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How to Pass Your CIMA Operational Case Study Exam

Understanding what past students did wrong in their OCS exam & how to avoid repeating such mistakes is by using Examiner Reports.

In our experience and through feedback from students, the best way to understand what past students did wrong in their exams and ways to avoid repeating those mistakes is by using the Examiner Reports. The main challenge with CIMA case studies is that they constantly change to feature a new company. However, the advice is given in each Examiner Report on what students did well and common pitfalls to avoid can be applied to any case study, therefore, they are an essential resource in your case study preparation.

So, to help you focus and pass, part 1 of this series will focus on the CIMA Examiner’s report for the Operational level integrated case study February 2020 exam session. In future weeks, we will be discussing the examiner reports for MCS and SCS as they become available. Even if you’ve passed this exam level, there are pointers from this review that could benefit your future case study exams.

What is an Examiner’s Report?

Just in case you’re not familiar, Examiners Reports provide a review of the performance of candidates in the examinations and a detailed analysis of the standards of answering. So, in short, it outlines what students did well and not so well as individuals and as a cohort.

These are important documents to review as part of your study as they provide invaluable insights and tips from the examiner’s point of view. After all, these are the people that will be marking your paper, so it’s worth listening to what they have to say!

February 2020 Operational Case Study Exam

The Feb 2020 case study was Lottie Graphite, a manufacturer of graphite and coloured pencils based in Gawland, a country in Western Europe.

As a recap:

  • Manufactured just under 300m pencils a year from one site
  • Sells them through their own distribution network
  • Well recognised brand associated with premium quality

Tested in the exam session:

  • Variant 1 – Expansion into a new market
  • Variant 2 – Setting up a new production facility
  • Variant 3 – Launch and sale of the S-pencil

What was important in the OCS exam?

Each variant had 4 tasks and to achieve level 3 in most traits, you had to demonstrate a good technical understanding that was applied to the Lottie Graphite business. Mistakes in this area were:

  • Gaps in technical knowledge and understanding
  • Explained issues too briefly with a lack of clarity
  • Failed to relate answers to Lottie Graphite

Students did well in the areas of beyond budgeting, costing, use and limitations of expected value, capital expenditure under IAS16, working capital and ratios, raw material variances and KPIs – this is the bread and butter for accountants.

The areas of weakness for students in this exam were:

  • Sales mix and quantity variances
  • Fixed o/h efficiency and capacity variances
  • IFRS 16 leasing
  • Activity-based budgeting
  • Time series analysis
  • Issues with decisions when there is risk and uncertainty

Other points highlighted were that a strong technical understanding usually led to good application and that the knowledge base is key. Oftentimes there were a lot of descriptions but not enough explanations. You should read the detailed feedback on each of the variants on the CIMA site.

Tips from the Examiner’s Reports for Future Students

light bulb crumpled paper in pencil light bulb as creative concept-2

There are several key points to consider when preparing for future Operational case study examinations. These points are:

The key to achieving a score at level 2 and above is to ensure that:

  • You have the technical knowledge and understanding of all topics included in each of the core activities. It is not sufficient to rely on the fact that you remember it from the OTQ exams, because the chances are you won’t. You need to revise technical material: if you don’t have the knowledge, you will struggle to score well.
  • You are able to apply your technical knowledge and understanding within the case study context. Simply reproducing rote-learned answers or pure knowledge of a topic area will score very few, if any, marks. Similarly, taking a scattergun approach to an issue and commenting on everything that you know about it from a theoretical point of view will only score a few marks.
  • You can explain with clarity and comprehensively rather than making unsupported statements. Writing comments such as, “this improves decision making”, “this graph is essential” or “planning is enhanced” is not enough to gain any marks. Candidates must explain “how” and “why” this is the case. Explanations can quite often be improved by adding: “because of….” at the end of a sentence. Explanations should also utilise the information given to you within the case study itself, especially financial information. For example, reasons for variances are often given to you in unseen information, the skill is to pick this out and use it.

How can you achieve this?

There are a number of things that can help you get the extra marks required to pass which include:

  • Study the pre-seen material in depth – Ensure that you are very familiar with the business, especially the financial information, before the exam, as this will help you with applying your knowledge and will save you time. Similarly, an awareness of the industry that the business is in will help you to think of the wider issues that might impact decisions that you could be asked to comment on.
  • Practice, practice, practice past OCS exam tasks – While this is a new syllabus and new blueprint, many of the old P1 tasks and a number of the old F1 tasks are still relevant. Practising past tasks and then checking against the published answers will help you to understand what the CIMA examiner is looking for.

What you can do on exam day?

1. It is important to take time to plan your answer so that you are able to apply your knowledge to the specifics of the CIMA case. For certain tasks, plan your answers in the answer screen itself.

For example, if you are asked about the potential benefits and problems of activity-based costing, I suggest that you first note down headings for benefits and problems. Under each heading, list your benefits and problems; these will become your sub-headings. Then you can write a short CIMA paragraph under each sub-heading. This will allow you time to think about all of the points that you want to make and will help to give your answer in a clear format. Ultimately, it should save you time.

2. Take care of how your answer looks. Whilst this examination is not a test of English, some answers are difficult to read because of poor spelling and grammar. It’s important that answers are presented well so that markers can see that you have demonstrated a clear understanding of CIMA of the issues.

Final thoughts

As you can see, Examiner Reports are a vital part of your exam preparation. They are an easy way to understand where past students have gone wrong and what you can do to avoid those mistakes to avoid losing any unnecessary marks. Make sure to integrate them into your study plan for your upcoming Operational Case Study exam.

Read more: 7 Ways to Pass Your CIMA Case Study Exams

Conor Motyer
5 min read


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