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Business Strategy: question approach and planning

Business Strategy students rarely fail because they don’t know the syllabus, says Phil Sparks, it’s exam technique

The most important advice you can follow when you sit an exam is to spend time planning your answers before you start writing. It sounds obvious but many students don’t. And yet it will ensure you answer the question set and it will help you gather enough points to score well. About 20%–30% of the question time should be dedicated to planning.

As accountants, we like things to be structured and ordered, so I give my students a standard step-by-step approach to the exam using the acronym ASAP.

A : Analyse the question requirement

First, go to the end and look at what the examiner wants you to do. Identify the key requirements, formats or models and make sure you use them in your answer. Does the examiner use straightforward verbs such as “list” or “state” or more complex ones such as “analyse” or “evaluate”? The more difficult verbs call for a more considered argument. Watch out for “ands” and commas that separate sub-requirements. And look at the number of marks for each section – you’ll get roughly one mark for every good point or idea you make.

S : Source your knowledge

What do you already know that will help you answer the question? If it mentions macro environment, for instance, draw a big T account on a blank page and jot down PESTEL on the left-hand side. You are looking for relevant models, definitions, standard pros/cons and so on.

A : Analyse the scenario

Now read the scenario. But be active. And don’t just use a highlighter pen – all you’ll be doing is turning a white page yellow. Use the left-hand side of the T account and look for examples in the scenario or ways that you can apply the theory. Jot down these examples on the right-hand side of your T account.

You may need to read between the lines. If the company’s name is XYZ plc it is a listed company, which will have corporate governance and reporting implications.

Run a PEST analysis. If the question involves a railway operator, this could include:

P (political) Reliance on government funding, could fall due to deficit;

E (economic) Recession, less disposable income;

S (social) Ageing population, more trains, less driving; and

T (technological) Online ticket booking.

P : Plan completion

Look back to remind yourself of the question requirements and then look at your T account plan again. Does it answer the question? Have you got enough points? Do you need to prioritise or drop points? If either side is missing then you’re not demonstrating syllabus knowledge or application.

You now have the remaining 70% of the question time to turn each line in your plan into a short punchy paragraph. Remember that every time you state something you need to justify it: why will it help? How will we do that? Why do you think that?

If you follow these simple rules then you will have set the foundations for a good pass.

Phil Sparks is a tutor at BPP Professional Education
bpp.com/icaew

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 edition of VITAL.