I took some time today to write down the CMA exam prep tips I’ve collected over the years. I would like to thank CMA review course providers, industry experts, and my readers for sharing your tips.
How long does it take to prepare for the CMA exam? According to the Institute of Management Accountants, on average, successful candidates spend 150-170 studying per part. That is, most candidates spend at least 300+ hours for the 2-part CMA exam. However, with an efficient study plan, you can join the elite group of Certified Management Accountants.
I hope these tips help you prepare for the CMA exam in the shortest amount of time.
First of all, don’t panic. After all, preparing for the CMA exam is doable. However, you should know exactly how to prepare for the CMA exam and start with a good CMA exam prep study strategy. And then, you can reach your goal of becoming a Certified Management Accountant.
A passing score on the CMA exam is 360 out of 500. But really, you just need to pass. For instance, you don’t get any sort of special certification for getting a super high score.
So, this means that you do NOT need to maximize your score. Many readers fall into the trap of spending too much time “perfecting” one study unit before moving on, thus seriously running out of time to review the rest of the materials.
You should “optimize” instead of maximizing your CMA test preparation. Remember the 80/20 rule: set a comfortably high standard to correctly answer 80-85% of your practice test questions. Then on exam day, you’re likely to correctly answer about 80% of the questions and pass the exam.
Similarly, while you should cover all study materials, it’s okay to be confident in most but not all of the exam content. So again, you should master about 80-85% of the review material, but it’s okay if you don’t completely know the other 15-20% backward and forwards. This will save you a lot of time. And frankly, I think it takes away a lot of the stress of studying, too
It is important to pick review material that fits your own background and learning style. Although many bloggers out there give their opinions about different products, you should find test prep that is good for you, regardless of whether others say it’s good. I encourage you to:
Unless you are very tight on budget, always get the latest versions of CMA exam prep materials so you don’t need to worry about missing a few points due to outdated materials.
Creating a study plan takes time and effort and is against human nature — most candidates understand the importance of getting organized, but few actually implement their plans. That’s why so many candidates fail the CMA exam.
Basically, your goal is to list the content you still need to master, figure out when you plan to sit for the CMA exam and create a schedule to review everything in time. A good plan makes sure you don’t fall behind and are able to cover all study materials given the time you have. This will help you figure out from the beginning that you need to spend X number of hours to prepare for the CMA exam per week. Gleim CMA and HOCK CMA have excellent interactive online tools to map out a plan.
The best CMA study strategy in time management is to spread out your studying. Research has indicated that spacing out your studying time (e.g. reviewing 10 hours per week over the course of 2 months) is better than intense studying over a short period of time (e.g. 5 hours a day for three straight weeks). Our brains tend to remember content better when we engage with it for shorter bursts over longer periods of time.
Everyone has different learning patterns. However, studying in the morning is generally better than late-night cramming.
Try to practice in an environment similar to the actual exam. For example:
When you’re preparing for the CMA exam, being “effective” is different from being “efficient.” After all, an effective student can learn more and perform better given the same amount of studying time. Here are some CMA study tips in time management to consider.
Studying in an uncluttered space with minimal distractions forces you to concentrate on your studies. Plus, if you even remove your phone from your desk, you’re less likely to pick it up and get distracted.
It’s not practical to stop checking your emails, Facebook, and Twitter altogether, but you can certainly set a time of the day for that (e.g. 15 minutes each day in the morning and evening). And be strict about it—it’s too easy to get caught up in social media and waste precious study time. You will be amazed at how much concentration you can regain with this strategy.
If you insist on watching that TV show or uploading your cat photos to Facebook, think about what these will mean to you 10 years down the road. Will they get you the promotion, the dream job, and the better life for you and your family that you’ve wanted for so long? Prioritize your time based on your long-term goals instead of short-term enjoyment. This prioritization will make preparation for the CMA exam feel more valuable to you.
Getting adequate sleep is very important, so I don’t suggest cutting back your resting time for CMA exam prep. However, you can better use the time when you are awake but not physically out of bed.
I slept in a lot when I was younger. To break the habit, I started putting my alarm clock on the opposite side of my room, and I have my favorite snack ready to grab as an extra incentive. Plus, I started to note the things that I really like about getting up early, and that makes it easier to skip the snooze button. My house is quiet, no one else is awake yet to distract me from my work, and I get the coffee pot all to myself.
