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CMA Exam Essay Questions: Complete Guide to Ace the CMA Essays

Many aspiring CMAs with an international background dread the CMA exam essay questions. The writing aspect of the exam can be daunting for many people. This is especially true if English is not your first language. However, some CMA preparation for the essays can help you reduce your anxiety about the written section.

Don’t get thrown off by the CMA essay questions. You can review for the CMA essays and prepare yourself for this part of the exam once you know what to expect. What exactly are the examiners testing, how are the essays graded, and how can you get a good score?

CMA Exam Structure

You have 4 hours to complete each part of the 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 essay portion. If you use the full 3 hours for the multiple-choice questions, you will have stop and move on to essay questions.

For candidates whose first language isn’t English, I strongly encourage you to 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 if you do poorly on the MCQs. In fact, you can only move on to the 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.

The CMA exam has two parts:

  • Part 1: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics
  • Part 2: Strategic Financial Management

Each part contains 100 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and two essay scenarios. Each scenario has several short-answer questions that accompany it.

CMA Exam Format for Essays

There are two possible essay topics or scenarios, each consisting of several questions. You may be asked to complete a business memo or to work on a quantitative analysis.

You’ll add your answers to the essay questions using a simple word processor that is similar to Notepad. For 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 program before your exam day so you can gain confidence in using the essay section’s word processor.

The most accurate exam-mimicking practice can be found in Gleim CMA Review. Their platform allows for complete immersion in the Prometric virtual 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.

cma essay scenario

Essay example

CMA Essay Scenario Screen

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 questions correctly. Consequently, you’ll find that the essay scenario window will open to the left of the window that is displaying the answer box. I highly recommend keeping your essay scenario window open at all times, so you don’t 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. To repeat, the essay scenario window 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 the following: 

  • Zoom – Using the “+” and “-” buttons, you can make the text bigger or smaller, as needed
  • Navigate – You can use “>”  or “<“ to help you navigate throughout the pages of the essay scenario
  • Scroll – The gray scrollbar on the right side of the screen will help you scroll up and down the page
  • Grab – To “grab” the page, click and hold the left mouse button, and then drag the page in any direction
  • View page thumbnails – Use the green button with the double rectangle icon (top left) to see all pages as thumbnails
  • View table of contents – Use the green button with the “bookshelf” icon (top right) to view the essay scenario as a table of contents

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. Thus, be sure to use my advice from the prior section about finding a CMA review course that emulates the actual exam.

How to Answer CMA Essay Questions

To answer the CMA exam essay questions, you must write a response or 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 avoid flowery language, but you also need to be comprehensive and accurate. Therefore, 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 essay answer

Example of how to format a quantitative answer on the CMA essay section

CMA Essay Grading System

CMA Essay Points vs. MC

The two types of CMA exam questions account for the following percentage of your overall score:

  • MCQs: 75%
  • Essays: 25%

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.

Why does the CMA exam contain essay questions?

This part of the exam is meant to test your:

  1. Knowledge of the exam content
  2. Ability to apply concepts in real business situations
  3. Ability to write clearly and logically

1. Knowledge of Exam Content

Obviously, 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. In addition to reading and watching video lectures, you should spend sufficient time answering practice questions and essays. Unlike 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 16 exclusive CMA 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.

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. However, the essay questions help ensure that CMAs in the workforce understand the CMA content at an application level. When you are faced 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 to use in your responses

I like to use a mind map to brainstorm as many relevant keywords as possible because the inclusion of the correct keywords helps you score points.

3. Ability to Write Clearly and Logically

The CMA exam does not test your vocabulary 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.







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How to Best Answer CMA Exam Essay Questions

Use of Standard English

Knowing how to use proper, standard English will be essential. It’s the same style you’d use for any American academic or business writing. Use this breakdown to learn what that means for the US CMA essay questions.

(i) Correct Spelling

All words should be properly checked to avoid spelling errors and typos. You shouldn’t use colloquial sayings, slang, and text-message words or abbreviations.

Acronyms 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. The graders want to know that you understand what these acronyms stand for.

cma essay answer example

An example of how you can format your CMA exam answers for qualitative questions.

(ii) Proper Punctuation

Avoid writing words in all caps (LIKE THIS) and exclamation marks. This rule applies to most business writing anyway, so the same goes for your essay answers. Show emphasis, if necessary, by using your words, not your punctuation.

Organization

Your CMA essay response should have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

(i) Beginning Paragraph

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. Here’s an example:

Question: “Explain why there is a difference in net income between variable costing and absorption costing.”

Answer: “There is a difference in net income between variable costing and absorption costing because…”

(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 credit can be given. That is, 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 a short conclusion, typically with a couple of sentences summarizing the ideas presented in the middle paragraph.

