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Preparing for the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) exam can be overwhelming, so I’ve created this CMA exam prep tips guide. Sometimes, you just need a quick reference to help you remember the most important “to-dos.”
These tips cover everything from creating a workable study plan to writing a strong essay. And, they are based on real actions you can take to pass the CMA exam.
I’ve collected these tips over the past 10 years, but I haven’t done it alone. Thank you, readers, review course providers, and industry experts for sharing your advice and insight.
To help make this list even more manageable, I’ve broken out the 50 tips into 6 important sections.
|Efficient prep||Effective study||More productive time|
|Multiple-choice prep tips||Multiple-choice test taking tips||Essay writing tips|
First of all, don’t panic. For many CMA candidates, it helps to define a concrete and realistic goal. With that goal in mind, you can determine your exact next steps.
Specifically, when I say “realistic” goal, I’m referring to how and when you study. Many candidates fall into the trap of spending so much time trying to master a particular topic that they end up leaving very little time for the other topics. Come test day, they actually end up underprepared.
But remember, the CMA passing exam score is 360 out of 500. Perfection is not your goal. A smart candidate will optimize instead of maximize their study effort. Think of the 80/20 rule: set a comfortably high standard of 80-85% accuracy for your practice test questions. Hit that mark and move on.
Similarly, while you should cover all study materials, it’s okay to be confident in most but not all (say 80-85%) of the exam content. You can always go back and aim for a higher target when time permits.
The right review material can make all the difference in your success. Spend some time looking at CMA review courses and choose the one that best fits your learning style and background. For example, do you learn better from physical textbooks or from audio or video presentations?
Also, while course reviews matter, they should not be the only factor in your decision. I encourage you to:
Unless you’re very tight on budget, always get the latest version of a course. This way, you don’t need to worry about missing a few points due to outdated materials.
A realistic study plan takes time and effort to put together. That being said, the entire act of putting together this plan goes against human nature. While most candidates understand the importance of getting organized, few actually implement and stick with a CMA study plan. But that’s why so many candidates fail the CMA exam.
Point being, you may have to fight against your instincts. The best way to do that is to create a plan that is workable and reflective of your lifestyle and learning habits. In essence, a good plan ensures you stay on track and are able to adequately cover all study materials before exam day.
I can’t claim that one study method works best for everyone. But there is research to support the idea that certain methods are more beneficial than others. As one example, research shows that people perform better on tests when they space out their study time (e.g., studying 10 hours per week over the course of 2 months) versus when they study intensely over a short period of time (e.g., studying 5 hours a day for 3 straight weeks).
Researchers believe that people are more likely to commit concepts to memory when they space out their studying. Each time they come back to their subject, they instinctively jog their memory. Conversely, cramming is associated with a lower level of retention. Often, when people cram their studies into a condensed time period, they end up simply memorizing the material without understanding its deeper meaning.
Perhaps it’s been a while since you’ve sat for an exam. Or, maybe you’re prone to feeling a little test anxiety. One of the best ways to prepare for the unknown is to practice in an environment similar to the one you’ll encounter on test day. For example:
Being “effective” is different from being “efficient.” An effective student can learn more and perform better than an efficient student given the same amount of studying time.
It may seem simple, but studying in a clean space that is free of clutter will help eliminate distractions and enable you to concentrate on your studies. Taking just a few minutes to organize your study area can save you much more time in the end.
I get it. It’s unrealistic to ask you to completely stay away from email, Facebook, Twitter and the like. But you can do yourself a favor by putting time limits on these activities. You can give yourself 15 minutes each morning and evening to enjoy some screen time.
This tip is one of the more difficult tips for candidates to stick with. However, you’ll be amazed at how much better you can focus when you put away the smartphone or tablet for a bit.
During the course of your CMA exam prep, you’ll occasionally give in to your whims. You’ll succumb to watching your favorite TV show or uploading your cat photos to Facebook.
This behavior is natural and don’t be too hard on yourself when you need a break. But do think about your long-term goals. What will these actions mean 10 years down the road? Will they get you the promotion, the dream job or a better life for you and your family? Prioritize your time based on your long-term goals instead of your short-term enjoyment.
Here’s another tough one. Let me preface this point by saying that it’s absolutely important for you to get adequate sleep. Therefore, I’m not suggesting you cut back on your sleep time for CMA exam prep. However, you can make better use of the time when you are awake but not physically out of bed.
At some point in our lives, most of us have probably committed to getting up earlier but failed to follow through. This behavior can be difficult to change, but once you establish a routine, you’ll find it easier to stay disciplined.
