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Student Insights

How to approach exam retakes

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 19 May 2023

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Facing an exam retake? Shaun Robertson, Director of Education and Qualifications at ICAEW, reveals how to approach sitting exams second time around.

If a recent exam hasn’t gone as well as you’d hoped, the first thing to remember is that you’re not alone. “There’s no shame – the best of people trip up,” says Shaun Robertson, Director of Education and Qualifications at ICAEW. 

Failure is rarely down to a lack of ability or technical knowledge – most of the time, it’s a case of exam technique or discipline. “Chances are you’ve just got the wrong grasp of what the exam is trying to do,” he explains. “These exams are very different from anything you’ve done before, and they require a very specific skill set. So if you’ve failed, especially quite marginally, it’s probably not your technical knowledge, it’s your ability to understand how to do the exam.”

Of course, it’s natural to feel disappointed and frustrated when things don’t go according to plan, but Shaun says “getting back on the horse” is the best strategy: “Remember these are competency-based exams, like a driving test – so whether you pass on the first or second attempt, you’ve got exactly the same skills. And actually, second time around you’ll probably have a deeper understanding of the topic.”

Booking your retake

For Certificate Level exams, you can resit as soon as a slot is available – but Shaun cautions against doing that too quickly: “If you don’t fix what caused you to trip up, the same thing will happen again. You need to take some time to reflect and address the issue.” 

For Professional and Advanced Levels, most students will resit at the next session in order to stay on track with their training. In many cases, particularly at Professional Level, there will be just a few days between results being released and booking opening for the next session, so you need to be organised. “Many employers will expect you to take ownership – booking the exam and finding a retake course if you want to do one,” explains Shaun.

Taking ownership

With potentially just a couple of months until your next attempt – and the prospect of fitting in a retake alongside other scheduled exams – it’s important to be disciplined. Start by establishing what went wrong the first time around. Be honest with yourself about where you tripped up, and use the marks feedback in your online training file for insights. 

“It’s that ownership thing again, and taking the time to do some deep thinking,” says Shaun. “You’ve got to be honest with yourself – and don’t blame anybody else. If you go in angry, or thinking it wasn’t your fault, you’ll just be in the same boat. Own it, and do something to remedy it.”

Practise makes perfect

Some tuition providers offer retake courses, which tend to focus on exam technique and mocks, rather than going back over technical knowledge. “If you’re not on a retake course, our advice is exactly the same: don’t go back and read the study manual or try to learn stuff now. You’ve already got the knowledge – it’s how you’re using it. You’ve got to get into the question practice as quickly as possible,” says Shaun. “It’s that driving test analogy again – how do you practise for your driving test? By driving a car. It doesn’t matter how much you read about it. If you do have a lack of knowledge, you’ll soon find that out when you do the questions and learn that way.”

As with all revision, little and often is the key, especially when you’re studying multiple subjects. “You’ve got the knowledge banked already, so you can be consistent in your approach to revision as opposed to cramming,” Shaun says. “A couple of hours every day will pay a lot more dividends than trying to squeeze everything in at the end. These exams are challenging – they make you think – so the fresher you are by the time you get to the real thing, the better.”

When you’re doing question practice, make sure you do it properly – under exam conditions, and without using any notes or study materials. “It’s absolutely critical to do everything by the book from here on in,” says Shaun. “Right from day one of your retake preparation, do every single question under time conditions. Look at the question, work out how much time you should be spending on it, and stick to it religiously. Budget your time between the different requirements, and focus on answering what’s needed without any superfluous detail.”

Once your time is up, put your pen down and review the sample answer. “When you look at the back, it’s written in a way that you’ll understand the topic better,” explains Shaun. “It’s a much better way of learning, because your brain is actively looking for an answer rather than learning without any context.” What is crucial, though, is that you don’t turn to the answer before you’ve completed the question. “The temptation if you’re stuck is to look at the back for a hint. You may as well stop right there because you’re wasting your time. In the real exam, there are no answers at the back!” 

Plan for success

To give yourself the best possible chance of success, think about any practicalities that may help you feel calm and confident. Maybe you’d like to try remote invigilation this time around, or a different exam centre so that it feels like a clean slate. Or maybe you’d prefer to keep everything the same so there are no surprises. Make use of the support around you and the resources available to you, whether that’s articles like this one or notes from the examiners. 

Beware of procrastination though, says Shaun, and remember that the question bank is “the critical, most important document”. At the end of the day, though, “there’s no magic shortcut. The quickest, easiest way to pass is that act of learning exam discipline. That’s the only way. Practise what you’re going to be doing in the exam. Get those good habits, stick with them and hopefully it will be a smooth run from here on.”

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