Many aspiring CMAs with international background dread the essay part of the exam. What exactly are the examiners testing on, how are the essays graded, and how can you get a good score? Let’s take a look.
If you are unable to watch this video clip, the following covers similar tips regarding CMA exam essay prep.
You are given 4 hours to complete the entire CMA exam. If you are done with the MC questions in less than 3 hours, then you can have the remaining time to work on the essay. If you use up the 3 full hours on the MC questions though, you will have stop and move on to essay questions.
For candidates whose English is not the first language, I strongly encourage that you practice going through MC questions as quickly as you can so you can spare more time for the writing part.
Please note that you will be asked to complete the CMA exam essay questions only if you get at least 50% correct in multiple-choice questions.
CMA Exam Essay Format
There are two essays topics, each with a number of questions. You may be asked to complete a business writing or to work on a quantitative analysis.
The writing is done on a simple word processor that is similar to Notepad. For those essays that require a computational answer, you should create simple tables and show calculations within the word processor space provided. It is a good idea to get familiarize with the testing environment before the exam day.
Note: If you are a retaker, you may want to know that the CMA exam has discontinued the use of the spreadsheet tool in the essay portion of the exam since January 2013.
CMA Exam Essay Grading System
The essays are graded by trained subject matter experts using an approved scoring rubric ensure objectivity and consistency. This part of the exam is meant to test your:
- Knowledge of the exam content
- Ability to apply concepts in real business situations
- Ability to express clearly and logically in business writing
You can also take a look at Dr Gleim’s explanation on the grading system.
1. Knowledge of Exam Content
This is a critical step to pass both the multiple-choice questions and the essay part of the exam. Besides reading and study materials, you should spend sufficient time in the practice questions so the concepts sink in, and learn how to apply the concepts in answering the questions.
In the Wiley CMA Exam Review Learning System (part 1 for example), there are 2 detailed examples, together with 28 practice essay questions with model answers.
In Gleim CMA Exam Essay Wizard, you have a chance to practice typing in the answers in a simulated exam environment on your computer.
2. Ability to Apply Concepts in Real Business Situations
Knowing the CMA content-specific facts does not mean you know when and how to apply them. When you face with an essay question, you should:
- Read each word in the question carefully to understand what the examiner is asking
- Identify the major concepts being tested
- Identify keywords that can be used in the piece of writing
I like to use a mind map to brainstorm as many relevant keywords as possible, because inclusion of the correct keywords can easily help you score points.
Ability To Express Clearly and Logically in Business Writing
The CMA exam does not test your technical writing skills. Therefore, you should focus on simple and clear writing and leave out the flowery, complicated words. You can find the three general principles on effective business writing below.
How to Best Answer CMA Exam Essay Questions
Use of Standard English
(i) Correct Spelling
All words should be properly checked to avoid spelling errors and typos. Colloquial, slang and text-message words should not be used.
For acronyms, they should be fully spelled out when they are first introduced in the essay. For example, ABC should be spelled out as “Activity Based Costing (ABC)” first and then the term ABC can be used in the rest of the writing.
(ii) Proper Punctuation
Avoid writing words in capital letters and exclamation marks because exaggeration is rarely used in business writing.
The piece of writing should have a clear beginning, middle and end.
(i) Beginning Paragraph
The beginning should be an introductory paragraph which directly addresses the question. You can simply rewrite the question and this will be the best introduction you can get. Don’t copy directly from the question though — I don’t know the specific rules but copy-and-pasting is generally not a good idea.
(ii) Middle (Main) Paragraph
The middle paragraph is where you present CMA content-specific facts and ideas. You can choose to add a couple more paragraphs if you need to expand the ideas, such as adding examples to support your rationale.
Please note that the essays are graded positively and that partial credits are given: you get a point if the idea matches (or partially matches) with the one on the scoring rubric. This means that you should include as many points as possible as long as they are relevant.
(iii) Ending Paragraph
The last paragraph should be short conclusion, typically with a couple of sentences summarizing the ideas presented in the middle paragraph.
While you should spend time writing all the related points you can possibly think of, present it in a clear and logical manner. It is very important to:
- Read the question carefully to make sure you understand what is being asked
- Double check that your ideas do not contradict themselves
Question #1: If a question asks about a calculation, do I need to be formal and write it out as words or can you just type out the numbers. For example, if I ask for depreciation expense for one month of an asset with a 1,200 dollar cost and a 12 month life can I just write “$100” or “you divide 1,200 by 12 month to get 100 dollar per month which is your depreciation expense”?
Answer: You do need to show your work, but rather than saying “you divide 1,200 by 12 months to get 100 dollar per month” you could show “$1,200/12 months = $100 per month in depreciation”. This way, you will more likely get partial credit in case you use the right formula but just missed a number.
Question #2: I am practicing on the essay questions, but there are no excel capabilities or even a table creation function that make tabular presentations possible. Do you have any suggestion on how to address this? Even underlining the numbers to indicate summation is not possible.
Answer: The examiners have taken away the spreadsheet function in recent years. Since the reader is a Gleim customer, I’ve asked the Gleim Team who has kindly provided the following answer:
There are no excel or table formatting tools in the essays on the exam or in the Gleim materials.
I have a few suggestions. First, practice with the Gleim essays because it will get them use to that.
Second, we have a video in the first study unit of the Gleim Online that is part of the supplemental videos that is a how to on the essays. It could be very useful as it discusses formatting and how to answer them.
Third and final, the key is to make sure that the answers are clear and organized and labeled well, but it doesn’t need to be formatted any special way as long as the grader can determine what you are answering and what your answer is.”
Waqar and Vinoth talk about their first-hand experience in preparing this part of the exam.
As briefly mentioned above, there are two sets of learning tools that can help you practice your essay writing skills:
1. Sample CMA Exam Questions from Wiley
Wiley CMA Learning System dedicates a whole chapter on essay exam study tips, examples of essay question answers, and practice essay questions and answers.
Here is a downloadable copy in the 2009 edition. Since the CMA exam has undergone two major changes since then, I encourage you get the latest version of the text book.
2. Gleim Essay Wizard
These online courses provide two sample CMA exam essay questions (specifically, 2 scenarios with 1-4 questions each) for every study unit (altogether 20 essays) to train you on how to maximize your points given your knowledge of the subject matter on essays.
They also show you the format (e.g. how to write out the calculations) in the answer explanations.
You can get it through the integrated review product — Gleim CMA Review System, or purchase it separately.
For Your Further Reading
Don’t miss my mega post on the ultimate CMA exam prep guide, with 50 actionable tips to help you nail the exam!
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