Core: the how, when and why

May 01, 2019
With just over three months to the August 2019 core examinations, candidates’ studies should be well advanced...


Candidate success comes down to preparation, which can be subdivided into two parts: technical knowledge and exam technique. This article will focus on the exam technique aspect of the core challenge.


First things first – it is clear that previous messages regarding timing are getting through. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that candidates try to balance their time to present a full report. This is essential, as a full answer gives candidates the opportunity to be marked from the maximum amount of marks available.

The core suite of papers is 15-18 indicators long across two four-hour examinations. In recent times, the Core suite has examined 16 indicators across core comprehensive and core simulations. Breaking this down means eight indicators per examination and, as the writing element of the exam is four hours, or 240 minutes. This means 30 minutes per indicator. For maximum success in an indicator, the executive advocates taking five minutes to plan what you are going to do for the remaining 25, and write for that. Some candidates write for 24 minutes and use the last minute in the indicator to write the executive summary point at the start of their answer, thus building the paper as they go.

It is critical to note that going over by a single minute on each indicator, you have seven or more less minutes to tackle the last indicator, potentially removing quarter of the marks available in the last indicator unless you can accelerate your writing on the last indicator after three and a half hours of writing at full tilt.

Handwriting and labelling

This brings us to the second point. Handwriting is a skill, and a rapidly vanishing one at that! At FAE level, you will write for a total of 13.5 hours in August. Can you write for that long? The answer is no. We see scripts that are legible on day one, only to be reduced to an illegible scrawl on elective day. You don’t ask an untrained athlete to run a marathon on the day of the race. Sure, they will run a few kilometres but they will soon run out of steam. The same applies to candidates’ handwriting. Discipline and presentation also tend to disappear with candidates handwriting. Titles disappear, as does paragraphing, and indicators tend to run into each other as physical fatigue sets in.

There is no easy solution other than practice. The hand is a muscle and the motor skills involved in writing with a pen is underpinned by strong muscles in your fingers and hand. Even writing in exam conditions for 25 minutes at a time will do wonders for handwriting, clarity of thought and brevity of writing. Candidates who practice realise how much they have to get through, and the paraphrasing of the requirements usually gets jettisoned in favour of getting straight down to mark-earning analysis. And finally, label your answers clearly. It shows logical progression and will help with your professional competence marks.

Remember, you can answer the indicators in any order you like but ensure that you label them clearly.

Professional competence marks

A lot has been said by your lecturers regarding professional competence marks. In summary, these are at the heart of what an aspiring Chartered Accountant should be – a communicator who can succinctly make their arguments in language the client can understand and more importantly, will pay for. Breaking this down: is handwriting and labelling a factor? If a client cannot read or follow your work, how can they be expected to pay for it? If an examiner cannot read or follow your work, how can they apply marks to it?

Every indicator will give you the opportunity to demonstrate your technical knowledge. However, this will only account for part of the marks. The ability to draw insights, use the facts of the case, create linkages back to the case, introduce some commercial examples from your own experience (if relevant) will not only earn more technical marks, but will also push your answer closer to higher professional competence marks.

A calculation should warrant a comment, which is fine if you are going to use the result in your arguments. If you are asked for a journal, however, you should conclude your journal by stating how this will resolve or account for the issue. Every indicator should finish with a conclusion.

There was evidence of an improvement in exam technique at the January 2019 repeat examinations, notably in core and APM. This resulted in success for those candidates and if it worked for them, it will work for you!