How to Prepare for the CMA Essay Questions

What you will learn?

  • The structure of the essay section of the exam.
  • How your answers will be graded.
  • Exam preparation tips.

Structure

You will have 1 hour to answer two essay questions. Each question is a business scenario which may contain 3 to 6 questions. You will have the ability to navigate between the two scenarios and the questions, which will help you allocate your time between the questions.

Grading

The graders will evaluate the following:

  • Knowledge of the exam content.
  • Ability to apply concepts in real business situations.
  • Ability to express clearly and logically in business writing.
  • The most important point is that the exam graders’ goal is to give you points, not to deduct points.

How long are your answers expected to be?

We associate the word “essay” with 500 words or more, but for the CMA exam that’s way above the average expected. The IMA does not recommend a specific minimum or maximum, but from examining several essay questions, we can conclude that the expected number of words in an essay question is between 50 and 150. Let’s take the following sample essay question:

Sample question

What is the advantage of using a flexible budget to evaluate Law Services’ results for last year as opposed to a static budget?  Explain your answer.

Sample answer

A flexible budget allows the attorneys to tell how much of their unfavorable variance is due to lower than planned billing hours, and how much is due to performance issues such as the negotiated billed amount or variable expenses.  A master budget is static and any variance must be analyzed further to determine its cause.

To conclude, your answers are not supposed to include the standard parts of an essay: Introduction, 3 or 4 paragraphs discussing the topic, a conclusion; your answer is supposed to be approximately one paragraph that covers only the answer to the question. You will not be rewarded for writing a 500 words-answer. In fact, examiners’ time is precious; they would highly appreciate it if you don’t waste their time with irrelevant information.

To conclude, your answers are not supposed to include the standard parts of an essay: Introduction, 3 or 4 paragraphs discussing the topic, a conclusion; your answer is supposed to be approximately one paragraph that covers only the answer to the question. You will not be rewarded for writing a 500 words-answer. In fact, examiners’ time is precious; they would highly appreciate it if you don’t waste their time with irrelevant information.

Not all questions are theory based

Here’s another sample essay question

Sample question

Calculate the total static budget revenue variance, the flexible budget revenue variance, and the sales-volume revenue variance.  Show your calculations.

Sample answer

6,000 * 325 = 1,950,000 static budget revenue

5,700 * 275 = 1,567,500 actual revenue

1,950,000 – 1,567,500 = $382,500 unfavorable static budget revenue variance

5,700 * 325 = 1,852,500 flexible budget revenue

1,852,500 – 1,567,500 = $285,000 flexible budget variance

6,000 – 5,700 = 300 hours unfavorable sales volume

300 * 325 = $97,500 unfavorable sales volume variance

Essay Section Exam Technology

The technology available in the exam for the essay section is quite simple and straight forward. You will have a text input box for each question in which you are required to type your answer.

Here’s how the box looks like:
As you can see, the available functions are: cut, copy, paste and save.

You will need to practice answering the essay questions on a computer using a program that has the same functions, such as Notepad in a computer with a Windows operating system.

There is no tool to help you locate spelling mistakes, so you need to practice as follows:

Type your answer into Notepad, and then copy it to a more powerful word processing program such as Microsoft Word and test the spelling there to see your errors. If you type directly into Word, you will miss the opportunity of seeing your errors and correcting them.

Another important point is the ‘save’ button: don’t worry if you forget the click on the “save” button before you move to the next questions; the exam software will save your answer automatically once you click the “next” button, but the examiners advise that you click “save” every 5 minutes to avoid losing your answer in case the exam time finished before you complete your answer.

Tips

  • If you finish the multiple choice section early, you have two options: allocate that extra time to review the questions, or jump to the writing section. The time that you saved on the multiple choice questions will be added to the time allowed for the essay section. Read ALL the question. Don’t leave out any parts. Focus on words like “compare” and “contrast”.
  • If what is required is to compare two concepts, then you should NOT “define” any of them, so don’t waste time doing that. Keep it clear and to the point. For example, if the question requires you to compare two types of bonds, you do not have to define each bond and then compare them; you should only compare them.
  • Phrases like “I believe” or “I think” are not welcome in the CMA exam. State the facts and keep things organized.
  • Business writing skills are essential. Not only do you need to have the knowledge, but you also need to be able to express that knowledge. You are expected to write in full sentences, using standard language, without the use of slang or informal language.
  • In addition to avoiding informal language, you should also avoid informal formats and signs. Writing in all caps, and using exclamation marks is not expected on the exam.
  • Abbreviations: if your answer includes a term such as EBIT, you need to mention the full expression when you mention it for the first time, and then you can use the abbreviation. Here’s an example:

    “Earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) look at a business’s profitability by subtracting expenses from revenues. When calculating EBIT, it’s important to keep in mind that interest and taxes are not included in its calculation.”

  • Answer ALL questions. Examiners give partial marks for partial answers. Answer ALL the questions even if you are not sure about your answer.

Final word

Practice and feedback

It’s crucial that you practice writing essay answers. Also, getting feedback on your answers is key to improvement. Get help from an instructor, colleague, online forums etc.. Don’t be shy, show your work and get feedback on how you can improve your writing.