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5 top tips for ICA exams

by: (Associate Director, Research and Development) on

These tips were published originally in 2013 but have recently been revised. We hope you find them useful!

The way you approach an exam can have a massive impact on the outcome. Subject matter knowledge is crucial, but it is, in my view, only half the battle.

Font of all knowledge?

Everyone will have their own approach to exams. What works for me may not work for you.

That said, I’ve done two ICA Diploma exams, and I talk to a lot of delegates, so I feel I have a good grasp of the tactics. And, to be blunt, there definitely are ‘correct tactics’. There’s nothing untoward about talking about them – we want you to enjoy the course and then get the best result you can.

You’ve studied the course for X months, digested the wider reading and put the effort into completing the assignments. Now you want to pass with the highest score you can, achieve the certification and put all you have learned into practice.

So here’s my top five.

Number 5 – Mind maps, signposts & the day before

Essentially, be prepared. Do your study, but do it in a targeted fashion.

My own preference is to produce a ‘mind map’ for each Unit. Just a single piece of A4 paper, with the Unit title in the middle. Then work around the outside, adding some of the key themes and titles under that subject area, noting which are linked.

man penI also annotate the mind map with the particular page numbers in the manual, so that if I do want to refer to the manual in the exam, I have a quick ‘signpost’. (Incidentally – don’t plan to rely too much on the manual – the markers don’t want to see you regurgitate the manual, and quite frankly, you don’t have time to sit and read through it in the exam – you’re supposed to be writing !)

Personally, I don’t do too much revision the day before. Have a quick review, but do something to take your mind off it. Worrying about what you don’t know is not going to help at this stage.

Number 4 – Prepare some case studies

Alongside my mind maps, I prep an overview of a few case studies. Where and why has a firm fallen foul of sanctions rules ? Who has the Regulator recently fined and why?

The markers want you to show them what you know about the subject matter and to demonstrate WHY this knowledge is important. A well-used case study shows you understand the key risks and issues and how they apply in ‘real life’. It also establishes you have read beyond the manual and taken an interest in the external environment.

If you can, try and then associate one of these case studies to the mind maps of key Units, so they support that content (upon which you will base an answer).

Number 3 – Use the reading time well

Again, this is only my view, but I think this is the most important time in the exam session. You’ll be surprised how quickly it passes.

You can’t start writing answers, but use this time to digest all your options. Have a really good think about each question. Can you answer it ? Really ? Not just answer some of it, at a push, but gain higher marks on that one than on any other?

When the exam proper starts, you don’t want to be spending writing time wondering which you are going to do (remember that writing time = mark scoring time).

When you have picked your questions, try and stick with them. This is related to the next point – how do you decide which to answer?

Number 2 – Deciding which questions to answer

First off (perhaps obvious but nonetheless important), read the paper properly and make sure you answer the correct selection. It may be there are different sections – for example, for a Diploma exam, you currently need to answer at least one question from part A and one from part B.

This links inherently to number 3 (above), and there will invariably be some questions which suit you more than others. Do you want the freedom to write a single response for 25 marks ? Or, if it’s an option, would you rather answer a question where the 25 marks are broken down into three subsections, so the response is less broad ? Balance this with the subject matter of the question.

Read the wording of the question and make sure you answer it. You may be able (time allowing) to bring in some valid / interesting additional information, but don’t let it be at the expense of answering the question. Look for the ‘trigger’ words in the assignment style questions (eg: discuss, examine, critically evaluate). For the case studies, what ‘clues’ are in the scenarios?

Essentially, what is the examiner looking for ? If you are confident on that area of the material, and have taken the time to understand the question, you should be able to produce a good answer. Think of the ‘what’ (what is the issue ?), then apply the ‘why’ (why is it important ?)

Number 1 – Stay calm and confident

Take a deep breath, a sip of water and start writing. Show what you know.

Three hours seems like a lifetime but will disappear very quickly. As far as I’m aware, there are no marks awarded for panicking or hysteria.

Don’t be overwhelmed. It’s not an assignment – you can’t go into minute detail, you don’t need a bibliography. The exam is assessing a different sort of skill. You’ve got basically 45 minutes per question (try and stick to this) to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the key issues contained within that question.

Make what you write clear and concise. Leaving space in the answer book between questions is a good idea (and it also allows you to go back and add something in should you wish to). If you get the chance, read it all through at the end. It could be a chance to gain an extra couple of marks by clarifying or adding something relevant.

Top tips

So there we have it. Five top tips. A bit long for a standard blog, but they all seemed worth making.

These tips really relate to the Advanced Certificate or Diploma exams, but there are elements which could also apply to Awareness level.

In fact, it may give you a bit of an insight into how to approach exams when you take the next step up the ICA qualifications ladder – which I would definitely encourage you to do.

Put in the work, have confidence in your approach, and you should get the rewards.

Good luck. Your time starts now…


If you're not currently studying and you're interested in an ICA qualification more information can be found on our ICA certificates and diplomas page. Alternatively, please call +44(0)121 362 7506 and we’ll happily talk you through your study options.

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6 Comments :

Great Tips Dave and thank you so much. Hoping to use these tips in my upcoming exam.
November 12, 2016 05:29
Deesha Parmar said...
thank you, that was very useful! good luck all
November 2, 2016 06:27
lots of thanks..........
May 18, 2016 04:24
Dave said...
Andrew - hope it went well!
December 16, 2015 03:54
Andrew McKenzie said...
Good sound advice Dave - now let's see how well I can follow it - by successfully executing it.
December 8, 2015 12:26
Many thanks for the valuable and well structured piece of advice
October 14, 2015 12:23

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