How to Become a CIMA World Prizewinner: Interview with VIVA Student Luke Anderson

Thomas Newman (CEO of VIVA): Okay, let's get started then. So Luke, it was November 2022 when you took your OCS exam and ranked third in the world, right?

Luke Anderson: Yeah, it was a big surprise, but a nice surprise.

Thomas: A fantastic achievement. That's amazing. So, was that your first attempt at the OCS exam?

Luke: Yes, it was my first attempt at the OCS.

Objective Tests and Exam Order

Thomas: And had you done the three Objective Test exams, or had you exemptions?

Luke: I only got exemptions from two of the Foundation papers, so I had to do the other two of those. I went to university and studied economics. And I feel like a lot of my friends who also did economics got more exemptions - something to do with my cores or something, I only got two. So, I'm following the traditional CIMA route, not the Finance Leadership Program. I started CIMA on my own, funded by my employer, and fully self-studied.

Thomas: So you did, E1, F1 and P1, the Objective Tests. Did you have a preference for any of those subjects?

Luke: Yes, that's correct, and that’s the order that I did them in aswell! P1 was definitely my favorite, because I like the more analytical side of it. E1 was probably my least favorite, and then F1 I felt like it was a means to an end, a necessary step, not my favorite! (laughs)

Thomas: (laughs) Ya, I felt similarly! Definitely preferring the P pillar, and thought much the same as you regarding the F pillar. But it’s interesting, people are really different with their preferences. I think E1 has the highest pass rate, so people generally find it easiest. But some people hate the E pillar.

Luke: I found E1 relatively straightforward, but the motivation to study for it was a challenge. I didn't find it as engaging as the other two subjects. I'm glad I did P1 last, just before the Case Study, because I found a lot of what the Case Study is based off of is P1, and to a lesser extent F1 knowledge. I feel like that’s the optimal order at the Operational level.

Thomas: That's a helpful tip. So you’d recommend P1 last, F1 in the middle, and starting with E1?

Luke: Exactly. Because the Case Study exams take place at particular windows during the year, when I had just finished F1 I moved immediately onto P1, because if I hadn’t there was a danger I’d miss the November Case Study window and have to wait until the following February. So after F1, I studied and completed my P1 exam, and then four weeks later I had my Case Study exam! And that’s partly why I looked for an external tuition provider, as I thought if I’m really going to give this a go it’s better to get some external help, rather than just relying on a textbook. So that’s when I found VIVA Financial Tuition, used it, and it was great!

Thomas: Great! So when you were studying the Objective Test subjects, did you study one subject at a time or more than one in parallel?

Luke: I focused on one at a time since I was working full-time. If I hadn't been working full-time, I might have tackled multiple subjects simultaneously. 

Thomas: And how long did each course take you more or less?

Luke: Well, I spent some time doubting whether I would actually commit to doing CIMA at first, and during that period I did some revision for E1. So in the end, because I was still back and forth on committing during that time, it actually took me about five months to complete E1. But then both F1 and P1 only took about two to three months each. I’ve got a bit of a habit of over-revising! Because I hate failing, I revise until I feel 100% ready to pass the exam… which probably means I take longer to do them than I should do!

Thomas: I’ll tell you what it is aswell Luke, as I’m old enough to remember the old format of the Objective Test exams under CIMA, when they had I think it was 4 exam sittings a year for those as well. And there is an advantage with that, because that really focuses the mind when you know there’s a fixed deadline coming up. Whereas with the new style of Objective Tests, when you can take them more or less whenever you want - alright, that gives you a lot of flexibility - but you just end up studying forever, waiting too long… 

Luke: Yes, exactly, when the motivation is entirely on you. And in my case, in one sense I was fortunate that at my job my employer wasn’t putting pressure on me to get my exams done in a certain time frame - though obviously they were encouraging. But it meant that it was all on me. So what I did actually was I asked my employer to hold me accountable for doing the exams! So when I’d tell them when I was starting a particular subject, then they’d say “Ok, when are you going to sit the exam?” I’d pick a date and tell them to put it in the calendar. And later if I felt tempted to change it or postpone, I’d have to kind of go “grovelling” to them, asking them to change the date. So it just gave me that extra bit of motivation to get it done!

