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Writing Tips

Why do intelligent hardworking students fail exams?

This is an interesting question. Maybe you should pause and think about that for a moment?

Maybe the exam was especially difficult? Maybe the student was just a bit unlucky with the topics that came up? Maybe the pressure all got a bit too much and a little panic set in?

These are all possibilities, and some might apply to you or someone you know. But what is the most common reason for failure?

If you’re a hardworking student and capable, then you should know enough to pass. The precise questions asked shouldn’t have upset you, and besides you make your own luck, don’t you? Gary Player, an old South African golfer, accused of being lucky having holed out from a bunker once said, “The more I practice the luckier I get”. He won 9 major championships and is 4th equal in a list of most major titles won by a golfer.

The reason most students fail an exam is that they fail to answer the question set. “Of course!”; you say, since if you don’t do that, then you can’t score marks.

The reason for not answering the question isn’t that the students did not have the knowledge, since they are hardworking and have practiced. It is that they either misread the question; answering a different question; or wrote so poorly such that the marker couldn’t give them enough credit.

Although both are important, it’s the writing and not the reading of the question I am going to focus on here.

Writing is a hugely personal thing. We all write differently and the way that we write reflects the way we think and the way we were taught to write.

Think about how you were taught to write. Who taught you? What was your writing teacher trying to achieve?

Teaching children how to write is, I am sure, far from easy. Children are shy, haven’t read very much at all, they don’t have a mastery of an extensive vocabulary. Children don’t know much about a semi colon or a colon let alone a comma. Consequently, the writing teacher will be focussed on these things and will have been stressing all sorts of messages:

· Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end (structure is important)

· Use longer words (it’s impressive and earns a smiley face)

· Write more complicated sentences (you come across better, more intelligent)

· Explain your point in more detail (this shows greater depth of knowledge)

· Add adjectives to make your sentences more interesting

· Show off how much you know by fully describing what you are talking about

Whilst all these messages are great when you are a child at school, they are not so great in professional, time pressured exams like the ACCA APM exam. These messages can result in all sorts of problems. Here are just two.

Long and pointless introductions

Since everything has a beginning, introductions to the point a student wants to make are common. Students feel the emotional need to set the scene (I must have a beginning) and this uses up time, word capacity and does not score marks. Very often in my experience the introductions to a point tends to be a straight repeat from the question. If there is no added value to a point made it cannot score.

Consider this introduction to a question which asked how the balanced scorecard could improve the performance management at the rail company (Soup Rail Services from the Sept/Dec 15 APM exam). This was from a student on my revision course in Dec 2020.

Soup Rail’s main focus has been to maximise shareholder wealth. The business has followed an approach to keep costs low by buying older trains in order to improve the ROCE, which is the businesses main performance measure. Equally, the business has not invested in any modern technology, advanced trains, or other customer service improvements in the previous 5 years.

Lovely. This is 59 words. Everything in here is true. Everything in here was in the question and it scores nothing.

The Soup Rail Services question had three parts to it. If an introduction of this length had been produced for each part, then around 180 words will have been used up writing the question back to the examiner. Words that could have been used to actually answer the question and score marks. If an exam has a total of 10 parts in the three questions this problem gets a lot worse. A student may find that they have written 600 words directly from the exam paper.

I would hope to score a mark every 20 - 30 words, by being succinct and precise in my writing. So this is a very big deal.

Complex words and sentences

I don’t have a big problem with the odd polysyllabic word as long as it necessary. See what I did there! The problem is that some students think this is impressive. It’s not. If you string a few long words together in a sentence you can easily leave your reader confused or conceal your point.

It is also common that, whilst a student stretches to show better depth, more than one-point features in a sentence or paragraph. This can be disastrous. Unless the sentence is clear, the marker may not understand it on first read through. Markers are professionals and they will read it a second time. But no more, it isn’t their job to excessively interpret what you have written.

If you combine the two points above, you have a recipe for disaster. Consider this sentence written to answer a question about the suitability of the existing budgeting system in a business. (Godel Jun 14)

With sales being extraordinarily turbulent, due to variations in the general economy and vicious competitive forces, the management style (command and control, albeit the operational staff are happy with this), I think that middle management could play a significantly larger role is assisting to assemble a budget, whilst allowing for the extreme seasonality and various turbulent market conditions in which Godel operates.

It is easy to smirk at this, but you shouldn’t. There are, hidden in here, a couple of good points. But would a marker take the time to dissect it? And would it score effectively?

It is a 61-word, single sentence, containing 2 added value points. Good luck in finding them.

After a talk with me, this is what was produced as a second attempt.

The existing command and control management style is liked by operational staff. It helps simplify the complex business environment and reduce it to a set of instructions for the staff to follow. Popular systems rarely need changing.

The middle management could be more involved in the budgeting system using their good knowledge of the seasonal nature of the business.

To which attempt would you give more marks?

What can you do about poor writing?

It really isn’t as hard as you think to change your writing habits, but you must change your thinking first.

· You must accept that it isn’t clever to use longs words or complex sentences.

· You must lose your anxiety over the lack of an introduction. The first time you write an exam answer without an introduction, a wave of anxiety will hit you. Your old teacher will be in your ear and they won’t be happy.

· You must accept the KISS principle and keep it simple

· You should read a quality newspaper everyday as part of your wake-up routine

· Try writing, waiting and then editing your work. Remove long introductions, simplify your messages and gain confidence in doing this

I honestly think that this is the single biggest issue stopping hard working and relatively bright students from passing. You have to know your stuff, of course you do. But then you’ve got to get it on the page effectively in the time allowed.

Geoff Cordwell

ACCA APM Specialist Tutor

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