The Business Planning exam is a unique exam within the ACA syllabus due to being a fully open book exam and through the fact that there are three available streams to choose from Business Planning: Taxation, Business Planning: Banking or Business Planning: Insurance. Across the three streams, the pass rate for this exam was 88.0% which goes to show that this is one of the tricker exams within the syllabus.

To pass the Business Planning exam, candidates will need to select the most appropriate exam stream, create a valuable open book resource and repetitively practice questions. Within the exam, candidates must stick to pre-determined timings and be resilient in the face of difficult questions.

When I took this exam, the only option given was Business Planning: Taxation and I found this the singularly most difficult exam throughout the entire ACA course. With other options available, candidates will have to put some thought into which is the best path for them, assuming this isn’t decided on their behalf by the tuition provider.

I have created the below guide for helping students make this choice and then go on to prepare for this exam most effectively in order to ultimately pass.

How to pass the ACA Business Planning exam

Passing the ACA Business Planning exam will come down to doing a few key things well. The first important step is selecting the exam stream which gives the candidate the best chance of success. Beyond this, diligent preparation via question bank practice and preparation of an excellent open book resource will be essential during the revision phase. Finally, the candidate will need to put themselves in the best position possible to perform well on exam day.

Whilst each of these steps are as important as each other, performing well on exam day is the easier part. This will simply be a case of managing exam nerves (which should be much easier to do by this stage of the ACA qualification), managing the fatigue of taking a long exam (often on the same day as another professional level exam) and finally getting enough sleep leading up to the exam to be able to perform on exam day.

The difficult part is learning, revising and mastering the content. For most students, this will involve actively engaging with the tuition and practising questions repetitively. There is no silver bullet here – it’s simply a case of putting the work in and sticking to a smart plan. For the Busines Planning exam (regardless of which stream is taken), due to the difficulty and technical nature of the content, more practice time should be set aside than for other professional level exams.

Success in the preparation phase will come down to the below points:

  • Listening intently to the tutor and actively engaging with exercises and questions. Speak up if you don’t understand a concept or method.
  • Creating a realistic but thorough revision timetable that you can stick to and that will provide enough study hours to master the content whilst also leaving some time to relax.
  • Pummeling the question bank and mock exams repeatedly and learning from mistakes when you make them.
  • Creating and improving an excellent open-book resource for exam day.
  • Devise a smart strategy for exam day.

You only need 55% to pass and this fact should be your best friend when it comes to this exam. If you manage to practice questions repetitively, create a strong open-book resource, calculate and stick to preset timings and write as much as you can for each question, you’ll be in a great position to pass this exam.

ACA Business Planning exam – key information

All of the key information regarding the ACA Business Planning exam is summarised below:

Exam length2.5 hoursBusiness Planning: Taxation, Business Planning: Banking and Business Planning: Insurance all have an exam length of 2.5 hours.
Pass-mark55%Business Planning: Taxation, Business Planning: Banking and Business Planning: Insurance all have a pass mark of 55%.
Pass-rate88%At the most recent sitting, 88% of candidates passed the exam across the different streams.
LevelProfessionalThe exams are in 3 levels; Certificate, Professional or Advanced. See the image below.
Structure3 long questions (100%)Business Planning: Taxation, Business Planning: Banking and Business Planning: Insurance will all consist of three long-form questions making up 100% of the marks. One question will be an integrated scenario of approximately 40 marks.
LocationAny ICAEW-approved test centre
CPLYesIt is possible to get a ‘Credit for Prior Learning’ (exemption) for this exam.
Open book?YesThis is a full open-book exam which means students can take any written or printed material into the exam, subject to practical space restrictions.

How the exam is structured

The ACA Business Planning exam falls within the professional level as shown below. All three pathways (Business Planning: Taxation, Business Planning: Banking and Business Planning: Insurance) are included here and ACA students will only need to pass one of these three streams to pass this exam requirement.

ACA Business Planning exam

The exam (regardless of which stream is chosen) is made up of 3 long-form, written questions covering a variety of topics. The marks per question can vary from exam to exam but what we do know is that “one question will be an integrated scenario of approximately 40 marks. Ethics and law may be tested in any of the three questions.” as per the ACA syllabus.

The single most important thing you can do on this exam is to get your timings right and spend the correct amount of time on each question and sub-question. To do this effectively, you’ll need to calculate the correct amount of time to spend on each question (process shown below) and be highly disciplined in sticking to these timings. Even if you’re halfway through a sentence when your time for the question is up, move on! Even if you have another 10 great points to write for a question, move on! You can always come back later if there’s time.