Thomas: Ah ya, that’s clever! A good tip. I won’t dwell on the Objective Tests too much longer. However, regarding your study approach for those exams. I know you mentioned you didn’t take any courses for those exams. So how did you approach it?

Luke: For the Certificate level, I think I used Astranti, because for that level the material is free. For the Objective Tests at the first level, I relied on Kaplan textbooks and their exam practice packages. I also used OpenTuition for some of my Objective Test studies, I would watch some of their lectures, make notes, and use Kaplan textbooks for deeper understanding of some of the trickier areas. Then, I'd condense my notes into revision cards and do as many mocks as possible, each time relying less and less on the revision cards.

The OCS: Courses and Resources

Thomas: Great. So for the OCS, how much time did you dedicate to preparing?

Luke: I think it was about six weeks. I think it was a couple of weeks before the VIVA course started with Kelly [Davison], that I passed my P1 exam. I think I actually bought the package with VIVA before I passed my P1 exam; so I was really banking on passing P1 that time so I wouldn’t have to retake!

Thomas: Ok, and was the VIVA OCS course your primary resource for the OCS exam?

Luke: Yes, I exclusively used the VIVA OCS course for the Case Study exam, I didn’t actually use any Kaplan or any other resources.

Thomas: And did you cover all of the course content?

Luke: I did. The refresher lectures in the Foundational Materials section were especially helpful since my last encounter with E1 content was over seven months prior. So it helped refresh my memory. The Applied Theory sessions with Kelly were invaluable. She would relate the case study to E1, F1, and P1, providing insights into possible question scenarios and how exactly to answer them. Which I think is really difficult to do if you’re studying on your own and don’t use tuition.

Thomas: Did you attend the live webinars?

Luke: Yes, I attended all the live sessions. The ability to ask questions in real-time was really useful. The thing is when you’re watching the recordings, sometimes you have a question in the moment. And by the time you’ve gotten round to emailing it, you’ve forgotten what you were thinking!

Thomas: How about mock exams? Did you take all three mock exams?

Luke: I took all three mock exams. And I paid to get all three mock exams marked. The first one I treated as an open-book exercise, with my notes, to familiarise myself with the style etc. And as you might expect, I did really well in that mock! But then in the next two, I treated them like real exams, and my grades weren’t as good. But the feedback for those mocks really helped me see my progression, and what I could do better.

Thomas: Yeah, we find that for students who are getting their mocks marked, it makes a big, big difference to their pass rates. So, over about six weeks then in total, you went through all of the course elements. Some students say that they have a particular learning style, they're more visual, or they like to write their own notes, or others like to read a text, etc. Would you say you're one way or another? 

Luke: I wouldn’t say I’m particularly visual to be honest. I’d say it's almost repetition that’s key for me, and if I just write things down and then condense them, that's generally how I work. I start with going through a textbook, say, and making quite a long list of notes, and then I condense those notes down into basically revision cards. These then become like my holy grail of knowledge, what I refer back to if I’m ever unsure about something. And I find that approach really helps going into exam aswell, I find I can’t cope if I have a huge notebook of long notes, I feel like it just confuses you even more.

Thomas: Yeah, that makes sense. And do you do handwritten notes, or typed?

Luke: Yeah, always handwritten notes. I just feel like when I’m typing often I don't really take it in, as if I’m just transcribing it, just copying it out without really paying attention to what I'm writing. 

Thomas: That seems to be a thing. I think there are studies done on that too. There's something about just handwriting, it just sticks in the brain a little better. 

Luke: Ya, and I mean, I say I’m not a visual learner, but I do use a lot of different coloured pens and things! So that it’s not so dull to look at, and it’s easier to categorise and recognise categories etc.

