Friday, 3 October 2014

Train Hard, Race Easy

In my spare time I enjoy keeping fit and most often this involves running. I've run numerous half marathons and am a member of my local running club. There is a saying amongst running coaches around the world that goes: "Train Hard, Race Easy". It strikes me that this saying can fit any scenario where the end result is to perform to the best of your ability. Many of you have probably heard the saying before but if you haven't, its meaning is fairly obvious; the idea is to work so hard in your preparation that when the time comes to put yourself to the test you will succeed without having to push yourself to the limit.

After tutoring students for CIMA exams for well over a decade, it's clear that there is a divide amongst most students.

Group 1: Train Easy, Race Hard - This group generally under-prepare and hope to "pull it out of the bag" on the day

Group 2: Train Hard, Race Easy - This group prepare so fully that they will pass (even on a bad day)

Looking through our lessons learnt analysis from past T4 students - you'd be hard pressed to find one person that doesn't mention practicing loads of mock exams. On our T4 course, our students do at least 5 mock exams in their preparation.

Back to my running analogy: Doing a mock exam in T4 is like doing a fast practice run called a "tempo run". Physically it's the most draining thing you can do because you are running close to your limit, but it's also the most beneficial thing you can do to improve.

There's no doubt that when it comes to a difficult exam like T4, there is no substitute for hard work and the most effective work you can do is Mock exam practice. Look forward now at your plan for the next few weeks and consider how and when you will work, what you'll do and get going early. I'm sure it'll really help you pass this sitting.

We have 7 full mock exams for the November T4 exams - all come with full solutions.

Our new mock exams specially written for November are now available on our website - these have been carefully written to adopt the most recent "style" seen in the latest real T4 exams.

Thanks for reading,


Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Take the marker’s perspective

As a student I suspect you’ve never thought about your script from a marker’s perspective, but you must start as it can make a huge difference to the mark you’ll score in the exam.

The importance of this was highlighted recently when I was reviewing a ‘test script’ which had been marked by a potential new Astranti marker. To give you some background, all our markers go through a training programme of videos and test scripts to make sure they understand the level of detail and depth we require for the feedback given to markers, and also to ensure all markers are marking consistently with each other. I was reviewing a script from an experienced marker who'd marked scripts for other organisations, but I needed to make sure he was on track with the Astranti marking approach and style.

The interesting thing was that his marking and my own agreed in a number of places and disagreed in others. In the end he gave the script 10 marks less than me, and I wanted to make sure we were more consistent in future. As I started reviewing where the differences were so I could give him feedback I realised all the key areas where we differed came where the student had written unclear, unstructured answers with no headings and poor paragraph length. Without the headings the student’s script lacked focus and that was where the ‘marker interpretation’ started coming in. My ‘interpretation’ of these unstructured sections was more generous than his! In the clearly structured sections with clear headings, based on a plan, focused around the requirement we both scored the script well.

There’s a simple lesson here then - no headings, a lack of structure and lack of clear paragraphs length (ideally 4-5 lines each) results in the marker having to use a lot of ‘judgement’ and ‘interpretation’ in their marking and where that’s the case you might end up on the wrong end of your marker’s view and score poorly. Where the script is clearly laid out with headings based on a clear answer plan which clearly answer the requirement made, no more than 2 paragraphs after every heading, and clear 4-5 line paragraphs throughout, markers are more likely to mark consistently and allocate marks for every thing you do.

So, next time you are practise writing your answers, remember this key lesson, take the marker’s perspective and ensure the points you write are clear, focused and structured. You’ll write a better answer which convinces them to give you marks and even if you’re unlucky enough to get a ‘tough’ CIMA marker marking your script you will still score well.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Keys to passing T4: Thinking ahead - use your personal "autopilot"

A student who recently passed his T4 exam emailed me recently to say thank you for my help.

Alongside those thanks he made a very interesting point leading to why he’d passed – and put it in a way that, despite all the years I’ve been teaching T4, I’d not heard before. So here’s the email from Matt – and to give you a little background, he’d got an average of 51% in his three practice mock exams before doing much better (66%) in the real exam

“Hi Nick, I'm very happy to inform you that I passed with 33.

It was a relatively nice paper, although that itself was a result of preparing with your predicted scenarios and the mocks. I felt reasonably confident of a pass as I had been borderline pass in the submitted mocks and managed to write almost 1,000 more words in the real thing. My problem before was pausing too long to think. On the day, once I had done the "thinking" in the plan and calculations then the rest was like being on autopilot. Which I think is very much the "trick" to T4. This was my first taught course and I did find the compressed timetable and tight deadlines difficult, but that pressure also helped me focus. I will definitely recommend your course for my colleagues and friends sitting T4 and its replacement in the new syllabus next year.