So what’s the most efficient way of working out the time you should spend per question?

Step 1 – write down how long the exam is in minutes. We know the exam is two and a half hours long. This converts to 150 minutes in total.

Step 2 – Take off 10 minutes from the total which is the time set aside to work out and write down your timings per question. This leaves 140 minutes of actual question-answering time.

Step 3 – We now know we have 140 minutes to answer questions worth 100 marks. This is 1.4 minutes (1 minute 24 seconds) per mark.

Step 4 – Go through the exam script and for each question or sub-question, calculate the time per question. For example, if a question is worth 40 marks, you would give yourself 40 * 1.4 minutes = 56 minutes.

Step 5 – Once you have done this for each question, confirm the timings for each question sums up to 140 minutes in total so you know you haven’t gone wrong anywhere.

This may sound like a hassle but with practice, you can do all of this for an exam script in under five minutes.

For each question, the time assigned can then be split into reading/planning and writing time according to the split you’re comfortable with.

Taking the time to do this and then being strict with yourself to stick to the timings is the single most effective thing you can do. This technique will make sure you apply a reasonable amount of time to each question and don’t fall victim to running out of time which is the reason many candidates fail this exam.

This is an important point – if any single question is taking you longer than the calculated time, move on! The single biggest reason people will fail this exam (other than not understanding the content) – is time management.

If you believe you have completed your answer to a particular question within the predetermined time, feel free to move onto the next one. You have just saved yourself a few minutes which can be put towards any question you have more to write for at the end.

The syllabus will cover:

Business Planning: Taxation

  1. Ethics and law (5-10%)
  2. Taxation of corporate entities (35-45%)
  3. Taxation of owner-managed businesses (20-30%)
  4. Personal taxes (15-25%)

Business Planning: Insurance

  1. Insurance products and risk management (20–25%)
  2. Financial and regulatory reporting for insurance companies (35–40%)
  3. Audit and assurance of insurance companies (30–35%)
  4. Ethics (5–10%)

Business Planning: Banking

  1. Risk management and financial services products (20–25%)
  2. Financial and regulatory reporting for banks (35–40%)
  3. Audit and assurance of banks (30–35%)
  4. Ethics (5–10%)

Which ACA Business Planning module should I take?

As mentioned above, passing the Business Planning exam can be done by taking one of three streams: taxation, banking or insurance.

For some students, your employer or tuition provider will make this decision on your behalf. For instance, if you work in the insurance audit team, you’re more than likely to end up taking the insurance stream of the exam.

However, if you’re taking the ACA qualification independently or your employer is not determining a stream for you, there are a couple of considerations to take into account when making this decision.

The two main things you want to be thinking about are a) how easily can I pass each stream? and b) which stream will be most useful to my career going forward?

These two factors tend to be interlinked. If, for example, you work as a tax accountant, the Business Planning: Taxation stream is almost certainly both the easiest (due to your experience) and the most helpful for your career going forward.

If you work in an unrelated field to taxation, banking and insurance, the decision will come down to which of the three paths you are most confident in passing at the first attempt. Whilst this is completely subjective, I can say from experience that the Business Planning: Taxation stream was the single hardest exam I faced during the ACA syllabus (having recently been downgraded from an advanced level exam) and my instinct is, therefore, to steer clear of this if possible, particularly if you struggled with the Tax Compliance exam.

ACA Business Planning exam – revision strategy

With the exception of self-taught students, most of your revision time will be determined by your tuition provider.

For the Business Planning exam, revision or practice outside of the classroom should focus on the following items; question bank questions, mock exams, reviewing particular topics within the course notes, creating a genuinely useful open-book resource and updating/reviewing your mistake notepad as outlined below.

In terms of how revision should be structured, my advice would be to complete a full long question and once complete, take a short break and then mark your answer with reference to both the marking scheme and the model answer. As you do this repetitively, you will become more conscious of areas you need to work on and the best ways of answering the questions. This practice will also be beneficial in revealing the weak spots of your open-book resource which can be improved over time.

When studying, implement the Pomodoro technique (which is explained briefly in this Youtube video). This will maximise your productivity and help to avoid burnout and concentration lapses.

If it suits your studying style, consider joining a study group with one or two other students. I found this immensely helpful, not only does it help keep you accountable to study in line with your revision timetable, you and your study group can help cover each other’s weaknesses.