The OCS: Study Habits and Tips

Thomas: That makes quite a bit of sense. And what about places of study, do you always study in the same place?

Luke: Yeah, I live in a flat, and we've turned the second bedroom into an office, which is where I am now. Obviously I work pretty much full time from home, going to the office once every couple of weeks, so I find going straight from work in my home office to studying in my home office, being in the same room all day, is just too much. It gets a bit claustrophobic. So throughout all my studies, not just the Case Study but for all exams, I tended to go to the library, and it's quite nice to have a little separate space, a bit of change of scenery. And then you go for lunch when you have a break, little things like that. I just find that staying indoors in the same place the whole time, you get yourself can get yourself bogged down a bit. 

Thomas: So it's almost always then the library where you study? 

Luke: No, not necessarily. The library I like to go to shuts at around 7pm in the evenings, almost every evening, so once I finish work, there's almost no time to get there and get a good stint of study done. So during the week if I’m studying after work I'll tend to stay at my home office. But I find at the weekends is when I get most of my valuable study done. So at the weekends I'll usually go to the library.

Thomas: Okay, that's the next thing I was going to ask you. Do you study a little bit but often, or do you tend to cram every now and then?

Luke: Yeah, I find it’s a little, often while I'm going through the initial lectures and the notes, and then in the week or two leading up to the exam, I'll be cramming and doing loads of mock tests, and… getting a bit stressed!

The OCS: Approaching Exam Day

Thomas: Yeah, that’s a common experience I think! All right, so in terms of the difficulties that you might have encountered during the OCS, was there anything you found particularly challenging when you were studying over that six-week period? And was there anything you found particularly difficult on the day of the exam?

Luke: You know, on the day of the exam, actually, now that I think about it, I think I wasn't 100% sure about how the actual system works. I hadn’t done a Case Study exam on the Pearson Vue testing system before. And I'm pretty sure I nearly quit the exam before I even typed in the answer box! Because I couldn't find any of the pre-seen materials or the attachments and the reference materials that they have. And I think I clicked, like, “back” or something, and got a prompt saying something along the lines of: "You do realise you're about to quit the exam?" And that took about three minutes of my time in the beginning of the exam. So that was a bit stressful! I definitely recommend students test out the Pearson Vue testing platform. I believe Pearson might even have a free trial portal where you can familiarise yourself with the test environment. So I'm definitely doing that before my next Case Study exam! That was one issue on the day of the exam that put me on the back foot; it stressed me out a little and left me flustered before I even started typing the thing.

In terms of challenges during the studying process… I'd say what I found quite useful but also challenging was having certain words in the questions trigger certain key definitions that I had memorised in my own mind. Like the accounting treatments for certain things in F1. So when you know the question is referring to one of those, I almost had a template in my head of what I would write for that, and then fill in and elaborate on the details based on the specifics of the exam scenario. But it could be quite challenging ensuring you’ve memorised the various definitions correctly.

Another challenge is, obviously when you're studying for a Case Study exam, you're not really sure what to expect on the day, and I wasn't sure if I was studying the correct things or if I was studying things that weren't necessarily going to be examined on the day, so that was quite tough. But as I said, just doing lots of mock questions helped, that sort of gave me the ability to spot things in the questions that you know the answer to, and that's the best way to study, I find. Once you've got all the knowledge, you're sort of then practicing with that knowledge and becoming more adaptable at applying it to different scenarios; but at the beginning that was really hard, to know if I was studying the right things or not.

Thomas: Ok, and anything else in the experience that you want to mention? Any tips for others, anything that stands out that helped you?

Luke: I’d say, again, do as many mocks as possible. I also downloaded past papers from CIMA’s website, there’s about three years’ worth of past exams. I wouldn’t exactly sit all of those exams from start to finish. But what I would do is, read the questions and then plan out how I would answer them. And it kind of made sure I had covered more or less every kind of question they could ask. So that when it came to the exam for the current case, I could be fairly confident that a subset of roughly the same kinds of questions would come up, albeit with some modifications and changes based on the current pre-seen.

