Answering multiple-choice questions (MCQs) successfully requires you to develop a range of skills and exam techniques. Taking the steps set out below will help you to maximise your marks in these papers
Prepare to pass
As with any assessment, the golden rule for success is to prepare thoroughly. It is not unusual for ACCA examiner reports to note that some candidates were not adequately prepared for the exam. In many cases, candidates attempt to compensate for inadequate preparation by ‘question spotting’, or concentrating on a small number of ‘pet’ topics. These approaches to preparation are extremely risky and are always strongly discouraged by examiners – for good reason.
As each MCQ relates to a specific issue within the syllabus, each exam will include broad coverage of the syllabus. This means that to maximise your chances of success you must have studied the whole syllabus.
You may be lucky enough to find that a particular MCQ is on a topic that was part of your most recent studies, but this will not be the case with the vast majority of the questions you will face. As well as studying topics right across the syllabus, it is important to attempt past exams and exam‑standard questions. Examples of MCQs are available on ACCA’s website together with specimen papers for the paper‑based exams in the Foundation level and for Papers F1, F2 and F3.
Of course, it is essential that you use all of the questions carefully and follow up on all of your answers. Whether a question was answered correctly or incorrectly during exam preparation, it will provide an opportunity to enhance your understanding of the topic. By reflecting on why a specific option is correct, you can improve your understanding, while reflecting on why the other options are wrong can help to overcome misunderstanding and eliminate confusion. When attempting questions as part of your preparation, it is useful to remember that the key purpose of the exercise is to enhance your understanding – not just to get the right answer.
When reviewing each option, it is important to ensure that you understand exactly what the underlying point is – and to make sure that you reflect on this to enhance your learning.
Read the question
The amount of time, effort, and discussion that is put into each question before it appears in an exam is likely to surprise most candidates. Every question is subjected to a number of rigorous reviews as it progresses from an idea in the writer’s mind to the exam paper. These reviews mean that you need to read the question extremely carefully, remembering that the wording has been chosen deliberately. This is intended to ensure that the question is unambiguous and does not mislead candidates.
An example of the need to read the question carefully might be the way in which a question communicates cost information. It is not unusual for a question to relate to a production period of, say, three months, but for fixed costs to be stated as an annual figure. To get the correct answer, candidates must have recognised this fact. This is not an attempt to catch out candidates, but rather an attempt to ensure that candidates can apply the technique in a real-life situation, where information must be clearly understood and is frequently communicated in this way.
A further aspect is to recognise that the answer will be based on the data included in the question. There are two aspects to this. First, in order to ensure that questions are not too long, the data may have been simplified. To some candidates, this may seem to be unrealistic when compared to a real-life situation. A particular example of this is the way in which the labour cost is described in many questions. More often than not, direct labour is described as a variable cost, with no reference to the cost of laying off staff. For a candidate who has experience of staff rationalisation, this assumption will be totally unrealistic. While a longer question may provide the opportunity to critically examine the underlying assumptions, this is not possible in an MCQ and the question should be answered on the basis of the data provided. Second, only the data included in a question is required to obtain the answer. That means you should not waste time wondering about additional data, or inferring additional data into the question.
An example of this could be a question that tests the ability to calculate the closing balance on a ledger account. The question may give details of transactions during a period and a closing prepayment, but there may be no reference to an opening prepayment. In such cases, you can assume that this was nil. As already noted, the writer will have sought to keep the question as short as possible by omitting unnecessary words such as ‘the opening prepayment was nil’ or ‘there was no opening prepayment’.
It is imperative that the prompt (the actual question that is to be answered) is read carefully. For example, a question may give information on receivables, irrecoverable debts, and required allowances for receivables. Here, the prompt could require any of the following to be calculated:
- the movement on the allowance
- the closing receivables allowance
- the charge to the income statement, or
- the net value of receivables to be reported on the statement of financial position.
Rather than actually reading and noting the prompt, some candidates assume that they know what it is. This is usually on the basis of a question they have seen previously. More often than not, this approach leads to the wrong option being selected.
It is a common fallacy that MCQs are easy. This is based on the fact that one of the options is the correct answer. Therefore, the argument goes, all you have to do is make the correct selection. While it is fair to say that some questions may be easy, that is usually because you have prepared thoroughly. Hopefully, this will happen in some questions, but it is more likely that the answer will not be obvious. A question from the specimen papers for Paper F1/FAB, Accountant in Business illustrates this:
SAMPLE QUESTION 1
ABC Co has a system that records details of orders received and goods dispatched, invoices customers and allocates remittances to customers.
What type of system is this?
A Management information system
B Decision support system
C Knowledge management system
D Transaction processing system
Even a casual reading of the question will highlight that the word ‘system’ is a key word. It is used in the stem (the initial statement that describes the system), the prompt (the actual question) and in each of the choices.
This means that unless care is taken to read the question and think carefully about what is being asked, it would be easy to become confused. A further problem is that all four of the systems in the choices are examples of systems that might be utilised in an organisation.
To select the correct answer, the best approach is to consider what each of the four systems is intended to achieve.
A management information system is intended to provide information to managers. Information is processed data, which is useful for making decisions. In this case, the stem refers to data (as it is unprocessed – information would not be an individual order, but the total value of orders for a particular product or from a specific customer). Therefore, A is not correct.
A decision support system is intended to do exactly what the name suggests – provide information to assist managers to make decisions. Once again, the system relates to information. As we have already decided that the stem refers to data, B cannot be the correct answer.
Choice C presents a potential problem. A knowledge management system is intended to create, capture, store and share information. The stem notes that the system ‘records details of orders’ (capture) and invoices customers (creates). This may create confusion for the ill-prepared candidate. However, a well-prepared candidate will note that, once again, the issue is that ‘information’ is relevant to a knowledge management system. On that basis, choice C is incorrect.
D is the correct choice because a transaction processing system deals with data – which is processed to create information.
From, this we can see that a candidate who is clear about the difference between ‘data’ and ‘information’ will be able to answer this question without undue difficulty, but very clear thinking, and application of knowledge, is needed.
It is essential that, having read the question carefully, you think about your response, and that your answer is the result of a considered choice. This is because of the way in which the incorrect options have been constructed. In ACCA exams, MCQs have one correct option and three incorrect options. The incorrect options are referred to as ‘distractors’. This term is used because, in writing the question, the examiner attempts to identify the most common mistakes made by candidates and uses these as a basis for the incorrect options. This can be illustrated by a question taken from the specimen paper for Paper F2/FMA, Management Accounting.
SAMPLE QUESTION 2
Information relating to two processes (F and G) was as follows: