As an Accounting student, the communication levels required in Auditing WAS NOT what you signed up for! Numbers, formulae, disclosures, calculations… that’s what this was all supposed to be about. Then Auditing sneaks up on you and laughs at your discomfort!

This is especially frustrating for students who are not studying in their first language. Those solutions can seen unattainable, and require an enormous amount of time and irritation to try achieve.

How do you know whether communication is your biggest issue?

After years of watching students, both undergrad and CTA, writing tests and exams, and discussing what it is they’re struggling with at the time (and reading up on learning and the brain) I’ve picked up some things that can help you.

Think about where your time goes when you’re doing questions. If you spend a lot of your time staring at a point on the ceiling, then chances are you’re battling with theory or knowledge. Scientifically, when your eyes look up, the movement triggers a part of the brain associated with memory, so it’s your brain’s way of trying to connect with your memory bank to squeeze more knowledge out of there!

If, however, you spend a lot of time with your pen hovering over the page, while you’re staring at the blank line, you’re probably battling to find a way to express all the thoughts in your head. You need to try take all the knowledge that’s crowded in there, (in no particular order!) and channel that through your pen, one word at a time, in an order that makes sense, one point after the other. That’s tough!

You stand to lose a lot of marks if you can’t get your point across, not to mention the points and questions you won’t be able to get to if you’re spending so much time on every point you write.

How can you fix it?

Million Dollar Question… How do you fix this problem? How do you learn to write points faster, more coherently?

Here’s some points to work on:


This is crucial. You can take a whole sentence to explain something that has a name or one word to sum it all up! (eg: Explanation: An error that is large enough that the users might change their minds about whether they invest in the company… Terminology: Material error)

  • When you’re marking your solutions, look closely at the words they use that you might not have. Are there any there that would replace your explanation easily? Pay attention to how they’re used, what they mean, then cross out your explanation in your solution, and replace it with the word / words the solution has used. Read your solution again, and decide whether it looks better and would be faster to write.
  • Not only will this save you time, but using terminology in the right places tells the examiner that you’re comfortable with your knowledge and you know where to use it.

Re-writing the case study

  • After you’ve attempted the question, take your highlighter and highlight all the areas where you ‘copied’ information from the case study. This will help you visualise how much time you’ve wasted by telling the examiner what he told you! (Ie: he already knows what’s in the case study… why are you repeating it to him!)

(eg: Case Study: During the year, the company took the decision to list on the JSE. Your solution: The recent JSE listing.) You don’t need more than that to indicate to the examiner what information you’re talking about. Saves you time!

  • Another problem with re-writing the case study is that because you’ve written more, your brain tells you that you’ve given enough information. I’ve often seen students copy the information from the case study, and then just say… ‘it’s a risk’.

(For examples, see my article on writing good risk assessments)

Re-structure your sentences

  • After your attempt (NOT BEFORE! I repeat… NOT BEFORE) look at the way the point is structured in the solution. We generally don’t focus on the points we get marks for, but there’s a lot you can learn from them in terms of communication.
  • Look at the solution, look at yours and ask how you could change yours to look like theirs.
  • Then… and this is CRUCIAL… wait a few days and go re-write the question. Here, you’re not focusing on the theory, because your memory still has the basic ideas, but you’ll be focusing on adjusting your communication to look more like the solution. More concise, smoother etc.
  • You HAVE to write these out. Passive learning doesn’t change habits. Your brain will trick you into thinking that it will remember how to write it better next time, but that doesn’t actually build the skill.

Can you only explain something using an example?

  • Think about how you’d explain a concept to someone else. If possible get someone who knows nothing about the subject and try explain some concepts to them (materiality, inherent risk, general controls… whatever). If you find yourself using more examples in order to get your point across, (ie: you find yourself saying things like: “It’s like when you…” or “You know how you…” etc) you’re probably going to battle in exams, because you can’t use examples, you have to explain the ideas properly.


Your communication skills are also linked to your understanding of the work. If you don’t understand what you’re doing, or why, then you’ll only ever be able to repeat the theory you’ve learnt off by heart, and your communication will be clumsy when you try to apply the theory.

Although these things take time, if you really battle with communication, these pointers can really help you save time in all the exams you’ll ever write from here on out.

If you can relate, or have a query...

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Yvonne Starkey CA(SA)

Yvonne Starkey CA(SA)

I coach accounting students who are struggling with their study habits and mindset, and want their studies to be as effective as they used to be. See more on my about page

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