How to Pass ACCA Exams First Time

Is it really possible to pass an ACCA exam in a week!? Top tutor James Wright certainly thinks so, and in this article, he shows you the way to nail that exam first time.

You're a week out from your ACCA exam, and you find yourself thinking: "have I really done enough to pass this? Can I cover everything I still need to by that date? How can I fit everything in without burning myself out?" These are all perfectly natural questions and doubts to have in the lead up to a challenging exam, and so the first thing to know is: you're not alone! But more importantly, help is at hand. I get these kinds of questions all the time from ACCA students who comment on my YouTube channel and social media posts. In this article I'm going to distill five of the key tips that I've compiled over the years that will help you ace your ACCA exam first time (for a YouTube version of this article, click here). I'll draw on my many experiences as both a former ACCA student myself, and a seasoned ACCA tutor and guide. Taking these points and putting them into practice in your own student life could be the difference between taking you from that 48/49 and getting you over the line to that 50 cohort and passing your exam.

1. Have a plan

Okay, I realise this sounds glaringly obvious, but you'd be surprised how many students fail to actually do this! What often happens is students will start with good intentions, and then at the first unforeseen interruption to their studies, they'll deviate from the plan and just give up on the idea entirely. This is often the result of a mistaken assumption: a plan must be rigid and unchanging. There is a difference between trying your best to stick to a plan, and thinking "if I can't stick to the plan, then there is no point in having a plan at all and I might as well just play it by ear". By all means you should try to stick to a clear study plan; however, we're all human, and we can't predict the future with perfect accuracy. There will always be unexpected interruptions. The key is to not allow them to derail you completely from the idea of a plan.

So here's the lesson: your plan should be clear, comprehensive, but adaptable!

That means before your 7 day countdown to the exam begins, set out a plan the day before. And actually write it down! A plan in your head is as good as no plan. This doesn't have to mean actually putting it on paper of course. You can use a calendar app, an excel spreadsheet, a Word document, whatever format you feel most comfortable with. Obviously you will need to work your study plan around your schedule, your routine, whether that be work or family or both. The key is to figure out when you can realistically find sustained periods where you know you can concentrate with relative peace and quiet. Remember: sustained doesn't necessarily mean long consecutive hours on end! 25 minutes here and another 30 minutes there can actually be quite effective, from a science of learning point of view.

Studies have shown that working in short bursts and "spaced learning" wherein you test your recall from the previous episode of learning, can be very effective (for more on the science of learning, check out VIVA's other great free article here.) Even in situations where you can block out several hours consecutively for study, you need to be careful to pace yourself. Don't simply bury your head in a book or watch video lectures for 3 hours straight. A great motivator and effective method is to study in focused bursts - say 30 minutes - then at the end of the 30 minutes, close the lesson and take a 5 minute break (your "reward"). Come back and now test yourself: force yourself to explain in simple language what you have just been studying. Check if what you're saying is correct by comparing briefly with the lesson. Then move on to your next "burst". And carry on in that vein until your block of hours is completed.

So, plot out your study blocks for the coming week. If you find you study best in the morning, try your best to weight your study time more towards morning hours; and conversely, if you're a night owl, try your best to figure out ways of doing the majority of your study later on. Now "write down" the plan - whether it be in an app or on paper. But the key is: make it specific. "30 minutes on Monday morning at 8:30am. Topic: Digital costing. Video: Lesson 6b". And fill it out in that manner.

Now, as I mentioned above, life is messy and unpredictable, so what happens when you have that unexpected accident, or that late meeting, or that unannounced visit from your mother-in-law? The plan goes in the bin, out the window, under the bed? No! Adapt it. Which topic was missed, and how much time did you lose? Well, look to reallocate it. It might not be easy, but it's a whole lot better than abandoning the plan and thinking "well, planning is hopeless, I'll just study haphazardly whenever I have a chance!" This is a bad idea, because it makes it less likely you will pace yourself, more likely you will forget something, and less likely you'll remain motivated! So sticking with a plan is key; but it doesn't have to be one plan and one plan only. Make the necessary adapations: re-alot that topic and time slot to another day and time. Reshuffle things if necessary. I recommend you do this as soon as possible after the interruption has occurred. Doing it at the end of a long tiring day can be hard to motivate yourself for. So the sooner the better. And proceed in that manner - flexible but committed to a study plan.

