How to Become a CIMA World Prizewinner: Interview with VIVA Student Michelle De Lange

Thomas Newman (VIVA CEO): Okay, welcome Michelle! So, you’re a CIMA prizewinner, a global prizewinner! For the November 2022 SCS, correct?

Michelle De Lange: Correct. 

Thomas: Fantastic achievement. So remind me again, where were you placed globally? Or do you remember the exact position?

Michelle: I came second. 

Thomas: Oh wow, okay excellent! 

Michelle: Yeah, I'm very competitive by nature, and came second by a single mark. So that was  tough! (laughs) 

Thomas: So had you previously won any CIMA prizes?

Michelle: Yeah, I did the Management level Case Study in May 2019, I think it was. And I came fourth in the world in that.

Thomas: Okay, alright.

Path to the CIMA Qualification

Michelle: And then I sort of skipped the Strategic level Objective Tests. So I’m actually a CA(SA), so actually through the CA route, you can access the CIMA qualification at the Strategic level Case Study. But because of the university that I’m working at, I lecture on the Management level. So I decided originally that I was going to enter at the Management level so that I could do the content and do the case study structure that my students would be writing, so that I’d be better able to assist them. So I did that process, and then life sort of happened and children etc, and I never got round to writing my Strategic level Objective Tests. So then I applied for exemptions from them according to the CA route, and then could go and write the Strategic level Case Study.

Thomas: Okay, so you said you were a CA(SA), can you explain what that is? 

Michelle: So, a chartered accountant, we're registered in South Africa. The professional body is known as SAICA. It's the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants. And it is quite internationally recognised. So CIMA created the CA(SA) and gives us a specific pathway into the full CIMA program. 

Thomas: Okay. And the CA(SA), is it more focused on audit and taxation?

Michelle: Yeah, it was. There are four pillars. So their main subjects are: financial accounting, management accounting and finance, taxation, and auditing.

Thomas: Okay, so quite similar to ACCA or something like that, right? 

Michelle: Yes, yes, very similar to the ACCA qualification. 

Thomas: Okay, so what drew you then to CIMA?

Michelle: Well, when I was studying, management accounting and finance was, by far, my favorite subject. So that subject area has always been my passion. And then when I started lecturing at the university, we introduced a BCom Honours in Management Accounting Program - which is accredited with CIMA. And because I was presenting and coordinating the program, I wanted to get the qualification as well. And that's why… Well, in progress! I just need to finish my PER so that I can get the CGMA designation, but we’ll get there!

Thomas: Okay, very good. So the operational level, that's entirely skipped out, you know, lots of exemptions and things there, right? 

Michelle: Yes, exactly.

Thomas: And the Objective Tests at the Management level, did you have to do any of those?

Michelle: No, they also come through on an exemption, so I entered just at the Management level Case Study and wrote that and then skipped the Strategic level Objective Tests via exemptions and wrote the Strategic level Case Study.

Thomas: Ah yes. And the students that you're teaching - you said you're teaching many of them the Management Case Study too, right - they're university students?

Michelle: Yes, they're honours students, so they do an Accounting degree, and then they do the Honors in Management Accounting degree which is aligned with CIMA. So they have three modules which are aligned with E2, P2, and F2. And then we prepare them to write the Management level Case Study. And then once they've passed the Case Study exam, they actually graduate with their BCom Honours in Management Accounting. 

Thomas: Okay, so at what stage of their Accounting studies are these students? What year are they in? 

Michelle: They're normally in the fourth year of study. So they'll do the three-year general Accounting BCom degree first, and then they'll do the Honours with us.

The Transition from Objective Tests to Case Studies

Thomas: What do you see students struggling with in the Management Case Study (MCS)? I know the focus of this particular interview is the SCS, but with the MCS, I'm sure there are plenty of things we can take from that too.

Michelle: With my students the biggest issue I think is probably more of an issue on my side - it's the switch to the discussion approach in the exam and in preparation. So in BCom and Accounting degrees, it's very theoretical, very calculations-based, very, you know, black and white almost. And then they get thrown into the Management level Case Study where there's no calculations as such. And they've got to write what they want to answer. And that's where I feel they struggle the most. So a lot of students might feel they know the theory. But I think their knowledge is perhaps too basic, which is why they struggle with the discussion questions. And to articulate themselves, they struggle a lot as well.

Thomas: I suppose, I don't know if it's a misconception, but it certainly seems to be the case that in general accountants can be great with the numbers, but when it comes to the communication side of things, they struggle a little bit. Do you think that's a fair criticism in general of people doing accounting degrees and qualifications like CIMA?

