Why does all my hard work in Financial Reporting go unrewarded?

I remember asking myself this question back in 2001 when I was doing Accounts 2.  I handed in my answer books for Test 3 and I wasn’t a happy camper.  I had been confused, crossed out workings that ended up being correct, run out of time – it was a mess.

Throughout high school and in my other varsity subjects, the hard work I put in resulted in good marks.  Accounting just wasn’t the same though – especially now in 2nd year.  I needed to change my approach and having not done accounting at school; I consulted some more experienced buddies.  Here is what I learnt and once this “clicked” for me, the step up to Accounts 3 & 4 was not nearly as hard as the Accounts 2 one had been:

  • Accounting is not a contents subject – there are test writing skills required.

It was explained to me using a football analogy.  It you want to be the best player, it is helpful to read about Kaka and Ronaldo (these are really good players for those of you who really need to watch more sport) but that will not be enough – YOU NEED TO GET ON THE PITCH AND PLAY.  In other subjects you can read for 95% and practice writing tests 5% but in accounting I think it is closer to a 60%/40% split.  You need to not just read about what to do (60%) but you must practice writing under time pressure as well (40%).

  • I needed to study smarter – not necessarily harder.

It is frustrating but true – people with the same abilities as you can study for less time and be more effective than you.  This is because they spend their study time wisely.  For them it is not about “putting in 4 hours” but rather a case of doing 2 tuts properly.

  • What I get for my practices is most probably what I will get in the test.

Think football again – if in practice you can’t kick the ball straight – what will be different in the match?  You need to practice in conditions similar to a match and as your performance improves there, so will your performance in the match improve.  This isn’t always true of contents subjects where you could slack off for most of the year and then just put in one big effort at the end.  In accounting you need to develop a test-writing muscle and that takes more than a night of cramming – 3 weeks can do wonders though so it is never too late to try!

  • Every question will be new and can’t be spotted.

Little can be gained by trying to remember past questions by memory before heading into an accounts test.  The question you will get will always be different.  For other subjects the test questions are often repeats from prior years (go to the library to get past papers – it’ll be the best 20 minute investment of your university career) but accounting questions will present a slightly different scenario (and that slight difference will generally make a big difference to your solution).

  • There are only so many things that can be asked.

Once you start really applying yourself to accounting you quickly can identify the tricky parts that are most likely to be tested.  At this point you realise that not all notes are equally important – often the ones early in the week will be the building blocks for what is discussed on the Friday.  You are most likely to be asked questions on the tricky Friday material so realise that and prepare accordingly.

  • Understand what is going on – don’t just aim to pass an exam

Back in 2001 I heard things like this and it made me realise that I had 3 weeks to pull my marks up by changing my approach to preparing for Accounts 2.  The final exam was going to count 60% so doing well right at the end could make a big difference.  I headed to the library and put the following gameplan into action:

  • Find a quiet space where you can work uninterrupted.

When you write that final exam you will not be interrupted by TV, family, cellphone calls – so don’t put up with it during your preparation.  Find a quiet place where no-one can find you (my happy place was the UCT library, commerce section, one of those small one person rooms – that might be an overshare but I love this going down memory lane stuff).

  • Do accounting questions properly – in other words, as if it is the final exam.

Get questions – with solutions – and do them in the time allocated.  There are often so many accounting questions available that we try and cover all of them by jumping straight to reading the solution. “Ahh I would have got that” That approach will stuff you up – simple as that.  It will work for the contents subjects where 5% is determined by your test writing muscle but not for accounting where your muscle determines 40% of your final mark.  Stick to the time allocated (1.2 marks per minute) and don’t stop to look at your notes.  If you are stuck, push through, that is what you would have to do if it was the final paper so start practicing for that now.  This was the hardest thing to do – I was impatient to look at the answer – but this was so important.  By far this was the smartest thing I could do with my time – develop my rather weenie test writing muscle.

  • Keep a piece of paper available to record theory questions you have.

Under the heat of doing a question you will doubt yourself and want to know the answer to a question.  Keep a piece of paper nearby and jot the question down quickly whilst writing the test – don’t interrupt your test so as to investigate it further.

  • Push through even when confused and annoyed – that is what it will feel like in the test – you need to manage that feeling and score marks despite it.

I just want to make the point again.  The panic feeling might come – you will feel overwhelmed – “Why am I studying this stupid subject?” will dominate your thought life.  It doesn’t have to be this way – get it out of your system now on the practice pitch before the big match.

  • Stop writing when the time is up. Pick up your piece of paper and investigate the answers to the questions that were raised.

Don’t look at the answer yet.  Grab that piece of paper with all your theory questions and now go to your notes to get clarification.  Make notes on the page and make sure you understand what was bothering you earlier.

  • Now mark your effort – note areas where you can improve performance.

Once you’ve investigated all your theoretical uncertainties, mark your effort.  Literally give yourself a mark.  When I actually did this I realised that my marks were very similar to what I was getting in my tests (55%-65%) – emphasising point 3 above – you’ll play as well as you practice.  I would note silly mistakes/tips for next time on the same page that I had recorded all my queries on.  Over time I developed a great set of notes based on all the tests I attempted – the top half of the page had all my theory question whilst the bottom half had all the practical mistakes/tips for test writing.  I was making sure that I was working on both aspects of the 60%/40% split.

The beauty is that at the end of doing all of this, I had a pile of notes I could use to study.  They were a unique record of what Paul Maughan struggled with and over the 3 week period I saw my efforts improve.  I struggled at the beginning but by the time I wrote the final exam I knew that I was going to ace it because that is what I had been doing in the library for the past couple of days!



Paul Maughan

One Comment

  1. Thanks
    This is do practical and useful
    I will keep it by my side as I prepare for the Saica APC final

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