Clarity

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:

  • Read the question carefully to make sure you understand what is being asked
  • Double-check that your ideas do not contradict themselves

How to Practice for the CMA Essay Questions

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. You can turn MCQs into essay questions by writing out your answers and checking them against the written explanations. Try answering and writing just the way you would if you were taking the exam.

cma essay practice

Practice using exam mimicking software. Here’s an example where multiple windows within the essay section are open at the same time.

Readers’ CMA Exam Essay Questions

Let’s take a look at some questions from readers that might help you.

Question #1

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.

Question #2

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 [you] use[d] 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.”

Question #3

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 essays for CMA review may be more complex because they have to ensure you know how to answer questions on all the topics and subtopics. I actually appreciate that the Gleim questions are pretty tricky. If you’re like me, you may feel proud and well-prepared when you do well on the Gleim CMA exam simulation. That’s almost a sure sign that you understand the concept and can nail those questions on the real exam.

Learning Tools

Gleim CMA Review Mega Test Bank & Complete Course

Gleim CMA includes an online CMA test bank and provides sample CMA essay questions for every topic. They also show you how to 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 these two, you can use our Gleim CMA vs. Wiley CMA analysis to help inform your decision.

CMA Exam Sample Essay Questions

The following essay questions examples come from the Institute of Management Accounting itself. You can find a PDF containing these questions as well as more CMA sample questions here.

The sample CMA essay question for part 1 gives an example scenario of a month’s worth of figures for a family-owned business called Brown Printing. There are then six questions for you to answer in your essay.

Screenshot of IMA's sample essay question for CMA exam part 1

A sample essay question for part 1 of the CMA exam

Similarly, the sample CMA part 2 essay question gives you the scenario of four projects under consideration by a fictitious company called Grandeur Industries. You will then need to answer five questions about these projects.

Screenshot of the IMA's sample essay question for part 2

A sample essay question for part 2 of the CMA exam

Fortunately, the same document also provides CMA essay examples that fully and correctly answer the questions. Download the PDF to see what good answers looks like. Note the length of the answers, the standard English phrasing, and the shown work for the calculations

CMA Essay Tips

Here are some general tips to help you get through the essay questions.

Know your formulas. Use them to calculate what you need to before you begin to write.

Read the entire question before answering. Get an idea of the scope of what the question is asking you.

Pay attention to verbs. The questions will give you a hint how to answer based on what verb begins the sentence. Here are some common verbs: define, compare/contrast, calculate, examine, analyze, interpret, or apply. Make sure your answer fulfills the specific verb. That is, don’t spend time calculating if you’re supposed to be analyzing.

Show your work. I repeat this to emphasize it – even if you get the final answer wrong, you may be able to get some points if you show how you arrived at that answer.

Use your scratch paper. Don’t try to do everything in your head. Do, however, try to keep your handwritten notes somewhat neat, as you will need to type up your calculations to show your work. Refer back to the PDF of sample answers.

If you begin to run out of time, use an outline or bullet points. Remember, your goal is to include as many relevant points as possible. Never leave a question completely blank.

Don’t waste time formatting. As long as your writing itself is clear, it doesn’t have to look pretty to score points.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some more general CMA essays questions.

What should I study for the CMA essays?

Studying for the essay portion is less about specific topics than it is about applying your knowledge of those topics. Make sure you know how to perform important calculations. Also know how and why those calculations are used.

What are typical essay questions on the CMA exam?

Unfortunately, there’s really no such thing as a typical essay question, as they’re all different. However, familiarize yourself with the actions that the questions will ask you to complete: define, compare/contrast, calculate, examine, analyze, interpret, or apply

If you get to the CMA essays, does that mean you will pass?

If you get to the CMA exam essay questions, all that means is you have scored at least 50% on the MCQs. However, if you don’t get to the essays, that means you haven’t passed.

For the CMA, can I fail multiple choice and go on to the essay anyway?

No. If you don’t pass the MCQ portion of the test, you will not even be able to look at the essay questions. Your test ends there.

Can you pass the CMA exam without doing well on the essays?

Yes, it is possible to do so well on the MCQs that you don’t need to pass the essay portion to pass the whole thing. However, it is never a good idea to make this your test-taking strategy! Since the essays don’t penalize you for wrong answers, only award you with points for the right answers, think of them as opportunities to increase your MCQ score.

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!

Also, you’ll want to sign up and receive my 10-day e-course with study planning strategies and test-taking tips for the CMA exam!

Join us if you want to get tips on how to plan,
study and pass your CMA exam… on your first attempt!

About the Author Stephanie Ng

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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