The ACA Case Study exam is unique within the wider ACA syllabus. Whilst the content isn’t particularly technically challenging, the exam itself tends to present candidates with a host of different problems as shown by the low 77.6% pass rate in the most recent exam season.
To pass the ACA Case Study exam, candidates should become highly familiar with the advanced information pack, create an excellent open-book resource and practice as many case-specific mock questions as possible. Within the exam, sticking to pre-determined timings and writing concisely will be key.
As the content isn’t as tough as other advanced level ACA exams, many candidates have a false perception that this exam is easy. However, given the draining four-hour exam length, the unique nature of the exam and the precision with which candidates need to write answers that directly adhere to a rigid mark scheme, many students find this exam a real challenge to get through.
With that in mind, I have created the below guide which should help anyone studying for the Case Study exam to organise a revision and exam strategy and ultimately pass this tricky first exam.
How to pass the ACA Case Study exam
Passing the ACA Case Study exam will come down to doing a few key things well. Firstly – how well the candidate prepares via learning of the advanced information pack, preparation of the open-book resource and question bank practice and secondly how well the candidate can perform on exam day.
Whilst both 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 second nature by this stage of the ACA qualification), managing the fatigue of taking a four-hour exam and finally, getting enough sleep leading up to the exam to be able to perform optimally on exam day.
The difficult part is learning, revising and mastering the case and answering questions in the most effective way. 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.
Unlike previous exams, there isn’t much content to actually learn here and what candidates will have to do in the exam isn’t technical at all. The focus in the Case Study exam is exam technique and playing the game to hit the necessary sections of the marking grid.
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.
- Learning and memorising the key information contained within the advanced information pack.
- 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 which considers the 50% pass mark and the fatigue associated with a long exam.
In the advanced level, candidates only need to score 50% to pass which should be a great source of confidence. If you manage to practice questions repetitively, get to grips with the advanced information, 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.
What is the pass mark for the ACA Case Study exam?
The pass mark for the ACA Case Study exam is 50%. The low pass mark should give students confidence but the Case Study exam is a notoriously difficult one to achieve high scores in due to the precision with which candidates have to hit specific points in the marking grid to score marks.
The 50% pass mark should be part of a well-thought-through exam strategy. The goal here is to pass the exam, not to necessarily achieve a high score. Due to this, it’s crucial that candidates stick to pre-determined timings for each requirement.
A common mistake Case Study candidates make is overrunning on the first requirement which asks for financial analysis and a comparison of the current year and prior year financial information. There are literally hundreds of points that could be made about this information but it’s important to only make as many as you can in the time allotted to this portion of the exam.
How long is the ACA Case Study exam?
The ACA Case Study exam is 4 hours long. This is the single longest exam within the ACA course with the other two advanced level exams (Corporate Reporting and Strategic Business Management) having 3.5 hour long exams each. Dealing with exam fatigue will be especially important in this exam.
Again, the four hour exam time should be considered when developing an exam strategy. Candidates should factor in small breaks between each requirement to avoid mental burnout. Whilst the exam is time-pressured, candidates do have 5 minutes to spare for resting out of the 240 minutes in total.
What is the pass rate for the ACA Case Study?
The pass rate for the ACA Case Study exam was 77.6% in the most recent exam season. Historically, the pass rate for this exam has been between 75-80%. The relatively low pass rate tends to be due to poor exam technique rather than not understanding the content.
For most candidates, the pass rate isn’t something I would spend too much time worrying about. In this case, it just highlights the fact that this isn’t an easy exam and needs to be taken seriously.
How is the ACA Case Study exam unique?
Not only is this the single longest exam in the ACA syllabus as discussed above, but it’s also the only exam that gives candidates advanced information prior to exam day.
Unlike the other 14 ACA exams, the focus here isn’t on the content and learning new information but rather on applying what has been learnt throughout the rest of the course to a specific case. The exam tries to replicate a more realistic situation a future ACA accountant may file themselves in.
A further uniqueness to this exam is how it is marked. For this exam, there is a very precise marking grid for each requirement which lays out the specific points candidates need to make to score marks. For example, a candidate could make a perfectly reasonable, well-articulated point but if it’s not on the marking grid, it won’t score points.
To be honest, this was one of my frustrations with the Case Study exam. The exam is billed as “designed to reproduce a typical situation in which ICAEW Chartered Accountants find themselves” and this is partially true insofar as that a real-life scenario will likely involve receiving some information in advance and then writing a full report to advise a client.
