Many aspiring CMAs with an international background dread the CMA exam essay section. The writing aspect of the exam can be daunting for many people. However, preparation is essential to reducing anxiety about the essay section.
Don’t get thrown off by the CMA essay questions. You can review and prepare yourself for this part of the exam when you know what to expect. What exactly are the examiners testing on, how are the essays graded, and how can you get a good score?
You are given 4 hours to complete the entire CMA exam. If you complete the multiple-choice questions (MCQs) in less than 3 hours, then you have the remaining time to work on the CMA essay portion. If you use the 3 full hours for the multiple-choice questions, you will have stop and move on to essay questions.
For candidates whose English is not their first language, I strongly encourage that you practice going through CMA Exam MCQs quickly, so you can allot more time for the essay portion of the exam.
However, keep in mind that there is a chance you won’t see any essay questions on your exam. Consequently, you can only move on to the CMA essays if you get at least 50% of the multiple-choice questions correct. If you do not score 50% or higher on the MCQs, your exam will end and you will need to sign up to sit for the exam again.
Each part contains 100 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and two essay scenarios.
There are two essay topics, each consisting of several questions. You may be asked to complete a business memo or to work on quantitative analysis.
You’ll add your answers to the essay questions using a simple word processor that is similar to Notepad. For those essays that require a computational response, you should create simple tables and show calculations within the word processor space provided. It is a good idea to get familiar with the testing environment before your exam day so you can gain confidence in using the essay section’s word processor.
The best exam-mimicking practice can be found in Gleim CMA Review. Their platform allows for complete emersion in the Prometric CMA exam environment so there are no surprises on exam day. CMA candidates email me daily about acing the essays, and you’ll be well on your way to completing the essay questions if you use the Gleim Premium CMA Review System.
When you reach the essay section of each part of the CMA exam, you may open the essay scenario. The essay scenario includes all the information you need to answer the question correctly. Consequently, you’ll find that the essay scenario screen will open to the left of the screen that is displaying the answer box. I highly recommend keeping your essay scenario screen open at all times, so you are sure not to miss any critical information as you answer the questions. Most exam prep courses will show you screenshots and possibly videos of this so that you know what to expect. The essay scenario screen looks like Notepad, or a similar word processing program, and it will have several features to make it easier to complete your essays.
The CMA essay scenario screen functions include:
Because you don’t want to waste precious time trying to learn how to use the various CMA exam functions, your actual exam day is the worst possible time to become acclimated with them. So, be sure to use my advice from the prior section about finding a CMA review course that emulates the CMA exam.
To answer the CMA essay questions, you will be required to write a response, or to complete a calculation related to the scenario that the exam provides you. You must read the question very carefully so you can understand the requirements and adhere to them properly. If you’re doing a calculation, it’s essential you show your work. You can get partial credit for the information you provide related to the topic, but only if you show your work!
When providing a written response, you must be as detailed as possible. You want to be concise and not use flowery language, but you also need to be comprehensive and accurate. So, mention anything that might be relevant to the topic you are writing about to help you score more points. Brainstorm and then work through your first draft so that your answer is complete, then you can go back and proofread your answer, as time allows. Because this process could take a while, especially if English is not your first language, it’s essential to get through the MCQs efficiently. Remember, if you finish up the MCQs early, you can bank that extra time for use in the essay portion of the exam.
CMA exam questions account for the following percentage of your overall score:
The essays are graded by trained subject matter experts using an approved scoring rubric to ensure objectivity and consistency. In contrast, the MCQs are graded by a computer.
So, why does the CMA exam contain essay questions?
Becoming proficient with the CMA exam content is a critical step to pass both the multiple-choice questions and the essay part of the exam. Besides reading and watching video lectures, you should spend sufficient time answering practice questions and essays. In contrast to reading and watching lectures, answering practice questions helps you apply the concepts you learned. Answering practice questions is about more than just memorizing facts. Therefore, it is most important that you learn the material in such a way that you can apply it to practical scenarios that you might face on the job.
In the Wiley CMA Course, there are 140 practice essay questions with model answers.
Similarly, the Gleim CMA Course includes hundreds of essay scenarios with detailed answer explanations. Plus, you’ll have a chance to practice typing in the answers in a simulated exam environment on your computer. This is a great way to familiarize yourself firsthand with what it will be like on the actual exam.
Knowing the CMA content-specific facts does not mean you know when and how to apply them. However, the essay questions are testing you as a way to ensure that CMAs in the workforce understand the CMA content at an application level. When you are faced with an essay question, you should:
I like to use a mind map to brainstorm as many relevant keywords as possible because the inclusion of the correct keywords can easily help you score points.
The CMA exam does not test your technical writing skills. Therefore, you should focus on simple and clear writing; this is not the time to show off how many SAT words you remember.
Instead, the ICMA is looking for your ability to express yourself clearly and logically, as it relates to the CMA material tested in the essay questions. You can find the three general principles of effective business writing below. This will help you know how to best answer CMA essay questions on exam day.
Knowing how to use proper, standard English will be essential. Use this breakdown to learn what that means for the CMA essay questions.
All words should be properly checked to avoid spelling errors and typos. Colloquial sayings, 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 your response.
Avoid writing words in capital letters and exclamation marks because exaggeration is rarely used in business writing.
Your CMA essay response should have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
The beginning should be introductory in nature and directly address the question. You can simply rewrite the question and include a summary of what you’ll discuss throughout your answer. Don’t copy directly from the question, though because copying-and-pasting is generally not a good idea.
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.
The last paragraph should be a 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 your response clearly and logically. It is essential to:
If you want to do your best on these essay questions, it’s essential you study and practice. We’ve talked about the study portion, and about what to expect on the essay portion of the exam, but let’s talk about how you can practice for it when you don’t know exactly what your essay questions will be. First, a great CMA review study course is a good place to start. I’ll give you my recommendations for that in a bit.
Also, another great way to practice for the CMA essay questions is to practice writing mini-essays on the CMA exam material. Try answering and writing just the way you would if you were taking the exam.
Let’s take a look at some questions from readers that might help you.
If a question asks about a calculation, do I need to be formal and write it out as words, or can you 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 months to get 100 dollars 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 dollars 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.
I am practicing the essay questions, but there are no excel capabilities or even a table creation function that make tabular presentations possible. Do you have any suggestions 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 our course in the supplemental videos section. This video 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.”
How realistic are the Gleim CMA essay questions? I’m asking because some are really long and have tons of calculations. Are the Gleim CMA questions harder than what I’ll see on the actual CMA exam?
Answer: In my experience, yes. Gleim CMA makes sure that you can actually apply the concepts that you’ve learned. Therefore, the Gleim questions may be more complex because they have to ensure you know how to answer questions on all the topics and derivatives thereof. I appreciate the Gleim questions are pretty tricky. If you’re like me, you may good a great feeling when you do well on the Gleim questions because that’s almost a sure sign that you understand the concept and can nail those questions on the exam.
Wiley CMA dedicates a whole chapter to essay exam study tips, examples of essay question answers, and practice essay questions and answers.
I encourage you to learn all about Wiley CMA.
Gleim CMA includes an online CMA test bank and provides sample CMA exam essay questions for every topic.
They also show you the format of your answers (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.
If you can’t decide between the two, you can use our Gleim CMA vs. Wiley CMA analysis to help inform your decision.
Don’t miss my mega-post on the ultimate CMA exam prep guide, with 50 actionable tips to help you nail the exam!
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I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley) and the publisher of this and several accounting professional exam prep sites.
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