Firstly, I want to dispel the myth that you need to know everything from every other unit, and that there is too much to learn. You don’t – so make sure you aren’t learning something that isn’t going to come up. At the Foundation Level, the ‘Using Accounting Software’ unit does not feature in the Foundation Synoptic exam. At the Advanced Level, neither ‘Spreadsheets’ nor ‘Indirect Tax’ appear in the Advanced Synoptic exam. At the Professional Level, students do a combination of optional units, none of which are covered in the Professional Synoptic exam. The Professional Synoptic has its own content – ‘Accounting Systems and Controls’ – and can also examine you on the three mandatory units: ‘Management Accounting: Budgeting’, ‘Management Accounting: Decision and Control’ and ‘Financial Statements’. However, you will not be examined on every aspect of these three mandatory units. I would suggest that you look at the Unit Specification on your AAT Learning Portal to see the Learning Outcomes for the mandatory units that are examined in the Professional Synoptic exam.
So you know what you need to study, but when do you need to do it by?
My first course of action would be to look at the synoptic window calendar for the specific window that you are aiming for, and work backwards to calculate how many weeks you have to study. Then you can create yourself a study plan. A study plan is certainly more important for the synoptic exam compared to any other unit, as you won’t be able to decide that you aren’t quite ready and simply push the exam back a week due to the availability of the windows. If you are not as prepared as you would have liked by the time the synoptic window comes around then you are left with two choices. Do you sit the exam regardless of this, or do you wait for the next synoptic window which, at the Advanced and Professional level, could be 6 weeks away? Creating a study plan is personal – some like to study little and often over a long period of time, while others work best under pressure and prefer to do an awful lot just before the exam. How you study depends on what works best for you.
Right, you know what to study, and when you need to do it by, but how should you do it?
I would suggest that you start your synoptic studies by looking at the actual synoptic unit content that you haven’t seen before. This will probably take the longest time as it is all new to you. The way that you cover this depends on your study method. If you are attending classes or online live, the timetable will be dictated for you. If you are studying online/distance learning then you can go at your own pace. Studying this content isn’t too dissimilar to the previous units that you have completed. It is once you have covered this core material that things change. Now you will need to revise the material from the units that you have previously studied that is included in the synoptic exam. Your first thought might be that you have forgotten everything and will need to learn it from scratch. Trust me, you won’t. You will remember more than you imagine. After all, you have taken exams on it in the past! I would quickly skim through the notes and maybe do a couple of questions on subjects that you remember as your weaker areas last time. Consider seeing if you can find your notes from studying these units first time around. I wouldn’t spend too much time on this.
Standard Exam Questions
Now you need to start looking at exam standard questions. I truly believe that these are key to this unit. The Professional Synoptic exam contains six tasks, four of which are written. Written questions even feature in the Advanced Synoptic and Foundation Synoptic, so written practice is crucial. These questions will test you on your knowledge from the Synoptic unit itself, as well as the material that you need to know from the other mandatory units. This will highlight any areas from the mandatory units that you need to look at, then you can go back and just look at the areas you need to brush up on.
Written Exam Questions
This brings me to my next big subject – written questions. Let’s be honest, not many students like written questions. The secret is to try to understand why the examiner is including them. It is because some things can’t be assessed using the automatically marked questions, and need to be marked by a human. For example, the Advanced Synoptic Exam may ask you about depreciation. This isn’t because the examiner wants to know if you can calculate depreciation. They know if you can (or can’t) do this from the automatically marked questions. The examiner wants to know if you understand why we use depreciation, and whether you can explain this to other people. Remember, communication is a valuable skill for an accountant, and in general life too. In a written question, we are definitely not looking for lots and lots of numbers. Do not fall into the trap of just writing out your calculations with little to no context. That isn’t to say that we don’t want any numbers in a written task. You should be using numbers to back up your points and show significance, but they should not form the majority of your answer. My other key point would be to take your time to read the question. You must give the examiner what they want. Remember that there is a strict mark scheme and, even if you write a very good answer, you won’t get any marks if your answer doesn’t answer the actual question that was asked. Also, make sure that you recognise the active verb in the question. If the question asks you to identify something, then we are only looking for a short, almost one word, answer. However, if the question is asking you to explain or describe something, then you need to expand your answers. Make a point and then say why it is relevant. Also, if you are asked to evaluate something, try to give a balanced answer and look at both positive and negative aspects.
The next step in your study journey, after exam standard questions, is to look at mock exams. These bring the exam standard questions together into the format that you will need to tackle on the big day. Doing synoptic mock exams is, I believe, the single most effective way to increase your chances of passing this assessment. I believe that doing full mocks, within the time that you are allocated for the real exam, is crucial. You wouldn’t decide that you are going to run a marathon then go for a 20 minute jog and assume that on the big day you will “do it properly”. You want to be in such a position that, come exam day, you turn up and perform the tasks that you have carried out time and time again with your mocks. I would definitely take time to sit down and attempt the AAT Sample Assessments, in full, to time. These are written by the Chief Examiner, so they are as good as you are going to get in terms of preparation materials.
Speaking of the Chief Examiner, all students should be reading the Chief Examiner Reports, which can be found on the Life Long Learning Portal. The Examiner details the areas where students do well, and where they struggle, so you can make sure you don’t make the same mistakes.
When it comes to the exam date, I strongly recommend that you have a good night’s sleep the night before. Remember, this is a three hour exam for the Professional Synoptic, and two and a half hours for the Advanced Synoptic. This can be physically draining so you need to be ready for it. I think an extra hour of sleep the night before is worth a lot more than an extra hour of revision, providing you have kept to your study plan this extra hour studying wont be needed at all.
One thing that I have always done is been very militant with my time in the exam. I always think that, if you are spending more time than you are allocated on a question, you are either writing more points than you actually need to get all the marks, or you are struggling. If this is the case, you may be better off moving onto another question where easier marks may be available and, if you have time at the end of the assessment, you can return to it later. I think that the first couple of marks at the beginning of a question are easier to obtain than those at the end of a question. I always know before I go into the exam how many minutes per mark I have available, and work out the time that I should move on to the next task each time. Remember that you are there on exam day to do one thing and one thing alone – to pass the exam. We are not looking for you to submit tasks 1, 2 and 3 perfectly, only to run out of time for the rest. What we want is for you to get at least 70% over the entire paper.
Finally, once you have submitted your paper, I wouldn’t worry about it during the 6 week wait for the result. You have done your best and that is all you can ask. I also like to have a reward planned after each exam to motivate myself. You have worked hard and deserve it. Please don’t get overwhelmed by the synoptic assessments. They aren’t as daunting as you might first think and, with the right preparation, you can expect to do well.