on demonstrating your understanding through written means.
When it comes to a general approach to technical components, we recommend that you follow the order of operations indicated in the diagram below:
We've already dealt with structure above. In terms of content, it's a good idea to start with the general theoretical and technical concepts/principles that you are going to be using in the requirement. You don't need to spend too long on this phase - you're not expected to give a complete, exhaustive abstract explanation of a model or theory. Rather, give a short but jargon-free summary of the model or theory that you are making use of. You want to spend as much time on the application phase as possible. This is where you will demonstrate your deep theoretical understanding. Remember, markers want to see you applying your knowledge as if you were really working in this company, in the specified role, and charged with the tasks outlined in the exam. Simply stating abstract principles would not be acceptable in the real world. Nor is it acceptable in the CIMA case study exam.
Finally and ideally, you want to move beyond narrow application of the relevant theory to the specifics of the case. Markers like to see students adopt a wider perspective of the business and spell out some of the broader implications of your solution to the task/requirement. It's a good idea here to stretch out your time horizon and consider second- and third-order consequences of a particular action - be they positive or negative. Markers also like to see students derive conclusions and recommendations in questions where students are asked to consider advantages and disadvantages/risks and benefits of particular courses of action. This shows deeper engagement with the case and wider business awareness.
How to Pass CIMA: Key Takeaways for Upcoming Case Study Exams
When it comes to case study success, there are three really key components:
1. Solid theoretical knowledge relating to objective subjects
2. Intimate knowledge of the pre-seen and some familiarity with industry trends
3. Excellent exam answer technique
Too many CIMA students get hung up on revising their objective test theory in the wrong way, i.e. committing theory to memory from their CIMA objective test textbook material. The result is less flexibility in producing answers to new problems. A much better approach is to review key theories by applying each one to the specifics of the current pre-seen document.
In this way, you kill two birds with one stone i.e. solid theoretical knowledge along with intimate knowledge of the pre-seen. Then it's all about honing your exam technique and the reality is, our markers report over and over again that the typical student's main problem often isn't so much their lack of theoretical knowledge (although that is sometimes definitely the case), as it is their inability to order their thoughts, apply their knowledge, and master their timing. When it comes to timing, there's no substitute for practice (all of VIVA's mocks can be taken in our online CIMA exam simulator, under timed conditions).
If you combine practice with careful attention to the points listed above, you are likely to write an exam answer that puts you ahead of 90% of CIMA students.
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