New exam format from June 2023 and exam technique for ATX-MLA

The ATX-MLA exam can be challenging, and this reflects the complexity of the underlying subject. But, like all exams, with a little more preparation and attention to past exam questions, it becomes much more manageable; and passing it less of a daunting prospect.

The aim of this short article is to offer candidates some tips which they should find useful in order to achieve success in this exam.

Prior to the exam

Identify your resources
As well as the obvious – study, study, study – you need to be fully prepared. ACCA offers you many resources that can help you in this respect. The following resources are published for each sitting:

In addition, there is also the new, full specimen exam, which is available on the Practice Platform. This is based on past exam questions but has been adapted to be in the style of the new format, effective from the June 2023 session (one Section A question for 50 marks and two Section B questions, each for 25 marks, and incorporating 20 professional skills marks across the whole exam).

There is also a range of technical articles on the ACCA website, which can assist you to prepare for some of the more demanding topics within the ATX-MLA syllabus. These are written by the examining team and do therefore contain a strong exam focus.

Question practice
You would be wise to invest time in practising past exam and specimen exam questions. This means not only attempting those questions under exam conditions (ie with an eye on the clock and without referring to your study materials) but also checking your answer to the suggested ones provided. This exercise will help you to appreciate the way in which topics tend to be tested, the key instruction words used by the examining team and what these actually entail, and to gain an understanding of how the marks are awarded. As you review your own responses against those provided by the examining team, you should always aim to identify any key areas covered by the model answers which you did not pick up on, looking back to the question to identify the triggers which should have prompted you to address those particular points. Such a review will help to ensure that you don’t miss out on similar issues next time around.

Study for the whole exam – know the ATX (MLA) syllabus
Section A of the exam tests candidates' understanding of topics in a case-style scenario. Key information will be provided in the form of various exhibits and you will need to appreciate their relevance to each part of the requirement and, if appropriate, any interrelationships between them.

Information is presented slightly differently in Section B questions and the requirement may be more directive and prescriptive.

Notwithstanding the difference in style of questions, all exams aim to achieve a good balance of syllabus coverage and, therefore, it is vital that you are not selective in terms of areas that you choose to study and that you do indeed aim to cover all of the syllabus, including all of the brought forward knowledge areas from TX (MLA). The syllabus and study guide for your particular exam session should be referred to in order to ensure that you have achieved this – a good tip, prior to starting your revision phase, is to cast your eyes over the list of all syllabus areas and highlight those you would least like to come up – these are the ones that you then need to focus on in order to ensure that you are fully prepared.

Develop professional skills
An exam at this level requires you to have more than a good command of the key technical areas. You are expected to present your solutions in a way which is expected of a professional accountant.

This means demonstrating that you can communicate in an effective and appropriate style, showing that you have the ability to analyse and evaluate information in a relevant manner, displaying the skill of scepticism to identify missing information or having the courage of your convictions to challenge views being promoted by someone else, and providing solutions that are commercial and realistic given the particular circumstances and drivers of the client concerned.

There is separate guidance around the professional skills, which you should engage with since demonstration of these skills constitutes 20% of the marks in this exam and, while you cannot specifically aim to target them in your answers, you do need to be aware of the techniques that you should be employing in order to earn these marks.

Know what the examiner expects
Examiner reports give you an insight into the minds of the examining team and enable you to learn from the mistakes and pitfalls of your predecessors. We strongly recommend that you read these, and learn from the information contained therein, especially in conjunction with the past exam questions which you have specifically practised. Make a list of recurring points or themes so that you can aim to take these on board when encountering similar issues in subsequent questions.

Section B questions, in particular, can be quite specific in terms of examining, particular rules, and exceptions thereto. So, when you are preparing for the exam, not only must you know the rules, but also make sure you study the exceptions thereto and when they apply. Also, always be aware of situations where, for tax purposes, different choices may exist – these are popular exam topics ensuring that you understand where the exercise of one alternative course of action may be preferred over the other.

Remember TX-MLA material
The examiner reports often remind candidates that they should only sit for the ATX-MLA exam once they feel comfortable with the TX-MLA syllabus. TX topics are often included within ATX exam questions – assuming that they have done the groundwork and retained the knowledge from the lower level, candidates should find these easy marks to score (yet often don't).

Learn about value added tax (VAT)
Another common theme in examiner reports is that candidates are not well prepared for VAT questions. Given that VAT is examined at every session, candidates should not neglect this important part of the syllabus. Reference should be made to the syllabus and study guide to ensure that candidates are conversant with all aspects of VAT which can be examined at this level.

Use lectures to maximum effect
Preparation for, and attendance at, lectures is also important. Preparing for a lecture before you attend it – for example, by reading the chapters relevant to the topics prior to attending the lecture, so that you are hearing the subject matter for the second time rather than the first – can be highly effective in improving your overall exam performance.

The exam

The exam (from June 2023) consists of three compulsory questions over three hours and 15 minutes. Section A contains one question for 50 marks (40 technical and 10 professional skills). Section B contains two questions, each for 25 marks (20 technical and 5 professional skills).

Within the 40 technical marks in the Section A question, there will be 5 marks testing ethics. There is a separate article that addresses this. Ethics will not be tested in Section B.

All four professional skills will be tested in the Section A question (communication, analysis and evaluation, scepticism and commercial acumen); each Section B question will test a minimum of two professional skills, excluding communication, which will not be tested in the Section B questions.

Although the exam contains no formal reading and planning time, ATX-MLA candidates are still recommended to take the time to ensure that they read and understand all the question information and requirements, and to plan their answers. This is especially important for the Section A question where, as mentioned above, the relevance of each of the exhibits in the light of the different parts of the requirement needs to be understood.

Time allocation

Good time management is integral to success in this exam, and you should ensure that you spend the correct amount of time across each of the relevant parts. Under the new format, with 80 technical marks and 20 professional skills marks, you should be working to 2.4 minutes per technical mark – this means spending no more than 97 minutes on the Section A question and 49 minutes on each of the Section B questions. And make sure that you then apply this principle to each of the individual question parts – so remembering the approximately 2.4 minutes per mark rule, you have approximately 9 minutes to answer a 4-mark question part, for example.

You should attempt all parts of each question too, even if you are not sure of the answers or have only left yourself enough time to answer in bullet or note form. Identification of the main points will always earn you some credit, if not full marks.

Answer the question
You do need to answer the question the examining team has set, not the one which you wish you had been asked! Not only is this important from the perspective of earning the technical marks attaching to that particular part, but it is also relevant for the professional skills marks.

A number of examiner reports have highlighted the problem of information dumping, where a candidate includes information in their answer that is not required in the context of the question that has been set. Such a technique is just a waste of time since markers are restricted to applying the marking scheme and therefore credit cannot be awarded for points that, although possibly correct, are of no relevance to the question.

The examining team are testing whether you can identify workable solutions to the problems set and are looking to you to provide relevant information in support of your answer to the question asked, which may include information you learned at TX as well as ATX. You should also always ensure that you identify the key instruction word that is being used – are you being asked to explain, advise, calculate, recommend, conclude or possibly a combination of these or others? Highlighting the key verb (or verbs) will keep you focused on what you need to be doing to earn the marks for dealing with any particular part of the requirement.

We hope you will have found this article useful in spurring you on to invest time in preparing for success in the ATX-MLA exam. 

Written by members of the ATX-MLA examining team