Beyond the above points, the most important thing is to listen and implement your tutors’ advice. They have likely taught this exam module several times and are well placed to advise on the best ways to revise and practice.

How to learn from your mistakes effectively

To make the most of your revision sessions, you need to be diligent in learning from your mistakes and making sure you don’t make the same errors repeatedly.

I’ve found using the ‘notepad method‘ particularly effective for this.

Here’s how it works – buy a nice new notepad and write ‘ACA Business Planning exam – mistakes’ on the front cover. Any time you make an error in mock exams, the question bank or the end of chapter questions within the course notes, write a note in your notepad explaining what the error was, why you made it, what the correct answer should be and a reminder to yourself about how this error can be avoided in the future.

At the start of each revision session, read through this notepad of mistakes and you’ll gradually stop making the same errors as you become more conscious of them.

ACA Business Planning open-book tips

Unlike the other professional level exams, the Business Planning exam allows students to bring in an open-book resource which is defined as “any written or printed material into the exam, subject to practical space restrictions.”

To create an effective open book resource for the ACA Business Planning exam, students must bring in the optimum amount of materials to be helpful without becoming overwhelming. To be successful, the open book resource must be simple and fast to use to avoid wasting time during the exam.

Being able to bring in any resource you deem helpful can be a huge advantage when implemented effectively. However, this opportunity often ends up tripping candidates up who make the mistake of bringing in vast quantities of written materials that are poorly organised and end up spending far too much time searching for answers in an already time-pressured exam.

Whilst I would always recommend listening to the advice of your tuition provider, here are my simple, effective recommendations for a successful open-book resource.

Take in a well-organised binder of general course notes.

This resource should have an index page, be tabbed up and be simple to use and follow. Create this resource as soon as possible and get used to using it whilst answering questions. As you do this, you can iterate the resource to make it as useful as possible prior to exam day. This resource should be contained within a binder that is easy to flick through quickly. My advice is to have this resource open throughout the exam either next to your answer paper or even resting on your lap due to how often you will likely be referring to it. By the time of the exam, using this resource should be second nature.

A smaller cheat sheet pack.

I would also create a much smaller binder (<20 pages in total) with each page representing a cheat sheet on each topic. For example, one sheet would cover the topic of ethics. At the start of this pack, I would have an index page saying which topic is on what page. I would recommend creating this resource in a bound stack of papers that allows you to flick through quickly and open up a whole page at a time. The rationale behind this resource is that you have a sheet of related points at hand for any topic that comes up on the exam.

An insurance policy binder of past exams & question bank questions and answers

My final open-book resource would be another binder that contains as many questions (either from past exams or the question bank) and model answers as possible. This too will need to be very organised with an index page laying out the page references of questions and answers by topic. This resource should act more as an insurance policy than anything else in that if you see a question you are completely stuck on, you can identify the topic, locate similar questions in this resource and use the model answers as inspiration (or even directly copy them if applicable) to earn marks. If you have any time left at the end of the exam, this can be used to bolster your answers with a few points from model answers on similar questions.

ACA Business Planning exam – timing and strategy

As well as having a revision strategy, candidates should think about implementing a specific exam strategy to maximize their chances of success. This strategy should be based on three core factors: writing as much as possible for each question, being careful not to take too much time on any single question and ‘playing the game’ to get over 55%.

In this exam, there seems to be a correlation between the amount written and the exam score. As this exam is positively marked, i.e. you don’t get points taken away for wrong answers, it makes sense to write as much as possible for each question whilst avoiding going over the allotted time on any given question. This doesn’t mean writing whatever and hoping for the best but rather being precise and getting down as many sentences as possible which have a chance of earning you marks.

As discussed earlier, the key to success in this exam is being diligent with timings. For each question, multiply the number of marks by 1.4 minutes to calculate the total time to answer the question and then stick to this time.

By doing this, candidates will make sure they spend sufficient time answering each question. This is linked to the third factor which is that the pass-mark is only 55%. By leaving sufficient time for each question, candidates are able to have a good stab at every part of the exam which makes achieving the 55% pass mark much easier.

ACA Business Planning resources and past papers

Please use the links below for valuable resources (including past papers) to help pass the ACA Business Planning exam:

  1. ACA Syllabus Handbook – refer to page 70 for Business Planning: Taxation. Page 76 for Business Planning: Banking . Page 83 for Business Planning: Insurance.
  2. Details over closed book vs open book vs permitted texts
  3. Details over the latest exam software in use
  4. For other past papers and useful resources – click here and navigate to the applicable exam.