Michelle: Totally. I think that's a very fair judgment, and I think it is because of how the courses are structured. I think the courses are structured to focus students on the theory, whereas very little work is done and very little focus is placed on soft skills - like the ability to communicate and the ability to write. A further challenge in my case, is that probably 95% of my students don’t have English as a first language. So they're often writing in their second or third language, which automatically presents stumbling blocks.

Thomas: Yes, that's something we see a lot as well and honestly, I have huge admiration for the CIMA students whose first language is not English. It's an added, significant difficulty. Do you think any exemptions or accommodations should be made there? Do you think there should be more time given to students who aren't native English speakers, for example?

Michelle: I don't really think more time would help. I think in an ideal world, they would be writing in their home language, but I mean that's just not practical. You can't have students writing in 100 languages! I think nowadays the world of work is English. CIMA is obviously internationally recognised, it’s a global qualification, so you need to be conversant in English. So I understand the reasoning behind it, but I think it is very difficult for the students. I think it's a stumbling block that they do need to overcome, because English is the language of the world. And if everybody is writing in English, everybody whose English is a second language is then on an equal playing field almost once they achieve their qualification.

Thomas: Yeah, no, I agree with you. It's a struggle, but once they come out the other side, they're in great shape if they can get through the exams. The skills will be with them for the entirety of their careers, right?

Michelle: Exactly. 

Thomas: Would it be fair to say then that you're a fan of the case study concept?

Michelle: Yes! (laughs) I had students actually in my office today; so, I lecture undergrads as well. Our academic year runs until the end of October and then they write their exams in November. So a lot of them are now panicking as to what they need to do next year. They come to me and say: “must I do CIMA?” And then I say, well, yes; and then the next question is: “but, how am I going to pass the Case Study?” And I think to myself, I'm the wrong person to ask because I love the Case Study! I love the setup of it. I love the questions. I love prepping my students for the Case Study. So, for me, I flip it. I'm like, you've got to do it because it's awesome! But the students are very intimidated.

Career background

Thomas: Yeah. There seems to be an anxiety around the Case Study. I was like yourself, I liked the Case Study exams more than the Objective Test exams. But I think for the most part, students prefer the Objective Test exams. And the Case Study just causes this anxiety… 

So changing gears a bit, can you tell me a little bit about your career background? Have you ever worked in practice or have you always worked in academia?

Michelle: So I finished my degree (three years) and then my honors to do my CA(SA) - so we talked about the Bachelor of an Accounting Honours. So I did that in 2009, and then in 2010 I was an academic trainee at the university. So I did a year of my three-year training contract at the University, in academia. I then went to PriceWaterhouseCoopers for three years and then finished my qualification. So we need for CA(SA), we need a three-year practical experience, very similar to CIMA, but we've got a list of competencies that you literally need to tick off in those three years. So I qualified at PWC, and I then went into business as a financial manager of a very, very big transport company in Bloemfontein. So I was there for about three and a half years and then actually came back to the university in the finance division. So I came in as an assistant director in the finance division. But my love has always been academia. There was a video that I watched quite a few years ago, which said: “you need to decide if you want to be successful or significant. What are you going to give to the world, and what are you going to take from the world?” And that always resonated with me because I want to be significant. I want to change the lives of as many people as I can, rather than just be successful. Being successful always left that "is this it?" feeling. You can earn a lot of money and count everybody else's money, but, "is this it?" And so when the position opened here for a lecturer in Management Accounting, I then came back to give class.

Thomas: Do you feel that you're meeting that requirement of significance in academia? 

Michelle: I suppose everybody hopes so! (laughs) I hope that I'm changing lives. You know, in undergrad I had 600 students in my class, so I don't necessarily think all 600 of them are changed! But I'm hoping here or there, that I'm guiding or redirecting or instilling a love for the subject area in some of my students.

Thomas: Very good. Do you feel then that academia is the right fit for you? 

Michelle: I think for now certainly, yes. Academia gives me that sense of significance and it gives me a lot of flexibility as well. I've got two small kids at home so, for example, my son was sick yesterday and I had to take him to the doctor. Academia, or at least the set up here at my university, allows for that; whereas in the corporate world, they're not as likely to say: “yeah, sure! Go take him to the doctor!” You're going to have to arrange for someone to handle that for you. So that flexibility now is perfect. I'd like to be more involved in the CIMA program, probably internationally because I feel the majority of the really good service or academic providers are overseas. But I mean, I think that will obviously come with experience and with time.

Preparing for the Strategic Case Study exam

Thomas: Okay, very good. So let's get around to the Strategic Case Study (SCS). You sat it in November 2022, and that was your first attempt?