The highly rigid and formulated marking scheme seems out of tune with the real-life scenario the exam is trying to reproduce. Maybe you will notice and be frustrated by this contradiction too but my advice is to ignore this, play the ‘Case Study’ game and get through this final exam on the way to earning your ACA qualification.
How the exam is structured
The ACA Case Study exam is the final exam ACA students will sit and falls within the advanced level as shown below.
The exam asks candidates to write a report to the management of a fictitious client introduced in the advanced information which will contain three requirements. These three requirements will typically involve a financial analysis comparing the current and prior period, an analysis of the business’s current state and a review of a business opportunity but this can vary based on the specific case the candidates are presented with.
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!
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 four hours long. This converts to 240 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 230 minutes of actual question-answering time.
Step 3 – We now know we have 230 minutes to answer questions worth 100 marks. This is 2.3 minutes per mark which is a lot of time to score a single point compared with most exams.
Step 4 – Go through the exam script and for each question or sub-question, calculate the time per question. For example, if a requirement is worth 40 marks, you would give yourself 40 * 2.3 minutes = 92 minutes = 1 hour 32.
Step 5 – Once you have done this for each question, confirm the timings for each question sums up to 230 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.
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 simple 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.
Remember, you only need 50% to clear this exam. This simple strategy (and being comfortable with the content) is the most effective way of achieving this.
Having over two minutes per mark gives candidates sufficient time to really flesh out each point they are making and link it directly to the scenario laid out in the question.
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.
For the other 14 ACA exams, the order can be decided by the student or their employer (although it makes sense to do the certificate level papers in advance of the professional level papers e.g. Accounting before Financial Accounting and Reporting). The exception to this is Case Study, which must be done last, as it aims to incorporate the knowledge gained through the rest of the course.
It’s my belief that it’s best to take this exam on its own. Some employers group this with the Corporate Reporting and Strategic Business Management exams but I personally don’t like this approach as I think students de-prioritise the Case Study exam in this situation as there isn’t a high volume of content to learn as there is with the other two.
When do you receive the Case Study advanced information pack?
ACA Case Study exam candidates will receive an advanced information pack 6 weeks before exam day. This will come in the form of an A4 pack roughly 40 pages in length. The pack will contain extracts that provide information on the Company’s financials, strategy, operations, opportunities and more.
My advice is to read this pack in full every other day between when you get it and exam day. The idea here is to commit to memory every useful tidbit of information so that when it comes to taking the exam, the candidate has useful information to hand.
For the exam itself, whilst I would bring in the advanced information packet, I would design a system that reduces reliance on it. Despite being 4 hours long, the Case Study exam can feel very time pressured so you don’t want to be flipping through a 40-page pack. Instead, organised all of the key points into mini cheat sheets covering areas such as financials, strategy, operations, risks, opportunities, press coverage etc.
More on this in the section below on creating the open-book resource.
How to make your ACA Case Study open-book resource
The Case Study 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 Case Study exam, candidates should only include materials that are both helpful and fast to use. Any resource which will help save time such as a pro-forma calculation for the financial analysis requirement should be included.
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.
Create a condensed version of the advanced information
As alluded to above, candidates shouldn’t be flipping through a 40-page pack for details about the case during the exam. Create cheat sheets for all of the key themes which lays out the important points, figures and facts for fast retrieval in the exam. Take the time to create a useful index and tabbing system so it takes seconds to get to the relevant information.
Create a go-to template for the financial analysis section
The first requirement in the case study exam is to compare the financials to the prior year and add commentary. My advice is to create a pro-forma template of the profit and loss statement including all key metrics like revenue, cost of sales, gross profit, gross profit % etc and include the prior year data which you will already have from the advanced information pack. On exam day, you can then just add in the current year numbers (from the exam script) and quickly calculate the absolute and percentage movements. If you do this, double and triple-check you are copying the prior year numbers into your template correctly.
An insurance policy binder of mock questions
As alluded to below, it is possible to buy an ‘ACA simplified’ pack that contains mock exams specific to the case. My advice would be to curate questions and model answers from this pack into a booklet to take into the exam with you. This will act as a backup in case you freeze and need inspiration for points to make. This may also come in handy if you have any time spare to add a few points to the end of your answers. Whilst these model answers may not cover the exact questions you are asked, they will be close. We know the marking grid is very prescriptive so these model answers are a great resource for generating good answers.