Many thanks,


The key point I liked here (beyond the compliments of course!) was the analogy of being on autopilot as the key “‘trick’ to T4”, as he put it. This is so, so true. One of the biggest problems I see is people struggling with their time management and then not writing enough, and Matt has hit the nail on the head of many people’s problems with this. Too often people are spending too much time ‘thinking’ as they write. They think again and then write. They stop and think. Often they then reread the unseen. Then they write a little more. Then the stop and think and so on. In the end they are no where near the 3000 words which is absolutely key to passing the exam. Not enough content means there’s just not enough to get you through!

So how did Matt manage to get onto “autopilot” and write 1000 words more in the real exam? The key was his planning. He produced a very strong, detailed plan, so had done all his key thinking early, meaning that once he’d started writing he could do just that – write, and write some more and write some more! Also note that he’d also done a lot of mock practice including full 3 mocks he had marked.

So take a lesson from Matt – practice lots of mock exams so you know the process and formats for the report and do really good plans so that when you start to write – that’s exactly what you are doing. That way you should write a long and relevant report that will score well and easily pass, just as Matt did.

My masterclass this weekend has a whole element on planning and preparation. If you're interested in attending the live class or watching a recording click the link here

Thursday, 6 March 2014

CIMA New Syllabus Case Study 2015

So T4 is now leaving us, with the last sittings due this year - to be replaced with the new strategic case study exam. If you don't pass T4 by the end of this year, you will have to take that new case study next February.

That case study will be quite different from T4 - here are the key differences:
  • Computer based only
  • Consists of a range of tasks (3-5) not one big report
  • Once each task is complete you can not go back and work on that later on and you can not complete later tasks before earlier ones.
  • No calculations - figures will appear in the questions but you'll be analysing them rather than doing the calculations themselves.
  • Greater testing of E3, F3 and P3 knowledge - you'll need to know those syllabuses much better than you do for T4.
  • There will be a new preseen every sitting (rather than one for every two).
I saw the CIMA sample mock at the CIMA conference and have recreated one for you so you can see exactly what you'll be faced with. Take a look at our 2015 new syllabus website where you'll find the mock exam. Alternatively visit our case specific webpage where you can find some more specific information on the strategic case study. I've also recorded a you tube video "CIMA 2015 New Syllabus Case Study Sample" running you through the case study.

So what does this mean for those of you currently taking T4. Simply put - you should aim to pass T4 by the end of this year. Why? Firstly it will save you having to refresh all your E3, F3 and P3 knowledge which is a greater part of the new case study. Secondly it's a completely different format which will be unfamiliar - better the devil you know! Finally - the preseen at T4 lasts for 2 sittings, so if you fail one you don't have to familiarise yourself with a new preseen!

CIMA are being bold in this change and I think it's a good thing. The days of paper based exams have finally come to an end and surely that's got be right given how little we physically write things now. Long live the digital age!

Monday, 14 October 2013

Part b – The easiest marks on the T4 paper?

Part b – The easiest marks on the T4 paper?

Possibly the easiest place to earn marks in this paper is in the part b requirement. The reason stems from the way examiner wants you to answer this which makes it both quick to do and easy to score good marks. Let’s take a step back though – what is part b?

Part b is a “communication requirement”. You are expected to show you can communicate a point from the exam quickly and well, in a letter, memo, email, notes to presentation slides or indeed presentation slides themselves. It may include a requirement to produce a graph based on numbers you should have calculated earlier in your appendices.

So what makes this the easiest place to earn marks in this exam? Well the key lies in the way the examiner wants you to answer this section. The aim is that you are making brief, clear points of roughly two lines each, with each of those lines representing a mark in the exam. This means that you can easily score 8-10 marks in writing no more than a page on part b, whereas on other sections you would probably need nearer to two sides of full report writing style.

The second element that makes it easy is that it is often based on one of the main issues in the report that you should have already discussed. This means you should have already thought about this so there is no new thinking to be done. This will help to speed up writing of this section. Indeed, I’ve known many students doing the PC exam cleverly rewriting and rearranging material from their report to do superb part b's very quickly indeed.

My final message is one of time management. One of the examiner’s favourite comments in Post Exam Guides over recent years is that the Part b section was not completed by many candidates. While it does appear that this seems to be improving over recent sittings, it’s vital that you don’t fall into the time mangement trap – do leave yourself enough time to do part b as it’s such a quick and easy way to score good marks that doing it well could easily be the difference between a pass and a fail!

If you have not read it yet, the best guide to what the examiner wants from part b is in the guide written by the examiner. This is an excellent summary of what you need to do for part b – do digest this, and make sure you practice lots of part b’s prior to the exam so you maximise your marks in what is often a very easy section.