Michelle: Correct, yeah, it was my first attempt and I was coincidentally around 26 weeks pregnant at the time, so it was a tough process! 

Thomas: Okay, wow! Yes, I can imagine! Roughly how many weeks or months did you spend preparing for the exam? 

Michelle: It was probably a little bit more extended because I didn’t do the Objective Tests. So I still worked through those textbooks. I worked through all three of those modules in detail. I would probably say I started in about June/July 2022. We have a winter break in June/July. So I would have started about then and then went through those three textbooks in detail. And then probably around September I started prepping seriously for the SCS. There was also a program that I did through CIMA for that gateway program that helped a lot. So, you know, we would have probably bi-weekly appointments where we would cover a section of the work and theory and do a few questions; and then you would go off on your own and prep for the next session and start with that.

Thomas: Okay. So what was your approach then to the Strategic Objective Tests theory: Were you reading textbooks? Doing questions?

Michelle: Yeah, for the three pillars, I went through those textbooks and then made summaries of the work. I actually went and studied them as if I was going to sit the Objective Test exams - obviously ignoring all of the calculations and the formulas etc. Then based on that, once that was completed, then I started looking at the bigger picture, and started prepping for the Case Study. So in addition to that course that I did, it was previous case studies, I did a lot of previous case studies and then it was the mock exams.

Thomas: Okay. So you mentioned summarising theories from the Strategic Objective Tests - any particular approach to how you summarise that information, because the textbooks are obviously really, really dense, right?

Michelle: Yeah, they are. And I mean, to filter through it becomes the problem for the majority of students, because there's just too much information. So what I did with the Management level as well is, as I went through previous case studies, you get an idea of the type of questions that are coming. Because the difficult thing I feel for students, nearly always, is they don't know how to study the theory. You're studying this massive amount of theory in essence for three questions in the case of the SCS. How do you approach that? 

So, what I did is, I made lists of models and then just made sure that I understood what each of the models referred to and how they would relate to a question; and how I could draw on that knowledge to answer a question. And then draw up some strategies to answer certain types of questions. So you know ethics is going to be a question, it's going to come up somewhere in the SCS. So what are they always looking for in an ethics question? And that way, you generate almost a “cheat sheet”.

Thomas: There's a different mindset when you go from the Objective Tests to the Case Study, right? Because it's very theory-focused when you're on the Objective Test, and of course, theory is still important with the SCS, but it's theory applied, which is a different thing. It's a slight shift in mindset that trips a lot of students up, right?

Michelle: Yes. You say a slight shift in mindset. I’d go even further and say it's a totally new ball game! Because they're not going to ask you for a specific model that you can refer to on a specific page of a textbook. You sort of need to use that one model, with five others, to answer a question that doesn't even mention the model! So you really need this broad knowledge to answer a very specific question. And I think students are a lot of times unsuccessful because they don't even know what's being asked.

Thomas: So did you take a course, Michelle, for the SCS?

Michelle: Yes, there was one offered through CIMA itself for students on that gateway program. And so they gave us notes as well relating to a lot of the theory. So I worked through those in addition to the notes that I'd made on the three pillars, and then approached it in that manner. 

Thomas: And mock exams, are they really important?

Michelle: Yes. I feel working through previous case studies and mock exams is how you pass a case study.

Thomas: Yeah, roughly how many mock exams did you take ahead of the SCS? 

Michelle: The mock exams, I did… 15. 

Thomas: Wow, okay, loads!

Michelle: Over-preparer! (laughs) So the CIMA course I was a part of had five, and then there were you guys’ (VIVA), which was another five,  and then I did another institution's five mock exams. And then I worked through, I think, 21 previous case studies as well.

Thomas: Okay. Ya, that’s a lot.

Michelle: I should say 21 variants from previous case studies.

Thomas: Ok. And was time management an issue for you? 

Michelle: To fit all of the mock exams in? Or on the day?

Thomas: I suppose from both perspectives! 

Michelle: It was, towards the end.I mean, you've got to have a really set time plan - you know, “this day I need to do these two variants; and that day I need to do those two variants”. Because how I did it was, I would do the variant under exam conditions, and then I go and I mark it. Then I write with a different color pen the points that I missed. So the theories or the application that I didn't mention at all. So that when I'm revising, I just look at those added notes almost. Because what I answered, I already know. I need to revise what I didn't know. So I did that, and that was a lot of careful planning. Because in between I still had my lecture-loaded work and I was still setting up exams and all of that at work. And so this all had to happen after hours. 

Then on the day of the exam… I think you can always say more in an exam; but learning to differentiate what's important, and what are your strongest points and focusing on making those as strong as possible - this is something that you only learn through practice. That's from doing the mock exams and the previous case studies. Because you can ramble on for hours, or you could get the marks or the credit for those last points that you're adding. 