Once your routine is established, it is much easier to be disciplined.
Some of you may have lots of time between activities. Maybe you have to wait to pick up your kids from school, or you have a long commute home. Sometimes I have extra time between meetings, at least enough time to grab a coffee and check my emails.
With the proliferation of mobile devices, we are now able to study on the go in the form of audio reviews, streaming video instructions, or test prep apps on smartphones. These CMA exam prep tools may not work for everyone but do explore them and see if one fits your learning style. Many of my readers have succeeded with a CMA exam preparation audio video course they can access anytime, anywhere.
If everything else fails, old-fashioned 3″x5″ handwritten flashcards always work for me. I’ll even look at them in line at the grocery store. Or, print out review materials for a few days and put them in your bag or lunch tote. When you start adding short study periods to your day, it can add up to several extra hours of studying in a week.
Don’t be shy to ask for help from your partner, parents, aunts and uncles, neighborhood friends, and possibly even your colleagues. It makes them happy to feel helpful and appreciated during your CMA exam preparation.
If you have older children, it’s a perfect time to give them extra responsibility for their own personal development.
I tried bringing my daughter to the library every Saturday morning so she could read books beside me while I studied. I also flipped my flashcards when watching my little son play with his toys. Be creative to find extra time for your studies.
Multiple-choice questions (MCQs) represent 75% of the CMA exam. Therefore, the characteristics of the MCQs determine the style of the test. For example, multi-choice questions are generally used to test a wide variety of topics, but they usually don’t go deep. That is, it’s difficult to ask you to analyze a scenario in an MCQ. Because of this, you can expect the CMA exam to test a wide breadth of content.
Here are some suggestions for how to prepare for CMA exam accounting MCQs.
Your brain needs to be engaged when studying. Reading a textbook over and over is too passive, and this affects retention.
How do you engage your brain? Give it something to do! For example:
I personally find the process of reading, watching, listening, and then writing out the key points help a lot in retention vs reading the materials alone.
Any of these methods will prolong your CMA exam prep, but it’s totally worth the effort, in my opinion.
This is true for multiple-choice questions in any exam.
Examiners love to test fundamental concepts, definitions, and terms in multiple-choice questions. Therefore, make sure you understand the important terms and be able to differentiate between them and other terms.
Some CMA review courses focus a lot on mnemonics. While these are useful, don’t blindly memorize them without understanding the concepts behind them. Also, don’t rush to complete all practice questions without a good grasp of the concepts.
As one of our bloggers, Gavin, suggested, we can practice important CMA exam concepts in real business situations in our everyday work. It could be cost accounting, variance analysis, or internal controls. Just keep an open mind and find opportunities to practice your skills.
Keep in mind that there is always a correct answer hidden among the four choices in multiple-choice questions. The difficulty of the question depends on (1) whether you know the correct answer and (2) whether you get tricked by any of the wrong answers.
Candidates are busy. And given their limited available time to study, they will make an educated guess about what will be on it based on hot topics in the field. Or they will ask colleagues about what appeared on the CMA exam several years ago.
This approach is risky. Some topics like cost accounting will certainly be covered, but it doesn’t mean you can skip other seemingly off-the-track study sections. The CMA exam content changes from time to time, so do you really want to listen to someone’s advice who took it a while back? And don’t assume that just because a topic is hot in the field, it will be covered on the exam.
Instead, stick to a CMA study guide from a trusted source (click here for a helpful start.) Or, go straight to the Institute of Management Accountants for an outline of the CMA exam content. When you go to the IMA’s website, you’ll find other useful IMA CMA exam preparation materials for free.
Like I said before, time management and a good study plan (tip #3) are again very important when it comes to CMA exam preparation. Don’t waste your time trying to guess what will be on the exam.
Multiple-choice questions require a special way of preparation compared to the essay question. In each multiple-choice question, candidates are asked to identify the correct answer out of 4 possibilities.
Why MCQs are easy for some candidates:
… and at the same time, MCQs can be difficult for other candidates:
So to study for CMA MCQs, it’s important to identify our own weaknesses and directly address those during your exam prep. So, for example, if you miss questions because you pick irrelevant answers, you might not be reading the wording of the questions closely enough. Or if your brain starts to fog over toward the end of the exam, take timed practice exams until you can maintain a high concentration level through the whole thing.