Finally, bring in a binder of your course notes with any other information you may deem useful. Practice questions using the above resources to make sure you can use them quickly and effectively.
ACA Case Study exam – revision strategy
With the exception of self-taught students, most of your revision time will be determined by your tuition provider.
For the Case Study exam, revision or practice outside of the classroom should focus on the following items; mock exams, updating/reviewing your mistake notepad, creating an efficient open-book resource and learning the advanced information inside out.
In terms of how revision should be structured, my advice would be to complete a full long question, mark it and then note down improvements that could be made.
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. A study group of any more than three people is a bad idea as it becomes too complicated to manage.
Beyond the above points, the most important thing is to listen to 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.
ACA Case Study exam – how to understand the marking grid
There’s no getting around it, the marking system for Case Study is complex and makes it all the more difficult to hit that 50% pass mark.
To simplify as much as possible, candidates answers are split into the following sections:
- Executive summary
- Main requirement (*3)
- Appendices and overall exam (this includes presentation and financial analysis workings)
The marking grid contains 40 boxes which are split as follows:
Executive summary – 6
Main requirements – 30 (10 each)
Appendices and overall exam – 4
Total – 40
Each of these 40 boxes contains a number of specific points candidates should give in their answers. Depending on how many points the candidate hit, they are awarded one of the below-listed scores with 1 and 2 being considered ‘passing grades’.
- clearly competent (CC);
- sufficiently competent (SC);
- insufficiently competent (IC); and
- insufficiently demonstrated (ID).
Candidates will then need to score enough boxes as either clearly or sufficiently competent in order to pass.
I did say it was complex but don’t worry, it soon becomes clear as you start going through the course notes.
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.
I’ve found using the ‘notepad method‘ particularly effective for this.
Here’s how it works – buy a nice new notepad and write ‘ACA Case Study 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 Case Study 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 50%.
As discussed earlier, the key to success in this exam is being diligent with timings. For each question, multiply the number of marks by 2.3 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 50%. By leaving sufficient time for each question, candidates can have a good stab at every part of the exam which makes achieving the 50% pass mark much easier.
For the advanced level exams, there are a couple of additional factors to consider. The first is fatigue. During a 4 hour-long exam, the exam adrenaline will wear off and fatigue will set in at some point. To combat this, factor in a few minutes break in between the three requirements during which you will use the bathroom, have a drink and snack and relax your brain for a few minutes. This may sound like a waste of precious minutes, but this mental reset will pay off compared with writing an hour-long question whilst already mentally depleted.
Should I do mock exams for the ACA Case Study exam?
My advice here directly contradicts the advice given by tuition providers like BPP but I truly believe it’s the right course of action. It’s my belief that mock exams related to the actual case given are of course worth doing (more on this in the section below).
However, many tuition providers get students to do mock exams on previous cases. For me, this is a monumental waste of time. In my view, there is no point in doing a mock unless you treat it as if it is the real exam. To do this for old cases, the candidate would need to learn a whole other 40-page advanced information pack and create a whole new open-book resource specific to this case.
This time commitment on top of the four-hour mock exam itself is simply not worth the time. The rationale given by tuition providers is that doing old mocks will help students understand the marking grid scheme and how to write effectively for this exam.
I agree this is important but think the same goal can be achieved by simply reading model answers and listening intently when the tutor is explaining the marking grid. The advanced information for the actual case arrives 6 weeks in advance of the exam which is more than enough time to practice.
Long story short – don’t waste your time on old cases. Focus on the case that will be applicable to your exam. This means there won’t be too much preparation you can do until the advanced information arrives. Spend this time reviewing the course notes, reading model answers and mark schemes and save yourself for a big push in those final 6 weeks.
Should I buy the ACA simplified / Paradigm shift resources and mock exams?
Following on from the above, Paradigm Shift (formerly called ACA simplified) sell a mock-exam pack for the case study exams with mocks released between the advanced information date and the exam date. The package is expensive at £288 for 5 mocks but this is well worth it.
£288 may sound a lot, but if you fail Case Study, this may slow down future promotions as you won’t be qualified which would cost you far more than this amount in the long run.
Back when I took this exam, I know some students grouped together to purchase the pack and then shared the mocks between them but please check the T&Cs to see if that’s allowed before doing this.
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.
Prioritise getting 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.
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.