How to pass every exam first time (mainly for adults)

When I decided to become a CA(SA) at the age of 50, I faced 32 exams over the next four years. I passed every one first time and scored so well in my final Bachelor’s year that I was allowed to leapfrog over the first year of Honours. Here’s how I did it.

1) You’ve got to know your subject, so when studying use all of the resources available. Here are some.

(a) Lists. Keep re-writing them, saying them out loud while you do so. That way you use sight, sound and touch to get the stuff into your head. When testing yourself, eliminate the bits you easily remembered and shorten the list. Keep doing this until there’s no list left to learn!

(b) Mind maps. Here’s one from Google

They do the same job as lists, but appeal to the right brain. Lists appeal to the left brain.

(c) Flow charts. These are very useful when each part of an answer has to move you to the next. Accountancy is a typical example.


2) Now we come to your target. When I prepare for an abacus maths exam (I am still the top performing student at age 75), I practice to achieve 100% with 5 minutes to spare. That way I invariably score in the upper 90’s. However, the Board exam, the last step to becoming a CA(SA), is something very different. I knew from my tutor that the vast majority of students sitting the exam would score between 47% and 53%. In other words the bell curve was very thin.

So the chances were that I would score a minimum of 47%. All I wanted to do was pass, after all a CA is a CA is a CA, which meant I had to add at least 3% to my probable bottom-most score and preferably 6%. So it was a case of every little helps. These are the steps that I took (don’t poohoo any of them, each may only add 1/2%, but that’s 1/2% closer to passing).

a) Prepare plenty of dummy papers well beforehand. You can build them with questions and answers from past papers and from your text books.

Draw up a calendar starting about 8 weeks before the exam (depending upon how many papers you’ll be writing and how much leave you can take from work). The time gets allocated like this –

Morning: Write a simulated paper under strict exam conditions.

Afternoon: Mark the exam, then list all the points where you lost marks.

Second day: Revise/practice only the points where you lost marks

Third day: Repeat with a new paper.

b) Stop drinking alcohol one week before you start the above practice paper programme.

c) Read up about “brain food” on Google and change your diet accordingly.

d) Buy a comfortable to hold, “exam pen” with blue ink. You must only use it for practice papers and actual exams. (The mere act of picking up the pen prepares your brain for action).

e) Now start your program and stick rigidly to these points.

(i) Start the clock exactly on the hour. Once the clock is running, spend a few minutes deciding how much time you will need for each question (usually proportional to the number of marks), then write the finishing time against each one. Do NOT write 20 minutes, then 30 minutes etc. You don’t want to be doing mental arithmetic during the exam to figure out at what time you should move on to the next question. Write 08h25, then 08h55 etc. (assuming the clock started at 08h00). Don’t forget to start counting from, say 08h05, so that you’ve allowed yourself the 5 minutes planning time.

(ii) Use only your exam pen with it’s blue ink. Why blue? Because this is restful on the examiner’s eyes and believe me he or she will be very tired by the time they get to mark your particular paper.

(iii) Always write only on every other line. The white space is, again, restful on the examiner’s eyes and is useful if you do think of something that will earn you an extra mark and needs to be inserted in the right place in a sequence.

(iv) Now this is critical. Every line must earn one mark and one mark only. An examiner takes about 7 minutes to mark a 1 hour Board exam paper and will not read on once they see you’ve earned your mark on that line. Keep it simple, keep it sweet and score the mark. Don’t waffle, don’t try to impress the examiner and don’t write anything that does not score a mark.

(v) You don’t have time to read through the entire question before getting started. Go straight to the end, read what is required, then get on with it. Give them what they ask for and only what they ask for. You won’t get any marks for extras. If they ask for a letter, give them a proper letter – addressee, address, date, Dear sirs, subject, letter, Yours faithfully, your name. If they ask for a report, give them proper report.

(vi) Most exam questions contain mark scoring information or numbers. Grab those free marks.

(vii) If you are asked to prepare something with different mark scoring bits, like a Balance Sheet, don’t start from the top! Draw the structure, then start filling in the easy marks. Work from easiest to most difficult. Each one earns marks. You want to fill in as many correctly as possible in the available time.

(viii) You often get marks for method even if the end result is wrong so show your workings, make them easy to find and identify and clearly and logically set out.

(ix) Keep checking that you are giving the examiner exactly and only what he/she is looking for as you’ll only get marks for that.

(x) When the time gets to your stop time. STOP. STOP. STOP. Get on with the next question. Mark scoring is a decaying exponential. That means the curve looks like this.

The more time you spend on a question the slower your rate of scoring marks.

f) When time is up, take a break. Walk around, do some stretches, take your lunch, then in the afternoon, get back to work.

g) Mark the paper and take careful note of the marks that you didn’t score. You’re not interested in the bits you got right, only those that you got wrong or missed out.

h) The following day, revise/rework the bits that you missed out or got wrong the previous day.

i) On the third day do another test paper and repeat the above cycle.

j) In preparing for the Board exam, I wrote 18 simulated papers, then the actual exam just flowed naturally into 19, 20, 21 and 22.

k) When the actual exams start, stop studying. If you are not exam ready now, you never will be. Just relax between papers, go to bed early, listen to Mozart (proven to be good for the brain). Some people are still swotting while waiting for the examination room to open. All they are doing is ramping up their nerves, creating doubt and undoing any good they should have been doing over the last few weeks.

l) Now here’s another tip. Get in touch with your left brain and right brain. Before doing each of the simulated papers, I would sit somewhere quiet, tune into my brain, then hold a meeting. Right brain (pictures, artistic, intuition), left brain (logic, calculations) and me! We would agree that the left brain’s job was to read and answer the questions. The right brain would conitually monitor what the left brain was doing and make sure that it didn’t deviate from the question. Me? I’d just get us to the exam early, find a seat right at the front (less distractions), have a pee before time and be the timekeeper. I got the best job!

m) The over-riding object of the above tips is to get you into the exam room feeling confident and exam ready, fine tuned to win! So don’t ignore any of them.

n) Now let’s see you do it. Good luck!



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