It is critical to have a systematic approach to identify and keep track of incorrect answers.
Whenever you answer a question incorrectly (or answer it correctly but for the wrong reason), write down the reason for your answer choice in a notebook. Did you not know the concepts? Write down the concepts you did not know. Did you not read the fact pattern carefully? Did you misread the intent of the question? Or misread the answer choices? Make a note of that on your own cheat sheet.
Constantly review this cheat sheet. Does it reveal any patterns, such as:
You can analyze your weak areas by making these notes on your own. But some CMA review courses now have e-learning platforms or online tracking systems that identify your weaker content areas. This learning tool can help you study faster by recommending materials that will teach you what you don’t know. And you won’t be stuck re-learning content you already know. Click here for my reviews of CMA courses that have these analytical features.
The CMA exam is known for its lengthy questions and complexity. Once you are familiar with the fact pattern and style of the multiple-choice questions, try to move faster and still maintain your accuracy.
Candidates repeatedly get caught by questions they have never seen before.
With this in mind, it is very important that you practice the art of “educated guessing” when you study.
In other words, try to find the best answer by whatever means — it could be by eliminating obviously wrong answers or by relating the question to a concept you learned from work experience. This skill is going to be critical in the actual exam.
Plus, you should practice a large variety of topics. And when you’re practicing MCQs, don’t skip the questions you don’t like. It’s human nature to skim past the questions that we think are hard or irrelevant. But you won’t be able to skip them on test day, so don’t skip them when you’re practicing.
Also, don’t be afraid of the “test mode” (vs study mode) that comes in the mock exams of a lot of review courses. I don’t like the extra stress, but that’s precisely why we have to overcome it!
The most important lesson to learn from a mock exam is time management.
If you are running out of time, skip and mark anything you don’t know or don’t feel comfortable with. If time becomes an issue, the one complicated question was the one you don’t answer rather than two easy ones.
The best way to get prepared is to study all topics that will appear on the exam. Other than that, these tips can help you avoid silly mistakes and make better educated guesses on exam day.
This exam is positively graded: Even making a blind guess about the correct answer will give you a 25% chance of success. You don’t get docked for incorrect answers; you only get credit for the correct ones. Therefore, you should always aim to complete the entire section.
This is rule number 1. The multiple-choice questions in the CMA exam tend to be more lengthy and complex than other professional accounting exams. This makes time management critical. Generally speaking, you can evenly allocate 3 hours (180 minutes) to the 100 questions, which means 1.8 minutes per question.
But remember that these questions are more complicated than other MCQs you’ve seen on standardized tests. You’ll need to practice to spend only 1.8 minutes on many of the CMA MCQs.
Many candidates pick the answer that “looks correct” and rush to the next question. But sometimes, there could be a better answer than the first one you read. And don’t let “all of the above” trick you. Just because “all of the above” is used as an answer, don’t assume it’s the best choice.
Always read the four possibilities before selecting the answer.
There is no penalty for wrong answers. If you run out of time, blind guessing is better than leaving them blank.
The correct answer is hidden among the four answer choices. So, in theory, if you study well, you should be able to identify it. In reality, however, many diligent candidates fail despite spending hundreds of hours studying.
In most cases, they fall victim to the “distractors.” Here are tips on how to overcome them.
Sometimes, the available answer choices look “reasonable,” and they could do more harm than good by throwing you off and distracting you. In fact, the three incorrect answer choices are technically known as “distractors.”
You should always come up with the answer in your head before looking at the choices. If your answer matches one of the responses, then you can be certain that the particular response is correct.
Some responses may be correct but are not directly related to the question. The best answer should be both correct and relevant.
Similarly, ask yourself whether the answer you are considering completely addresses the question. Therefore, if the answer is only partly true or is true only under certain narrow conditions, then it’s probably not the right answer.
When you see words such as “always,” “every,” “never,” and “none” in the response, they are likely to be incorrect. The CMA exam covers topics in real business situations, and there are very few absolutely right or wrong situations in real life.
Watch for negatives, double negatives, and two-part statements in the stem. (Thankfully, double negatives are rare in this exam.)
In general, I don’t think the CMA exam is trying to trick you. Having said that, it’s important to note these words because they reverse the meaning of a sentence.
Again, use your common sense. If the answer choice is funny or doesn’t make sense in a real-life situation, it is probably wrong.