Another thing I did was, in the lead-up to the exam, I created revision cards with some key bits from the pre-seen that I thought I could easily reference throughout the exam; because I know the examiners are often looking out for you to reference the pre-seen materials. So I just had a few key facts and statistics more or less memorised, and those revision cards helped keep them fresh in my mind.

Thomas: Did you find that once you had a plan in your head, the answer almost wrote itself?

Luke: Yeah exactly, that's what I did for each section. In the 4 sections, you might have, say, 3 tasks - say task A, B and C. And before writing anything, I would plan out my answers for A, plan for B, and plan for C. Just give myself like five minutes at the beginning to do that, and write a couple of bullet points per heading per task. And then once you get to writing, you’re kind of filling in the headings and elaborating on the main points. I feel like otherwise, if you just go straight into writing, you might forget some points. So having it planned at the beginning helps to organise your thoughts so you’re not wasting too much time pondering as you write.

The Future: Next CIMA Exams and Career

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely, that's good advice. So, what stage of your CIMA studies are you at now?

Luke: I've just completed E2 and F2, so that leaves P2 now. I've been a bit slow with progress this year. I'm thinking about sitting the MCS in November, not the February one.

Thomas: Okay, at least November and February will be the same pre-seen. And if you were going back and starting CIMA again from scratch, would you do anything different?

Luke: … I don't think so really. I managed the lower levels through self-studying without extra tuition. But I definitely recommend for the Case Studies getting tuition support. I don't think I would have passed if I didn't have that help for the Case Study. I think I would have been going through the pre-seen document aimlessly, not knowing what was important and what wasn’t. But overall I feel like I wouldn’t have done much different if I was starting my CIMA studies again.

Thomas: Very good! And what about your professional ambitions? You're currently working, right?

Luke: Yes, I'm currently working for Top Golf as a management accountant, mainly looking at the UK side of the business. In terms of career ambitions, for now I'm quite happy where I am. It’s not too stressful. I potentially might move into the FP&A route, that’s potentially where my next role would be, as a Financial Analyst or something like that. I definitely find the FP&A side more interesting.

Thomas: But working as a management accountant initially I imagine gives you a very good grounding, right?

Luke: Yeah, exactly, I think that’s why it’s been really good. Because I sort of get to be involved a little bit in the FP&A side of things, while also sticking to what I know aswell and to what I know I need to know! Producing management accounts each month, know my debits and credits and so on. So it’s been the perfect role really.  Anyone who has graduated and doesn’t want to go down the traditional “Big Four” route, definitely keep an eye out for “assistant management accountant” roles being advertised - that’s where I started. And it’s been a really good learning curve.

Thomas: Ya, that’s good advice. What about the CIMA Certificate level subjects that you did, did they give you a good grounding before you went into E1, F1, P1?

Luke: Well, actually, frankly it was annoying that I didn't get any exemptions from them because I found a lot of what I was studying at Certificate level I had actually already done at Uni. Probably it was just, for whatever reason, my University courses didn't quite tick the criteria for getting exemptions. Don’t get me wrong, obviously there were some new things, new theories I had to learn. But I feel like the combination of the Certificate level and primarily my University degree gave me a good grounding for CIMA.

Thomas: Very good. What about work-life balance? How do you manage?

Luke: I do have work-life balance; though perhaps the reason I’ve taken longer than I would have wanted with my exams is because I haven’t got that balance quite right yet! Of course in the lead up to exams it tends to lean more towards work than life and socialising and things. You've just got to set yourself a timeline or a calendar where you block out days you know you’re going to study or revise, and stick to it. And similarly, block out days for socialising or enjoying things if you can. Because I find that if you just do things spontaneously, day by day, you never get anything done!

Thomas: Yeah, it's a tricky one. It’s one that every CIMA student struggles with. But it's worth it in the end. Alright, I think that about covers it, Luke! You've given great answers, and I think this will be very helpful for students. Thanks very much for talking to us today.

Luke: Okay, no problem. Thank you very much!

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