Place is another important consideration. Again, it may seem obvious, but try to plan as much of your study time as possible in a study environment where you are most likely to have peace, quiet, and a sense of calm. Of course, it's not always possible. And it doesn't mean that if you can't study in your preferred spot during a certain period, then you should just not study at all in that period. You can still find alternatives where you can still learn quite effectively, if not perfectly. Nevertheless, it’s worthwile working out where your best working environment is and factoring that into your plan. If you don't already have such a place, it might be a good idea to create one for yourself. Only got one room to work with, e.g. a bedroom? No problem. Make it as pleasant a place to spend time studying as possible. Spruce it up. Buy a plant. Keep it nice and tidy. Well ventilated. A nice clear study surface. Again, this may seem obvious, but it's shocking how few ACCA students actually follow this advice!

At the end of the day it's all about holding yourself accountable. After all, you're the one that's preparing for this exam, you know the benefits of being an ACCA member, and the relief of not having to retake the exam. So, that is my number one tip: prepare yourself a plan that's realistic, adaptable, specific, weighted to your favoured study period, and to your favoured study environment.

2. Social media - a double-edged sword

Tip number two involves social media and I feel this is something that actually doesn't get talked about enough. In my own experience, social media use was definitely something that I needed to cut out as much as possible during my study periods.  

The number one and obvious downside of social media is: procrastination. Realistically, we're all partial now and then to flicking through Instagram, Facebook, TikTok or whatever and, before you know it, half an hour has disappeared. And look, there really is only one tried and true way of eliminating this temptation completely from your purview: and that's taking your phone, putting it on silent, and putting it in another room before you sit down to study (unless of course you are using your phone to study! In which case see the next paragraph).

Out of sight is out of mind in this case; only use your phone as an absolute necessity during your study periods. Of course, as recommended above, it's good to "reward" yourself while studying with five minute breaks at the end of a 30 or 40 minute sprint of study. And of course you can use that 5 minutes to watch videos of cats falling off chairs if that's how you get your kicks. But be warned: this can be a slippery slope. And so I would also recommend setting a timer on your phone every time you do this, a timer that blares obnoxiously after that 5 minutes is up!

What if you're actually using your phone for study - say, to watch video lectures, read a PDF, take quizzes while in transit or at the office during lunch? This is trickier of course, but you can download apps that actually block your social media apps on your phone for a predetermined period of time. So I would strongly recommend you consider downloading and using one of those apps if you study a lot on your phone.

One question that is often raised by students is: what about study groups on social media? Should these also be avoided? There are a few things to be said here. Firstly, study groups can be fantastic, especially for remote students, independent learners, and any students who are studying largely on their own. Online communities can be wonderful psychologically, allowing you to share your frustrations and receive encouragement and guidance from others. Not only can they help in this psychological/emotional way, but also in terms of study resources: groups are often excellent sources of information, articles, videos, guides etc, that you may not have encountered before (of course, beware of students sharing copyrighted material!).

There are two potential downsides though of social media study groups: (i) students often convince themselves that spending their time chatting on study groups and interacting with other ACCA students on those groups is study! It's an easy little self-delusion trap to fall into, so watch out for it! Don't allow your planned study time to be taken up with social media study group chat! (ii) if your study group is on a social media app that you like using in your free time anyway for entertainment purposes, there is a real danger you'll get distracted by a notification that pops up or a DM that comes through or something fascinating on your social feed. So again, be very very disciplined with how you spend your time on social media study groups.

If it's the psychological and emotional support aspect that draws you to such groups, you might actually be better off having a single ACCA study partner or "study buddy". Maybe you identify a person in one of those groups as a good fit in terms of experience, ambition, background etc. I personally found that very helpful during my studies. It was great to be able to contact a like-minded student, catch up on how their study day went, what went well, what didn't go so well, And what has each of you planned for tomorrow. Before you know it you’re holding each other to account, assessing what progress each has made... or not, as the case may be!

3. Commit your goal to paper

My third tip: write down your goal. This is more consequential than you might think. It can help so much to be able to visualise where you want to get to.- or indeed visualise the barrier that you intend to break through, the challenge to be overcome! So you may have failed an exam before and you are now lacking in confidence. Well, there is a solution to that. This is what I used to do when I failed. Write down the actual score I got and put it up in my office or study space. Stick it on the wall so you can see it every day. So you can see that 49.

You may be thinking you're not quite feeling it one day - well, look at that 49 and before you know it your mindset will have changed. You will have a renewed resolve. You’ll say: “I know where I'm going to attack this because I've written down a list of things to do from a plan. And I know what I'm going to achieve.” And as you go through each day you can tick off what you have done and see clearly what else needs to be done. This method will enable you to track your progress towards the goal. And you're more likely to achieve the kind of day that you want to have, rather than just procrastinating. No such thing as, “I’ll start revising tomorrow.” You have a goal, you have a plan that guides you towards it - time to get moving!

I also advocate that when you're studying, try to do it as if it was in an exam situation except you're actually having a little break in between. I used to play a bit of music, look at my goal that was written on the wall, and just focus on that. So if you've got those seven days before your actual exam, write down, “ I'm going to get over 50 marks on my ACCA exam”, or whichever one you're doing. Then just close your eyes, pop on the playlist, and then think to yourself,  “This is how I'm going to do it”.

The final point in terms of writing down your goal and visualising it is a case of trying to imagine what it would be like when you open your results and see that you have failed. You know you don’t want that feeling.Then try to visualise it from a positive perspective - really imagine yourself opening that result and seeing the mark you aspire to! The science has shown that visualising and verbalising where you want to be, telling yourself how you're going to get there, and repeatedly telling yourself that you are actually excited to start that process of getting there, is an incredibly effective psychological technique.

4. Attack your weaknesses first

Now tip number four: decide where your weaknesses are, and prioritise addressing those in your study plan. So for me personally I always practised with past exam papers, multiple times. I also tried to do the questions within the allotted time. Then I'd sit down, review it, cross reference with my notes/lessons, and identify the topic(s) I did worst on. Try to get the thing that you're weakest at done first thing in the day (if that’s your chosen study time) and write it down so that at the end of the day you can look back and say, “I've done the thing that I'm bad at. And that is going to be the thing that I get the most benefit from as well.”

So my tactic was always to study first thing in the morning because I found that I actually had most energy in the morning. That was when I performed best, and when I was least likely to give in to mental fatigue in the face of studying the thing that I was weakest at! Of course it might be different for you, you might be a night owl, but the principle is the same: start your study peiod with the thing(s) you feel weakest on.

It can be easy to become demotivated when addressing your weak points, and sometimes we run into a wall and just can't seem to get our heads around something. But remember, there are always other people around the world in the same or similar situations to you, perhaps in those online forums mentioned above, or even in your class (remember, the ACCA student community is a huge global community!)

Why not open up a discussion on specific aspects pertaining to the topic you are struggling on. Use those social media mentioned earlier in an proactive way. Create some content and start that discussion rather than just waiting around or searching around for someone who has already discussed it. You could be creating a poll or initiating a discussion as to how one can get better on an ethics question, say, or something along those lines.

5. Don't burn yourself out!

Finally, tip number five: work/life balance. Again, a seemingly obvious one, but poor planning so often leads students to engage in last minute cramming that is unsustainable, psychologically damaging, and hugely suboptimal from a learning point of view. Alternatively, panic can cause students to force themselves to just bury their heads in a book for 8 hours without breaks, 7 days a week. And believe me, I've been there! You’re working hour upon hour upon hour throughout the day and you’re just working yourself into a frenzy. Where I fell short was revising too much in the morning, then working nine to five and then studying relentlessly again in the evening.

So naturally I wasn’t fitting in enough exercise or eating properly or giving myself enough breaks. You have to be able to give yourself small windows to take your mind off study. Otherwise, your brain doesn't have the time and resources it needs to move what you've learned from short-term to long-term memory. When you’re able to switch off for a little while, you’ll find that when you go back to the study/revision you’ll be able to focus far better and feel more motivated to carry on. On the other hand, if you keep working at it all the time throughout the day, productivity is just going to drop off after a couple of hours. Likely you'll find yourself hitting a wall with some particular topic and just reading the same paragraph over and over.

So that's where the technique of 20 minutes studying and a break of five minutes works really, really well. And keep it really simple as well. So, in that five minute break leave your actual working environment. Getting up and moving your legs makes a big difference. If you've been in a long session where you've been physically static for a couple of hours then it's okay to get up, leave your house/office, and go for a quick little walk while listening to a podcast or some music. Something along those lines. And change it up, work a bit of variety into your breaks. In other words, it's also worth planning at least some of your breaks out, or having a number of little options you can choose from.

It's natural that as the day wears on, mental fatigue starts building. In my case, I found that later in the day, I needed to rely on study resources that were more interactive and mentally stimulating. So I was watching more videos and lessons on YouTube in the evenings, working with study buddies around the world, testing myself with dynamic quizzes and visual aids. In the case of the study buddy, we'd sometimes send questions to each other in the evenings.

Another interesting little technique worth trying with a study buddy is taking turns at playing the role of a "teacher". Perhaps on a video call, take turns explaining in simple language exactly what you have learned that day. The science of learning shows that this is a very effective technique for committing new information to long-term memory, enhancing understanding, and  - crucially - revealing to yourself that perhaps you don't quite understand something as well as you thought!

Another obvious but often overlooked tip: Hydration and nutrition is key. Makie sure you're taking enough water during your study, avoid snacking on chocolates, sweets, fizzy drinks, and eat your meals at roughly the same time every day, ensuring that you're keeping it balanced with fruits, vegetables, fish - you know, the usual suspects! The other thing worth mentioning here is alcohol. You don’t want to have a hangover in those 7 days before the ACCA exam. Instead, if you're so inlcined, imagine how much better that gin and tonic or that glass of wine or that cold beer is going to taste after you finish the exam, knowing you gave it your very best. A lot better, and with none of the guilt!

The final point worth mentioning in terms of work/life balance is the issue of anxiety. Going into the exam, all worried or worked up. I know this is a common and significant problem. My advice? This was gestured at above, but this is a proven psychological technique when it comes to reducing anxiety among those who have a phobia about public speaking - and it translates perfectly to big exam day scenarios. Look yourself in the mirror before the exam, take some deep slow breaths, and then say to yourself something like the following: “I have studied well and consistently, and I know a lot about this subject. I'm actually looking forward to this. I can't wait to share my knowledge and to prove to myself and others that I have learned a lot”.

Repeat ths routine three or four times. Convince yourself it's true. "I'm actually looking forward to this, I get the opportunity to prove and show my new knowledge!" This approach really settles down the nerves. And it also helps to settle the nerves the night before the exam because, let’s face it, a sleepless night or a bad night’s sleep, when going through ACCA, is going to make you perform worse in the exam. So let's focus, eyes on the prize, and repeat these mantras of excitement and enthusiasm to demonstrate your learning.

Summing up

Seven days may seem a short period of time but it can be the difference between getting a number in the 40s, or going into the 50s. I'm confident that if you follow these five key guidelines, you’ve got a really good chance of pushing yourself into the 50s and passing first time. Effective study is not about long consecutive hours. It's about sustainable and consistent volume, well-planned, realistic, with sufficient rewards, breaks and incentives built in. It may sound simple in theory, but so few ACCA students actually put it into practice. Be one of the exceptions! Now go nail that exam.

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