In cases where you aren’t sure which answer is right, you can still greatly improve your odds by eliminating implausible answers. For example, removing two of these answers improves your odds of guessing the correct answer from 25% to 50%.
If the “stem” (body of the question) ends with “an” instead of “a,” then the correct response most likely begins with a vowel.
If a response repeats the keywords used in the stem or if it is longer with more descriptive words (as if the examiner is trying to be specific about the description), it is more likely to be the correct answer.
This is helpful when you are confronted with two similar answers: If any part of a potential answer is false, then the entire answer is incorrect.
The CMA exam often tests real business situations. If everything fails or time runs out, follow your instinct and pick an answer.
Don’t dismiss a response because it seems too obvious and simple. If you are well prepared for the exam, some questions may appear very straightforward.
Similarly, don’t waste time looking for tricks and traps. Usually, they are not there.
Multiple-choice questions are all about recognizing things you have learned. If you are well prepared and you have carefully read the question answers, your first impression is often the best.
If you get stuck, try imagining each choice as the correct answer. People often “feel” that one of the answers is wrong. This happens when you are familiar with a concept but don’t have a firm grasp on it, just like you may know a person, but you can’t recall his name.
The CMA Exam is fully computerized. The system pulls a set of questions from a pool and presents them in random order. Therefore, don’t waste time looking for patterns in your answers. Don’t worry if you have checked four “C” answers in a row.
You can learn about the details here, but essays are graded using a standard scoring rubric to test your:
Therefore, what you write (the content) and how you present the content are both important.
In the actual exam, the writing is done on a simple word processor that is similar to Notepad. For essays that require a computational answer, you should create simple tables and show calculations within the word processor space provided. (The spreadsheet function is no longer available in the CMA exam.)
To avoid wasting time fixing formatting on exam day, you should find software that allows you to practice in a simulated testing environment. Gleim CMA Review and Becker CMA have such features in their online platform. Other review providers like NINJA CMA Review also include practice exams, too, so don’t skip taking them before your big exam day.
Readers often ask, “How do I prepare for CMA exam writing questions” in an efficient way. My suggestion is to pick a few multiple-choice questions and answer them as if they are essay questions.
It is best to type out the answers on a computer. And if you have the time, try to go through this exercise at least once every day. Once your brain is trained to answer questions in this format, you will no longer worry about essays in this exam.
This wasn’t an issue a few years ago, but I find more and more readers write to me using seriously broken English full of text message jargon, abbreviations, initialisms, and cyber slang. I can’t imagine how many points they lose if they write essays in this style!
Please start using proper grammar from now on so that your brain becomes (re)accustomed to business writing.
Clarity is an important part of the grading system. When you address a question, always organize your thoughts in three parts: the introduction (reflecting what has been asked in the question), the main point (your opinion or ideas), and a conclusion.
You are given some scratch paper for computational work and for organizing your thoughts on the essays. Try to write quickly but neatly. Labeling the paper with the question number will help a lot if you have the time to go back and check your work.
These tips are all about managing your psychology the night before and getting mentally prepared on exam day.
Tell yourself that it’s not the end of the world if you fail. Don’t overload your anxiety with the “what if” scenarios, such as how the failure could impact your promotion, salary raise, and job search.
Focus on things in your control and what you can do at the present. In contrast, don’t focus on things out of your control, like possibilities in the future.
On exam day, you are simply trying to:
The exam becomes a lot more manageable with these three simple and clear goals.
This is a cliché but very important CMA exam prep tip. Your brain can’t function without sufficient rest. The last thing you want to do is to cram straight for 12 hours and fry your brain cells the night before.
I understand that many self-study candidates go to exam forums to vent and look for encouragement. This is all good, but I would stop doing that a few days before the exam.
This is to avoid interacting with fellow students with “negative energy,” including those who aren’t well prepared, got too frustrated, or are about to give up. You can’t afford to have these people distracting your mental preparation.
Confidence is a critical element to your success. It helps to bring down your anxiety, which in turn improves your cognitive skills and your common sense.
| Waqar (Pakistan)
These 50 CMA exam prep tips could be overwhelming, but each pushes you closer to your passing success. Bookmark this page so you can take a look from time to time. I’m wishing you all the best on your CMA exam!
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.
Sign up below to get started: