We caught up with Joe to find out more about his experience as a CIMA student and how he managed to tackle such a difficult qualification so quickly.
Joe, tell me a bit about your journey into accountancy and how you came to be a CIMA student?
“At school, I studied Maths, Economics and Business Studies. I liked looking at the business world so I decided to go on to study Economics at university. I didn’t really have a plan if I’m honest. In fact, when I was younger, I didn’t really have a long-term plan at all. When I didn’t get into my first 2 or 3 choices for university I ended up at Newcastle. It’s an awesome place and I really enjoyed it.
After graduating I went home to Chester. I had a year out to do a bit of travelling and worked in bars to earn some money. My girlfriend managed to get a graduate job at Anglian Water which brought us to Cambridge. At that point, I was 22 and started looking for a more serious job. I applied to Cambridge Education Group (CEG) about 5 years ago and was successful in getting a job. For the first 2 years, I worked in a data analysis role in sales and marketing. I progressed pretty quickly, but it became clear that unless I did a qualification, I wouldn’t go any further. I had to weigh up whether I moved further into data analytics or start to progress in finance.
After finding out my line manager was moving roles, I took this as an opportunity to step up. However, I was told by our new CFO that I needed to be qualified in order to progress in finance. Eager to move forward in my career, I decided to become a CIMA student and start my qualification. The advice I would give anyone considering working in finance, even if it’s on the fringes in areas like data analytics, is to crack on with CIMA or ACCA, and to get it done early.”
Why did you decide to go for the CIMA qualification?
“After working for CEG for 3 years I had a very commercial background dealing with pricing strategy and data analysis. Everything I did had a finance tinge and I was moving more and more into a finance business partnering role. From what I see in the marketplace these roles seem to be getting more common. The CIMA qualification fits nicely with this line of work, as it focuses on business strategy and commercial decision-making rather than areas such as compliance and financial reporting.”
Tell me about the targets you set yourself when you started?
“I had actually registered for CIMA 18 months earlier! But kept putting off the decision to commit to the exams. I really kicked myself that I hadn’t started when I was 23 and wondered if I had left it too late. This spurred me on to try to do my CIMA fairly quickly.
I started by drawing up a plan to complete CIMA in 18 months. A good friend of mine, a CIMA student, did it in 2 years and advised me not to rush my studies. However, I found creating a plan up-front gave me the drive and motivation I needed to study. After completing the first couple of certificate papers, I wasn’t finding the CIMA syllabus too challenging. I decided to push myself and changed my plan to squeeze the remaining exams into just 12 months. This involved planning to do the whole Operational level in 6 weeks, which included a holiday in Ibiza!
On hearing this, one of the tutors from First Intuition came to talk to me. They told me that very few students did it that quickly and I should make sure I was being realistic. I actually found this more motivating, the challenge of doing something not many students achieve, gave me the extra kick.”
Did this approach work for you?
“Yes, very much so. I think it’s better to push yourself as you always have the option to slow down. I knew that if things got too tough I could revert back to my original 18-month plan. There is quite a bit of repetition across the levels, so the faster you move on the better you can retain knowledge for the next paper.”
How did you decide to study?
“At the start, I experimented by doing BA2 in the classroom and BA3 online. This gave me a good idea of how each type of course worked.
I liked the idea of online studying as it meant I wasn’t limited to weekend classroom courses. If you are as motivated as I am, you can easily plough through the online lectures at a faster pace. However, I have colleagues who admit they don’t have the discipline to study online, so classroom courses really work for them.
I did attend a classroom course for my case study papers, as I found it useful to interact with other students and the tutor for this style of exam.”
How far in advance did you book your exams?
“I would actually book all of the exams for a level in advance at the same time. This way I knew when I was sitting each exam and had a date to work towards.
There really is no harm in booking exams early, you can always move them if you need to. Also, given the time frames, I was working to, it was often necessary to book all of the exams straight away, as the exam centres can get booked up well in advance.”
What was your exam track record like?
“So far, I have passed all of my exams first time, although I did see a slight downward trend in my marks as I moved up the levels. At Certificate level I scored quite high marks, Operational level I managed solid passes, but when I got to Management level I only just scraped passes in a couple of papers! This is probably the level I found the hardest in terms of how little time I had given myself. As a result, I gave myself a bit more time (6 months) at Strategic level and I have seen my marks go up a bit.”
Did you ever worry about failing exams?
“I wasn’t ever afraid of failing an exam as long as I knew I had given it a good go. I always asked myself ‘what’s the downside of failing an exam?’ My assumption was that most employers don’t really care if you fail the odd exam. It’s always far better to sit an exam than not.”
What advice would you give other CIMA students?
- If you can, try to do it as quickly as you can. By moving on quickly the syllabus is fresh in your mind, so you don’t have to keep refreshing your memory. Starting at Certificate level was not a disadvantage, in fact, it gave me a huge base of core understanding to build on.
- Do every single question that you can! In my First Intuition material, I had lots of questions in my folder and lots of questions online.
- Don’t get too scared of doing practice tests and mocks. I tended to do several mocks under timed conditions in the last few days before the exam. In fact, I would book my real exams for 2 pm so I could do a mock in the morning which kept everything very fresh in my mind for the real thing.
- Don’t worry too much if you fail mock exams. Use them as learning tools to identify areas to improve. I don’t think it’s essential to pass mocks as long as you aren’t too far away from the pass mark. I sometimes failed my final mocks but still found the real exam passable as you will see some repetition which should get you extra marks.
Any final thoughts?
“Practising questions is where you really learn the material. Reading notes and listening to lectures is a good starting point for building syllabus knowledge but practising doing the questions as you would in the exam is what matters. I would spend the last week or two before exams drilling it in with the number of questions that First Intuition gave me.”
How do you feel your Strategic Case Study exam went?
“I scored good marks in my mocks exams and my tutor Stuart Brown was confident that I was good enough to pass. I get my results soon, fingers crossed they go well!”
Well, good luck with the results Joe! Thanks a lot for your time.
Joe was delighted to find out a couple of weeks after this interview that he had successfully passed his Strategic Case Study exam, meaning that he had passed every exam first time despite the relatively short period of time he had given himself to do so!
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Further information is available on CIMA’s website too.