And, if you’re looking for tips on how to motivate yourself to get out of bed, I’d suggest putting the alarm clock (even if it’s your phone) on the opposite side of the room. I’ll also set out my favorite snack to grab first thing in the morning as an extra incentive.
Some of you may have lots of time between activities. For example, if you’re a parent, you may find yourself waiting in the car more often than you’d like. Or, parent or not, you may have a long commute that leaves you with additional “downtime.”
With the proliferation of mobile devices, many candidates are now able to study on the go. Most CMA exam courses offer audio and video lectures and study aids that you can stream while you wait. These types of learning tools may not work for everyone, but do explore them and see if you can find one that fits into your life.
Or, if studying on your smartphone or tablet doesn’t appeal to you, then try the old standby — 3”x 5” handwritten flashcards. They always work for me. Give them a try.
Plenty of people find it difficult to ask for help. But don’t be shy about reaching out when you need someone to watch your kids, take care of the laundry, or pitch in on a work assignment. Your spouse, parents, friends, and colleagues know this a busy and important time for you. They’ll be happy to help. And, if you have older children, this might be a perfect opportunity to give them some extra responsibilities around the house. They can work on their personal development while you do the same.
I tried bringing my daughter to the library every Saturday morning, so she could read books beside me while I studied. I also flipped my flashcards when watching my little son shower.
Think creatively and you’ll be amazed how much extra time you’ll find for your studies. However, focus on your family when you need to. This is not a call to sacrifice time with your family. Rather, it’s an ask to look objectively at your day and find new ways to seamlessly blend family time with your study time. Listen to an audio lecture while you make dinner, then turn it off while you have dinner with your family.
Multiple-choice questions (MCQs) represent 75% of the CMA exam format. Therefore, MCQs really determine the style of the test. MCQs are generally used to test a wide variety of topics, but they usually don’t go deep into the content. MCQs cannot be used to ask you to analyze a scenario. Because of this, you can expect the CMA exam to be a mile wide or an inch deep.
Your brain needs to be engaged when studying. In other words, you can’t just read the textbook over and over again. You’re just going through the motions. This action is too passive and affects your retention.
So, how do you engage your brain? Give it something to do! Examples:
Personally, I find it tremendously helpful to read, watch or listen, then write out the key points of the material. This action is highly beneficial for retention and more effective than reading the materials alone.
While any of these methods will prolong your CMA exam prep, they are totally worth the effort in my opinion.
This tip holds true for MCQs in any exam.
Examiners love to test fundamental concepts, definitions, and terms in MCQs. Therefore, make sure you understand the important terms and be able to differentiate them. Again, you can use flashcards or other study aids to help in learning CMA key terms.
Some CMA review courses focus a lot on mnemonics or memory aids. While these tools are useful, don’t blindly memorize them without understanding the concepts behind them. You can find yourself in a bad spot come test time.
As one of our bloggers Gavin suggested, we can practice important CMA exam concepts in real business situations and our everyday work. You can find opportunities in numerous areas including cost accounting, variance analysis, or internal control. Keep an open mind and you’ll find new and relevant ways to practice and apply your learning.
And, as you practice the CMA concepts in your day-to-day job, you’ll have an easier time understanding the “why” behind them. This real-world understanding will be invaluable for the exam.
Within every MCQ there lies a correct answer. Sometimes that answer is hard to uncover. The difficulty of the question depends on 1) whether you know the correct answer, and 2) whether you’re swayed into picking any of the wrong answers. Fortunately, there are tips you can follow to consistently make the right choice.
Candidates are busy and they often make an educated guess or ask around for advice on which topics they should focus on for the exam. They have limited time to study and want to make the most of it.
But this “hot topic” approach is risky because no one knows what’s going to be covered on an exam. Some topics like cost accounting are mainstays and will always be included. However, that doesn’t mean you can skip other seemingly random sections.
Again, time management and a good study plan (tip #3) are very important when it comes to CMA exam preparation. You should devote some amount of time to all exam content.
MCQs and essay questions require different methods of preparation. For each MCQ, you’re asked to choose the correct answer out of 4 possibilities. For each essay question, you’re asked to provide a written response to 2 scenarios.
Why MCQs are easier for some candidates:
… and at the same time MCQs are more difficult for other candidates:
If you fit into the latter group, don’t fret. Directly address your anxiety during exam prep. In this case, that could mean running through lots of practice MCQs until you feel comfortable with the format. Tackle your fear head-on.
It is critical to have a systematic approach in identifying and keeping track of incorrect answers.