How to tackle concepts you keep getting wrong

As with any exam, a certain proportion of the content will be challenging. It may even feel at times like you can’t understand a particular item no matter how much you read the course notes and practice questions.

If you find yourself in this situation and are beginning to get overwhelmed, here are my suggestions:

  1. Consider ignoring it. This will only work if it’s not a central concept. This may sound counter-intuitive but if for example, you are really struggling in one area and just can’t seem to get it, it may not be the worst idea to forget it. Remember, you only need 55% to pass the exam and this area is unlikely to make up more than a couple of the total points. Does it not, therefore, make sense to avoid spending hours trying to understand this concept when that time could be spent on more useful revision?
  2. If the topic can’t be ignored – ask either your tutor or a classmate who does understand it for help. In my experience, both tutors and classmates are more than willing to explain a concept and sometimes a new perspective can help you understand something that was previously incomprehensible.
  3. Consider google-ing the topic. A lot of very specific questions are explained online on blogs, forums or Youtube videos which may help unlock your understanding.

Tips for exam day

I often use the metaphor of a boxer preparing for a fight for how candidates should prepare for the ACA exams. Both the pre-fight preparation and the fight-day itself are equally important. If you don’t prepare properly, you won’t be successful. Similarly, if you prepare well, but perform poorly on the day, you won’t be successful.

With this in mind, I’ve laid out a few tips to help optimise your exam day performance that worked consistently for me during my exam days.

Needless to say, being well prepared is crucial. It doesn’t matter how well you sleep the night before the exam or how dialled in your pre-exam ritual is if you don’t know the content. There is nothing that will help calm exam nerves to the extent that being over-prepared will.

As well as being well prepared on the exam content, it also pays off to be well prepared practically speaking. Things go wrong in exams so have contingencies planned. If you’re doing your exam from home as many are at the moment, have a backup plan if your wifi cuts out e.g. a mobile phone hotspot connection. Take an earlier train into the exam centre in case there are signal failures (which there seem to be most days).

My next tip may sound a bit like something your Grandmother would say but regardless – get a good night’s sleep for the week leading up to the exam. One good sleep does not make up for poor sleep every other night. Get your 7-8 hours per night. Believe me, this will have a bigger impact than another hour of revision late at night. The research is very clear that good sleep is crucial for memory retention which is a big part of all of the ACA exams.

Finally, a quick point on when is the right time to stop revising. My advice is to stop revising a few hours before you sleep on the night before the exam and relax for a few hours. Trying to cram material late on the night before the exam will probably not help and almost certainly make it more difficult to sleep.

Should you take your ACA exam exemption?

Some students will be exempt from certain exams due to the credit for prior learning (CPL) system. For students who have studied Accounting at university or have done similar qualifications in the past, certain ICAEW ACA modules will be a duplication of content. Rather than repeating an exam already passed, students can apply for a credit for prior learning and become exempt from the exam.

More information on ACA exam exemptions can be found here.

Whether students apply for and take exam exemptions is up to them but it’s worth noting the key advantage and disadvantage of doing so.

The big advantage is clear – students can save themselves significant study time and exam stress by taking an exemption and use that saved time for other exams they are not exempt from taking.

However, the disadvantage is that the ACA qualification is structured in tiers as discussed above. For example, students will take ‘Accounting’ at the certificate level, ‘Financial, Accounting and Reporting’ at the professional level and ‘Corporate Reporting’ at the advanced level with the knowledge and skills being built upon and compounded throughout.

This means if a student were to take an exemption from the Accounting exam for example – when it comes to taking the difficult Financial Accounting and Reporting exam, the underlying content will not be fresh in mind which may become a difficult obstacle to overcome.

As always, please remember I am an Accountant, but not your Accountant. In this post (and all of my others) I share information and oftentimes give anecdotes about what has worked well for me. However, I do not know your personal financial situation and so do not offer individual financial advice. If you are unsure of a particular financial subject, please hire a qualified financial advisor to guide you.

This article has been written by Luke Girling, ACA – a qualified Accountant and personal finance enthusiast in the UK. Please visit my About page for more information. To verify my ACA credentials – please search for my name at the ICAEW member finder. Please comment below or contact me here to get in touch with questions or ideas for future posts.