CIMA T4 | Ethics

Ethics – Don’t let it be an afterthought for you!

Ethics is 10 marks in the exam, and significant enough that it is a whole section in your report, yet it is often the forgotten element of T4, which people treat as an after-thought – something to do at the end if they’ve got time. In our post-exam research of over 200 CIMA T4 students, over 20% did not complete this section, meaning an almost certain failure. The examiner has noticed this problem too. In the September 2011 Post Exam Guide it was noted that many students did complete two ethics issues, and two is the minimum you need. In my experience, the people that get good marks in this section tend to cover three issues.

There are two parts to ethics, the first of these is the analysis of ethical issues. Marks are awarded for recognizing each of the ethical issues and explaining why that is ethically right or wrong.

In my experience, people are good at identifying ethical issues, but poor at saying why they are ethical issues. Ethics is about doing the right thing. Bribery is wrong because the person taking the bribe doing what is right for them personally rather than the organization they’re working for. Take care to ensure you focus on why something is wrong thing to do given our moral values and cultural norms.

The second element to ethics is to make solid ethical recommendations. Remember there are just as many marks for the ethical recommendations as there are for analyzing the issue, so you should be writing just as much on these as you are on your analysis. This is a common mistake in scripts I mark where the recommendation ends up being a single line or two at the end.

One key to success in ethics is to ensure you have a standard structure for every ethics issue. I recommend using the following sub-headings every time to make sure you’ve never missed this out: What are the facts, Why is it an ethics issue?, Business consequences, Recommendation 1 (short term), Recommendation 2 (Long term). To see some excellent examples see our ethics sections in our mock exams or if you really want to master ethics in your exam work through our comprehensive guide and examples in our ethics e-book. All of these materials are also available as part of our full T4 course.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

CIMA T4 Insights | TOPCIMA Calculations

After weeks of what seems like relentless effort, my colleague Duncan Dicks and I have finally completed the long awaited CIMA T4 Calculations Pack. Perhaps now I see why everyone complains so much about the calculations in the exam having been through so many and having to try to get perfect answers to them all! Trawling through years of T4 past papers and using our experience and expertise as CIMA tutors and markers, we have now compiled an extensive collection of calculations based on the real calculation questions in the CIMA T4 case study but which do not require an extensive knowledge of a pre-seen report, making them perfect for exam practise.

Despite years of working on the TOPCIMA T4 paper, in the creation of the Calculations Pack, Duncan and I have gained a far deeper insight into the calculation section of the CIMA T4 TOPCIMA exam. Here, for you, are the lessons we learned and what they mean for you as a T4 candidate:

1.       There aren’t many ‘theory’ calculations in past TOPCIMA papers, that is to say many of the calculations require a clear head and common sense rather than technical knowledge of calculations from previous papers. There’s little point therefore spending a lot of time reviewing past technical knowledge – your time is much better spent looking at recent CIMA T4 exam questions.

2.       The main exception to this is primarily the NPV calculation which turns up frequently and needs to be able to be carried out very quickly.  In some cases there may be three options with an NPV required on each.  In this case there is usually only a single revenue and single cost line so don’t be put off, they’re usually straightforward, but you do have to work quickly to get everything done.

3.       Other calculations which require some theoretical knowledge have turned up including payback period (discounted and undiscounted), share valuation, return on investment. Make sure you've revised these topcis.

4.       Many calculations are simple calculations of annual profit, comparison with budget or cash flow forecasts.  These just require you to keep track of the figures carefully. Be diligent throughout.

5.       Probably about 75% of the time, the question is explicit about what is required.  Phrases such as ‘The Finance Director has asked you to calculate the operating profit for each option’ often turn up.  Sometimes the calculation required is strongly hinted at with phrases such as ‘the target Return on Investment is …’ or ‘The company uses a cost of capital of…’.

In both these cases it isn’t uncommon to find students who have calculated something completely different to that expected, and often something that isn’t helpful to the decision being made. Take care and do what the examiner wants, then remember to use that information when you are analysing the information in the body of your report.

6.       Occasionally it is simply up to you to decide what calculation, if any, would help the company to make a decision.  Think carefully about this.  It is frequently the case that students calculate say a unit profit when the total profit is the decision making factor.  Read the question carefully and think about what will best help your analysis.

These questions are unlike anything from previous papers so practise of TOPCIMA style questions is key. Do as many practise questions as you can, and ensure you do them under strict timed conditions, so that you are practising doing them quickly and so you leave plenty of time for the rest of the report. Calculations are very important, but not so important that you should spend any more than 20 to 25 minutes on them in the real exam. 

Get a sample of the calculations pack here