Whenever you answer a question incorrectly (or answer it correctly but for the wrong reason), write down the reason for your answer choice in a notebook. Ask yourself if you did:
The system above (in tip #19) offers a few benefits. First, it allows you to determine which concepts may be proving more difficult for you. Second, it can give you insight into the effectiveness of your study plan. So, consistently review your cheat sheet. Does it reveal any patterns, such as:
Keeping a cheat sheet may seem like an extra step in your exam prep but it can help you course-correct quickly.
The CMA exam is known for its lengthy questions and complexity. Once you’re familiar with the fact pattern and question style, try moving faster while obviously still maintaining the accuracy.
As a reminder, you’ll have 4 hours to complete each part of the CMA exam. The time breaks down as 3 hours for the MCQs and 1 hour for the essay section.
Not surprisingly, candidates get tripped up by exam questions that didn’t appear on any of their practice exams. With this in mind, it’s important that you practice the art of “educated guessing” throughout your studies.
In other words, as you go through the various topics, be sure not to skip any questions. Also, don’t be afraid to use the “test mode” as opposed to the study mode in your review course. I’m not a fan of the extra stress myself but that’s precisely why we have to overcome it!
Answer each question the best you can and by whatever means. Your approach could include elimination or applying a concept you learned from another exam. The skill of educated guessing will be critical during the actual exam.
The most important lesson to learn from the mock exam is time management.
If you find you’re running out of time during the mock exam, skip and mark any question you don’t know or feel comfortable with. If time becomes an issue, then prioritize the easy questions and leave the complicated question unmarked. Ideally, you want to answer all exam questions but it’s better to answer 2 easy questions rather than the 1 question that feels difficult.
The best way to prepare for the CMA exam is to study all the topics included in the exam. Beyond that, the tips below can help you avoid silly mistakes and improve your educated guesses on exam day.
The exam is positively graded, meaning there is no penalty for wrong answers. Therefore, even blindly guessing gives you a 25% chance of success. As a result, you should always aim to complete the entire section.
Time management is rule #1. The MCQs in the CMA exam tend to be more lengthy and complex than other professional accounting exams. It will be critical for you to figure out how you will manage the MCQs. Generally speaking, you can allocate 3 hours (180 minutes) evenly to the 100 questions, which equals 1.8 minutes per question.
Many candidates choose the answer that “looks correct” and rush to the next question. They don’t take the time to fully read through the responses. Always read the 4 choices before selecting an answer.
If you find yourself with additional time in the MCQ section, go back and look over your answers. Don’t dwell too much on any question or answer that has you truly stumped, but do take the opportunity to double-check your answers and adjust as needed. If you feel confident in your MCQ answers, you can always use the extra time for the essay section.
In theory, the correct answer exists within the 4 choices. If you’re well prepared, you should be able to quickly identify the right one. In reality, however, even the most diligent of candidates fail the CMA exam. In most cases, they fall victim to distractions. But these distractions can be avoided.
Sometimes, the available answer choices all look “reasonable.” They can do more harm than good by throwing you off and distracting you. In fact, the 3 incorrect choices are technically known as “distractors.”
You should always come up with the answer in your head before reading through the choices. If you answer matches one of the choices, then you can be confident that your instinct is correct. Mark it and move on.
Here’s another interesting technique employed by examiners. Some responses may be correct, but not directly related to the question. The best answer is both correct and relevant.
Similarly, ask yourself whether the answer you’re considering completely addresses the question. If the answer is only partly true or is true only under certain circumstances, then it’s probably not the right answer.
When you see words such as “always,” “every,” “never” and “none” in the response, they are likely to be incorrect. The CMA exam covers real business situations, and there are very few absolutely right or wrong situations in real life.
Watch for negatives, double negatives and two-part statements in the stem or body of the question (thankfully, double negatives seem to be quite rare in this exam).
In general, I don’t think the CMA exam is trying to trick us, because they do bold the “not” in this case. Having said that, these words are key because they reverse the meaning of a sentence. Therefore, you must carefully read through these types of questions before answering.
Again, use your common sense. If the answer choice is funny or doesn’t make sense in a real >life situation, it’s probably wrong.
In cases where you aren’t sure which answer is right, you can still greatly improve your odds by eliminating implausible answers. For example, removing two incorrect choices improves your odds of choosing the correct answer from 25% to 50%.
If the body of the question ends with “an” instead of “a”, then the correct response most likely begins with a vowel.
If a response repeats the keywords used in the stem, or if the response is longer with more descriptive words (as if the examiner is trying to be specific about the description), it is more likely to be the correct answer.
This technique is helpful when you’re confronted with 2 similar answers: If any part of a potential answer is false then the entire answer is incorrect
The CMA exam often uses real business situations to test candidates. If everything else fails or time is running out, pick the answer that makes the most sense to you, based on what you’ve experienced in your own life.
