How to study for Accounting exams

Study Advice
Table of Contents

How should you study for your Accounting exams?

I’ve lectured thousands of Accounting students for over a decade, so I’ve seen a LOT of study tips about how to study to pass exams! Here’s some of my study advice:

  • Find out what the exams want you to DO with the content you’re studying
  • Identify and work on the SKILLS your subjects require, not just the topics
  • Work on understanding what PROBLEM each TOPIC WILL SOLVE
  • Find out how the subjects are MARKED
  • Assign an OUTCOME to every study session. How did this study session get you closer to passing?
  • Assess the TIME LIMITATIONS, in the exam and your studying
  • SIMULATE the exam process as often as possible. Practice writing questions under the same conditions
  • NEVER CHECK THE ANSWER when you’re trying a question
  • Identify NON-SUBJECT CHALLENGES that will affect YOU (Eg: Anxiety, Stress, Concentration issues, Procrastination, Time management etc)
  • Ask someone if they can read your HANDWRITING when you’ve written really quickly!

How will these help you pass?

Yes, I know a lot of these don’t seem like the usual study tips and advice. I have VERY good reasons for each of these items, which I work on with my Study Coaching students.

I’ll explain the first two in detail here. If you want to learn more about this type of studying, sign up for my mailers:


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What will the exam want you to DO?

Example: “Study this recipe”

The information you’ll get is a list of ingredients, and a list of instructions on how to prepare the dish. Would you memorise the ingredients and instructions? Practice making the dish yourself? Practice teaching someone else how to do it? Practice writing recipes of your own? You’d need me to tell you what I expected you to DO with the recipe. “Prepare this recipe”; or “Teach someone how to prepare the recipe”. or “Critique the recipe” (ie: what would you change, or do differently?) or “Memorise the recipe”.

As you study each topic, start with the end in mind. Will the exam expect you to be able to define something? Calculate it? Disclose it? Explain it? Analyse it? Critique it? Justify it? Teach it? Draw a picture of it?! (Ok, sure, the last one is very unlikely, but do you get the point?!)

These are called ‘Learning Outcomes’ in your textbooks and study guides. We generally ignore them, or brush over them quickly, looking at the TOPICS themselves.

What you need to DO with it, should be a big part of your studying. If you know you’ll have to calculate something, then learning details off-by-heart aren’t going to help you pass your exam. You have to practice different types of calculations.

Eg: “Prepare General Ledger Accounts for Property, Plant and Equipment

  • Most students will highlight the words ‘GL Accounts’, and ‘PPE’. These are the topics.
  • BUT, what will you have to DO with your knowledge of these General Ledger Accounts?
    • What if it said “Explain the purpose of each GL Account for PPE“? Or “Teach others how to prepare the GL Accounts for PPE“?

For Accounting students, I often find that they focus on the theory, details, calculations and formulae. This is fine when the learning outcomes are ‘calculate’, ‘define’, ‘list’ or ‘disclose’. Later on in their studies though, the outcomes turn into ‘analyse’, ‘explain’, ‘critique’, and then the same type of studying isn’t sufficient anymore.

How do you DO this?

“That’s great advice Yvonne, but HOW do we do this?”

Learning outcomes

Start by looking at these in the overall subject. (What is the SUBJECT intended to teach you?), and then the learning outcomes for each topic as you start with it. Focus on the verbs in the outcomes. Try build a mental picture of what this would look like. (eg: “Prepare the Financial Statements” – Picture yourself looking at a set of Financial Statements in your handwriting)

RECENT past papers

If you can get hold of them, take a look at the TYPES of questions in past papers. Also look at integrated questions at the end of the topics or study guides.The recent papers are important, because in a world that changes pretty fast, studying and exam expectations change too. You don’t want to prepare for a four year old exam!

Integrated questions in your study material

It’s also important to look at the exam, and the final questions in the study material, because the smaller, simpler questions in the chapters themselves are often there to help you understand the concept, and test your knowledge. They don’t necessarily represent what the exam would expect, so it can be misleading. (eg: Often, there are questions asking for short lists or brief parts of calculations in the chapter, but in the exam you have to write and essay and analyse the information.)
The single topics also don’t tell you how this chapter relates to the next one. It’s a lot easier to study concepts in isolation, but you’re going to be expected to use it in an integrated approach.

What are the underlying skills needed?

“Prepare for a competition”

If I asked you to prepare for a competition, and it could either be a chess, or a gymnastics competition, wouldn’t your preparation change depending on the skills the contest would require? You may spend three hours a day practicing each of them. You may read books on them, you may watch video tutorials. But when it comes to the actual prep, chess will require a very different set of skills to gymnastics.

“Accountants are good with numbers” How many times have you heard that?! Somehow, we’ve simplified, or ‘flattened’ Accounting to be very one-dimensional.

In reality, just like any profession, Accounting requires a lot of skills. You need to be able to retain information, analyse data, communicate issues, solve problems, formulate calculations, prepare financial AND non-financial information, and so much more!

Your studying incorporates a lot of these skill requirements, and yet, I find that students focus mostly on any material that has calculations, formulae, formats and detailed theory. These are required, absolutely, but they often ignore the need to communicate, problem-solve, analyse and prepare non-financial information.

Why do students ignore this?
Simple. It’s not a set of skills they’re comfortable with. Their personality types lean towards pattern-analysis, format-driven thinking and memory, and they’re often perfectionists, so they want to have a ‘right’ answer. (I spend some time on how your personality affects your studying!)

How do you DO this?

“That’s great advice Yvonne, but HOW do we do this?”

Eg: Students will tell me they like working with numbers in Financial Accounting, but they don’t like costing (Management Accounting). Why? It’s also ‘just’ numbers! The two subjects BOTH have calculations, formulae etc, BUT, Financial Accounting is format-driven and formulaic. Once you know the rules, it will ALWAYS look that way. Whereas, costing NEVER looks the same. The principles are the same, but the problems and solutions are always unique.

Types of skills

First, you need to be aware that there ARE different skills! (Seems silly, but we’re so used to thinking that Accounting is all about numbers, that we’ve brainwashed ourselves!). Here are some of them:

  • Format-driven work
  • Formulaic work and thinking (ie: if you do xx and yyy, you will ALWAYS get zzz)
  • Calculations
  • Communication (Translating your thoughts, concerns, ideas, solutions to someone else, IN WRITING)
    • Depending on what you need to communicate, the requirements will change
  • Problem-solving (New problems, with no ‘obvious’ or defined solution. You have to ‘figure something out’)
  • Out-the-box thinking
  • Guideline-based work / thinking (ie: there are guidelines, but you need professional judgement to decide when, and how to use it)
  • Memory-based work
  • Detail-driven work
  • Application of principles

It’s very unlikely that you’ll be AMAZING at all of them to start with. So you need to assess this to focus your studying.

Learning outcomes

Yes, we’re back at the learning outcomes! When you look at these, think of the above types of skills, and consider which ones will be needed.

RECENT past papers / Integrated questions in your study material

Yes, these will help. Look at the types of questions, and solutions, and the types of skills that took.

Past experience

Give some thought to what you enjoyed and didn’t enjoy in the past. What did you struggle with? What was easy? Now, try separate the ‘topics’ from the ‘skill’, and see if there’s a pattern.

What now?

As you can see, there are a LOT of really good reasons for my advice!

I know that a lot of it requires a shift in thinking and study approach, which is why I offer Study Coaching for students. To help them understand better, more efficient ways of studying, and help them to change their habits.

You can subscribe to my mailer to get more information.

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