Thomas: And then time management on the day of the exam… I mean, you'd had so much practice, you probably just flew through it, right? Or how did you find it?

Michelle: No, I found the exam terrible! (laughs) I walked out and I actually said to my husband: “It's going to go one of two ways: I've either written down exactly what they wanted and it's going to go well; or I'm going to have to write it again”, because there was no in-between! It was either, “I think I read it correctly, in which case I answered it well; but if I read it incorrectly, then there's very little hope!” (laughs) I actually found it terrible… It was possibly pregnancy hormones as well! (laughs) I wasn't very hopeful, and I'd actually put myself under an insane amount of pressure. So I performed well in the Management level Case Study, and then I sort of dodged the Strategic level because I was so scared to write it, and not do as well as I'd done in the Management level Case Study. Because like you come fourth, and then you come nowhere! So I had to perform, and then I felt I hadn't performed on the day and that was tough.

Thomas: Yeah, okay, right, that's interesting. So on the day of the exam, any tips, tricks that you would offer to students who are actually sitting down to their three-hour exam?

Michelle: Most importantly, I would probably say the morning of the exam, leave your books alone. There's nothing that you're going to read or try to remember out of your head or look through or glance at the morning of the exam that's going to help you pass. All it's going to do is freak you out for the exam itself. And so from probably lunchtime the day before the exam, I put my books away, and that was it. It’s also important for me to not sit there going, “Ok, but what can I answer in this type of question? And what am I going to say if they ask me this?”, because you don't know what's coming. And as soon as you start running it over in your mind, you're going to psych yourself out. So it's really important to put your books away lunchtime the day before, and then taking the questions on the day as they come, question by question. You can't answer this question while you're thinking of what happened in the previous question, because you can't go back to it. So you need that grit or resilience to say, “I've done it, I've answered it, it's over.” And focusing on the question at hand because that's the one that you need to pass at this point in time. Not worrying about what's coming, but how am I going to answer this one and really taking it point by point. 

So when I was practicing, I would always prep my answer before the time, and in the course I did I worked with the theory of five. So you would write down five points which you felt were the strongest, and then you can always add on later. But you attack those five as a priority and make sure that they're strong and backed with decent reasoning. And then it's really working through each one one at a time, making sure that you're addressing it, making sure that you're writing proper paragraphs that make sense, that are well-structured, and then moving on to the next one. Keeping focused on the points that you've jotted down originally and don’t start to ramble on about something that's not relevant to supporting those points.

Thomas: Sure. And what in your experience are some of the most common mistakes that students make on the day of the exam? 

Michelle: I see it a lot with my students, and it’s not planning their answers. So say for instance it's a question about impairment of goodwill; they'll start answering about what goodwill is; and then as they're writing about what goodwill is, then they start discussing the calculation of goodwill; and then they start talking about how difficult it is to value the fair value of the assets… But the question was about the impairment! But they get so lost in the discussion of related theory that they never answer the question. And you can avoid by saying, "Impairment of goodwill, these are the five points I need to discuss." And then continuously referring to them, "Am I talking about this one, am I talking about that one?" and not getting lost in that ramble.

Thomas: Yeah, that's a great point. I guess it's about taking the time to slow down at the start, and planning the answer to ultimately go faster, right!? And obviously,to go better as well. 

Great, so CIMA in South Africa, it's really popular there, right?

Michelle: It is growing in popularity. We had a few years where it was a little bit unknown, but it's definitely now growing in popularity; and the auditing firms are buying into the CIMA qualification, and as soon as they start buying in, it's going to bolster the popularity even more.

Thomas: Sure. Okay, so what about your remaining career ambitions Michelle? What’s next?

Michelle: … Surviving! (laughs) The rest of this semester. I used to lecture at the second-year level, I've actually moved to the third-year level. So with two kids at home, one of them a six month old, and the new content, and the new year group, and the exams, and the CIMA program - up until the end of October I just need to make it! Then next year, I'm going to do my masters. And after my masters, I'm going to try to do my PhD as soon as possible.

I think I’ve got a topic for my masters, so if that works out, it will be really exciting. And actually adding value, which is important to me. I don't want to go and do a master's or a PhD on something that doesn't matter. You know, I want to do something that can be used by the industry, not just theory.

Thomas: Alright, wow! So you've got a very full calendar by the sounds of it. Okay. So I don't have any more questions really, it's been great talking to you Michelle. You've definitely had some great insights, and I think students are really going to appreciate this interview. Thank you very much.

Michelle: Thank you!

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