While some responses may seem too obvious or simple, don’t dismiss them. If you’re well prepared for the exam, some questions may appear very straight forward.
Similarly, don’t waste time looking for tricks and traps. Typically, they don’t exist. You’ll waste precious time trying to figure out if there’s something beneath the exam surface.
Multiple-choice is all about recognition of the concepts you’ve learned. If you’ve put in the work and read the question and choice of answers carefully, your first impression or choice is often the right one.
If you get stuck, try imagining each choice as the correct answer. People often “feel” that one of the answers is wrong. This happens when you’re familiar with the concept but don’t have a firm grasp of it, just like you may know a person but you can’t recall their name.
The CMA exam is fully computerized. The system pulls a set of questions from a pool and presents them in random order. Therefore, don’t waste time looking for patterns in your answers. Don’t worry if you find you’ve checked four “C” answers in a row. You don’t have time to dwell on these coincidences.
You can learn about CMA exam essays in more depth, but the CMA essays are graded using a standard scoring rubric to test your:
Therefore, both what you write (the content) and how you write it are important.
In the actual exam, you’ll use a simple word processor (similar to Notepad) to complete the writing. For essays that require a computational answer, you should create simple tables and show calculations within the word processor space provided (the spreadsheet function is no longer available in the CMA exam).
To avoid wasting time fixing the formatting on exam day, you should find a software that allows you to practice in a simulated testing environment. Gleim and Wiley have such features in their online platform.
Readers often ask for efficient ways to study for the essay portion. My suggestion is to pick a few multiple-choice questions and answer them as if they are essay questions.
You’ll find it best to type out the answers on a computer. If you’re short on time, try to go through this exercise at least once every day. Once your brain is trained to answer questions in this format, you’ll no longer worry about essays in this exam.
A few years ago, the writing style wasn’t much of an issue. However, I’ve seen more and more readers writing to me using seriously broken English that is full of text message jargon, abbreviations, initialisms, and cyberslang. I can’t imagine how many points they lose if they write essays in this style!
Please start writing everything in proper grammar from now on, so that your brain is (re)accustomed to business writing.
Clarity is an important part of the grading system. When you address a question, always organize your thoughts into 3 parts: the introduction (reflecting what has been asked in the question), the main point (your opinion or ideas) and conclusion (summarizing your thoughts and succinctly closing the essay).
You’re given scratch paper for computational work and for organizing your thoughts on the essays. Try to write quickly but neatly. Label the paper with the question number. This approach will come in handy if you have time to go back and check your work.
These tips are all about managing your mental health the night before, and helping you feel psychologically prepared on exam day.
Believe it or not, failing the CMA exam is not the end of the world. You’ll have another chance to get that job promotion or salary raise. Failure is tough to deal with, but you can’t allow yourself to get caught up in all the possible “what if” scenarios. Otherwise, your anxiety will overtake you.
Instead, focus on what you can control. What can you do in the present to prepare?
In reality, your exam day goals are quite simple. You need to:
Exam day becomes a lot more manageable with these 3 simple and clear goals.
While cliche, getting a good night of rest is highly important. Your brain can’t function without sufficient sleep. The last thing you want to do is to cram straight for 12 hours and fry your brain cells the night before.
You’ll be better prepared if you go to bed at a decent time and wake up feeling energized and refreshed. If you’re worried you might have trouble falling asleep, then spend some time relaxing before bed. You could drink some herbal tea, take a warm bath, or watch a funny TV show.
I understand that many self-study candidates go to exam forums to vent and to look for encouragement. This is all good, but I would stop doing that a few days before the exam. You want to avoid interacting with fellow students who have negative energy. These are students who didn’t prepare well for their exam and failed or those who are frustrated and want to give up. You’ve come too far to let these people affect your mental preparation.
Confidence is a critical element to your success. Confidence helps to reduce your anxiety which in turn, improves your cognitive ability and performance.
So, before you walk into the exam room, pick a positive mantra and repeat it 3 times. The mantra could be “I am ready” or it could be anything that suits you and helps boost your confidence. And if you need to, repeat the mantra to yourself during the exam.
These 50 tips can seem like a lot, but know that each tip pushes you closer to passing the CMA exam. Bookmark this page so you can revisit it from time to time. And all the best on your exam!
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I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley), and I also passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam on my first try.Additionally, I have led webinars, such as for the Institute of Management Accountants, authored featured articles on websites like Going Concern and AccountingWeb, and I'm also the CFO for the charity New Sight.Finally, I have created other accounting certification websites to help mentor non-CPA candidates. I have already mentored thousands of CPA, CMA, CIA, EA, and CFA candidates, and I can help you too!