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!
You may also want to sign up and receive my 1o-day e-course with study planning strategies exam taking tips for the CMA exam! You may type in your email address in the box below, or click and see what this free course offers.
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The IMA hosted a webinar about the Essay portion of the CMA exam. It was very insightful and informative.
I’d like to share with you the specific topics they covered and also what I’ve done to successfully answer the essay questions on the exam.
If you are worried about this section of the CMA exam, learn what I’m about to share with you and you’ll be in a much better position to pass on your first try.
What Will You Learn from this Post?
- Why you should become a CMA
- Understand the CMA exam format
- The 12 best CMA exam essay strategies
- What the essay section looks like and how to answer essay questions
Why Should You Become a CMA?
If you are reading this post, probably you have already decided to become a CMA. Kudos to you! But if not, let me tell you why becoming a CMA will do wonders for your career and success.
First of all, being a CMA confirms that you have a mastery of the critical skills and knowledge in planning, analysis, control, and decision support. This is in the realm of accounting, finance, and business management.
Lastly, salary surveys continue to show that CMAs earn substantially higher than their non-certified peers. On average, CMAs earn over $115,000/year.
Understand the CMA Exam Format
Part 1 – Financial Reporting, Planning, Performance and Control
4 hours, 100 multiple-choice questions, and two 30-minute essay scenarios
- External Financial Reporting Decisions (15% of the exam)
- Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting (30% of the exam)
- Performance Management (20% of the exam)
- Cost Management (20% of the exam)
- Internal Controls (15% of the exam)
Part 2 – Financial Decision Making
4 hours, 100 multiple-choice questions, and two 30-minute essay scenarios
- Financial Statement Analysis (25% of the exam)
- Corporate Finance (20% of the exam)
- Decision Analysis (20% of the exam)
- Risk Management (10% of the exam)
- Investment Decisions (15% of the exam)
- Professional Ethics (10% of the exam)
CMA Exam Structure and Feedback
- 3 hours of multiple-choice questions – 75% of score
- 1 hour of essay scenarios – 25% of score
- Must earn at least 50% on multiple-choice section in order to advance to essay section. If in the exam you are not advanced to the essay section, it means that you failed the exam.
- Cannot return to the multiple-choice section once you’ve advanced to the essay section of the exam.
CMA Exam Testing
- Exams administered at Prometric testing centers
- Schedule your exam date and time online, only after receiving your exam authorization from the IMA.
- Three exam testing windows offered: January & February, May & June, September & October
The 12 Best CMA Exam Essay Strategies
- Stay positive and don’t be afraid of this section
- If you show your work and assumptions, you can earn partial credits
- Expect 3 to 6 questions for each essay scenario
- You can scroll between questions and scenarios within the essay section. This will help you assess how much time you’ll need for responses
- Pay close attention to verbs. If it says compare or contrast, don’t spend your time defining something. Only do what is asked on the question
- Read the entire question to understand all requirements
- Focus is on the use of standard English, organization and clarity
- Graders are looking for effective writing skills
- Be brief and to the point. Bullet points are OK
- Don’t leave questions blank. If short on time, at least write an outline of your main points
- Graders are looking to give you points, not take them away. Make it as easy for the graders to give you points by showing your work.
- Be sure to use all the time available to you
What the CMA Exam Essay Section Looks Like
Type your responses into the text box. This is similar to MS Word but easier and simpler. If you are familiar with MS Word, this won’t be an issue at all.
As you can see, the module shows you the number of questions on the top left hand corner, and your time remaining on the top right hand corner.
Don’t be afraid of this section of the exam. Many, including myself, have gone through it with success. If others could do it, you can too!
If you are new to this community and to the CMA journey, let me point you to a resource page that will help you get started. The CMA Toolkit page is packed with the best resources to make your CMA journey a total success.
Already know what you’re looking for? Head to the CMA Coach Shop and grab your study materials now!
Best of luck on your CMA exam!
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