Scoring professional marks

This article explains what professional marks are, how they are awarded in the Strategic Professional exams and to remind potential candidates how best to achieve these additional, and often crucial, marks.

Professional marks were introduced to the ACCA Qualification to allow candidates to demonstrate – and the ACCA examining team to assess – particular professional communication skills and high-level capabilities that employers expect ACCA members to possess.

Where and how many professional marks are available?

Apart from the Strategic Business Leader exam, in which 20 marks are available for demonstrating professional skills, all other Strategic Professional exams include four professional marks at each session. As shown by the specimen exams, these four marks are available as follows:

  • Strategic Business Reporting: two marks in the 'accounting and ethical implications question' in Section A and two marks in the 'analysis questions' in Section B
  • Strategic Professional – Options: in Question 1, the 'case study question' in Section A.

Professional marks are awarded for capabilities and skills which are in addition to – and separate from – the technical intellectual levels, which include synthesis and evaluation as the basis of Level 3 intellectual level capabilities – and as specified in the ACCA Strategic Professional study guides.

They are awarded for the overall quality of answers and for using or adopting effective professional communication skills as required by the examining team. These are determined by a number of factors, as decided by the relevant examining team. They can include the relevance of advice given, the clarity of information and explanations provided, presenting logical conclusions and recommendations where appropriate, quality of discussion, showing sensitivity to the intended target audience and using the appropriate tone and, for the format, structure and presentation of the answer or communication required. Professional marks can also be awarded for introducing an answer clearly by ‘setting the scene’ – laying out key objectives in the context of the specific requirements and for the use of judgment in addressing the key objective of the communication.

A typical requirement relating to professional marks would be as follows, from the Advanced Financial Management (AFM) specimen exam:

Professional marks will be awarded in part (d) for the presentation, structure, logical flow and clarity of the memorandum.  (4 marks) 

Such requirements have been regularly examined in Strategic Professional exams since December 2007 and have included the need to do the following or similar:

  • prepare meeting notes
  • draft a discussion paper
  • report to a board of directors
  • prepare a memorandum
  • present briefing notes
  • write a letter to a client

Candidates can earn a majority of the marks available for the technical content of the requirements, particularly if their answer contains enough relevant points, but the major discriminator in answering the case study question is the professional mark component.

It is the latter that many technically well-prepared and knowledgeable candidates fail to adequately address, and which can lead to failure for the exam overall. As there are 1.8 minutes per mark for the Strategic Business Reporting and Strategic Professional – Options exams, professional marks should attract at least seven minutes of work or thought in an exam and, therefore, should be given sufficient attention when answering such a question.

It is vitally important to remember that, statistically, a significant proportion of candidates score between 45% and 55% in any exam, as a consequence of the ‘bell-shaped’ curve of the normal distribution of marks derived from a representative cohort of candidates. This means that marks lost or missed for any available professional marks can make a considerable difference to the marginal candidates’ chances of success, particularly when up to 4% of the marks in any one exam may be at stake for demonstrating these professional skills. And following the aforementioned 1.8 minutes per mark rule, you should aim to use the required exam time to gain these marks. Hence, the need for careful consideration.

Some tips for acquiring professional marks, depending on what is being asked for

  • Think and plan your answer before you start writing.
  • Establish who you are or what your role is in the requirement, along with who your audience is and what you are trying to achieve. For example, are you an audit manager, a management expert employed by the company or an independent financial consultant and who are you trying to influence or persuade, and for what reason?
  • Consider the type of communication you are required to give and be clear whether you are writing in the first (‘I’ or ‘we’) or third person (‘it’ or ‘the company’). For example, a letter is best written in the first person and a report usually in the third person.
  • Adopt a format or structure that is most appropriate for the type of communication required – is there a need for an introduction, conclusions or recommendations?
  • Decide in which order you should present information, to improve the logical flow and strength of your arguments.
  • Group similar points together and decide whether you want to introduce key points first, or keep some until last, for maximum impact and to improve persuasiveness.
  • Use headings, and include spaces between your paragraphs to enhance your presentation marks and create a more professional looking answer.
  • Use bullet points only when appropriate.
  • Where relevant, try and refer to your audience throughout the answer, particularly in a letter in which the tone of your answer is personal. For example: ‘If you were to claim this relief, you would have to …’.

Professional marks are, therefore, about showing the ability to communicate effectively by formulating advice or supporting a course of action and demonstrating alternative standpoints using the case scenario and through effective argument and counter-argument. It may be that the examining team wants the candidate to generate ideas or link or adapt theories or methods. Professional marks may require a candidate to arrive at a solution or gain a new insight by exercising professional judgment and adopting an ethical stance in providing advice.

Such professional skills require the candidate to analyse and present information in the context of the views and perceptions of the person that they are supposed to represent, such as a CEO, and may include anticipating reactions from the intended audience.

To earn professional marks it may often be necessary to draw together the main themes of an answer and select or prioritise the main points of an argument to arrive at a valid and properly supported overall conclusion. Sometimes you may be required to put forward some recommendations, which must be supported by the details included in the main body of the answer given, or drawn from information in the case scenario.

Summary

In summary, professional marks are for doing the following:

  • understanding the intended purpose of a communication
  • identifying its intended users and their needs
  • preparing and using the appropriate type of document in an answer
  • using a logical and appropriate answer structure or format
  • judging the tone to use, depending on the nature of background information and objectives to be met
  • assessing where and how much detail is required, as appropriate
  • adopting clear, concise, and precise methods of presentation, both in verbal and numerical contexts.

Not all the above will be assessed in each exam, but they do indicate the kind of capabilities that candidates might be required to demonstrate. The relevant question requirements will clearly indicate where professional marks are allocated in each exam and how these marks will be awarded.

As already stated, in total, four marks will be available for professional capabilities in Question 1 in each of the Strategic Professional – Options exams and split between a Section A question and a Section B question in Strategic Business Reporting. The professional marks may be available for just one part of the requirements or the entire requirements.