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How to Pass the ICAEW ACA Strategic Business Management (SBM) Exam

Updated: Mar 4, 2022


This article offers our top 5 tips on how to pass the ACA Strategic Business Management (SBM) exam. Written by a multiple prize-winning ACA tutor who has coached several students to also win ICAEW prizes, this is a must read for any student preparing for their SBM exam.

How to Pass the ACA SBM exam

Tip 1 – Ensure that your Financial Management (FM) and Business Strategy and Technology (BST) knowledge is at the same level as when you passed those exams

SBM examines FM, BST, Data Analysis, Financial Reporting (FR), Assurance and Ethics. In terms of technical difficulty, the FM aspects of the paper aren’t much harder than Professional Level, whereas the FR content is the same as CR. Therefore, it is strongly advised that your preparation begins with re-learning the technical content from FM and the data analysis skills from BST.

As we consider this to be such a fundamental part of SBM preparation, we provide all our SBM students with access to our FM tutorials and BST exam technique masterclasses. Our experience is that students who complete this preparatory work find the advanced SBM content much easier to understand and apply. This then enables them to focus on exam technique from an earlier stage which leads them to higher marks.

Tip 2 – Appreciate the differences between each type of SBM question and learn the optimal exam technique for each

Whilst the SBM exam only has two questions, these questions are broken down into separate sub-requirements. Sub-requirements can be broadly categorised as:

  • Financial Management Questions

  • Financial Reporting Questions

  • Data Analysis Questions

  • Business Strategy Questions

  • Assurance Questions

  • Ethics and Governance Questions

By nature, FM questions are technical and they cover the same topic areas as the Professional Level FM exam: Investment Appraisal, Financing, Valuation and Hedging.

The data analysis and business strategy questions are ‘skills based’ rather than technical and they test students' ability to absorb and analyse financial and non-financial data and combine this with various pieces of narrative information provided in the scenario.

Therefore, because the data analysis and business strategy questions are scenario based, the questions are less predictable and less repetitive across exam sittings compared with the FM and FR requirements. Having said that, the exam technique you should use does not change because the skills the examiners are testing are the same despite the scenario being different.

Having performed a detailed review of all the past SBM exam papers and mark schemes, we have developed and tested the optimal exam technique for each type of SBM exam question. As exam technique is best taught via practical application to recent past exam questions, you can view one of our SBM classes for free here.

Tip 3 – Practice several of the same question type one after another

After using lots of past SBM exams to teach our students the optimal exam technique for a particular type of SBM exam question, we send our students away to practice lots of similar questions. For example, after being taught the exam technique to use for ‘Investment Appraisal’ questions, our students then practice several other ‘Investment Appraisal’ questions.

This has the following benefits:

  • It familiarises you with how the examiners structure questions

  • It enables you to identify patterns in how each topic is examined

  • It enables you to apply the exam technique demonstrated during tuition

  • It improves your efficiency when using your open book notes

  • It enables you to identify weakness areas so that you can focus your technical learning and exam skills

  • It familiarises you with the ICAEW CBE software

  • It enables you to improve your speed so that you don’t exceed your time allocation

Our SBM Master Plan categorises all the past exam questions by topic to make it easy to practice lots of questions on the same topic. ​

Once you have mastered each topic you should then start sitting full mock exams so that you can recreate the exam experience in full.

Tip 4 – Structure your open book notes so that they can be used effectively and time-efficiently in the exam

Open book exams present both a golden opportunity and fatal time trap. The SBM exam is incredibly time pressured so any time spent looking something up in your notes is time which could have been spent typing a mark scoring point. Therefore, your open book notes need to be concise and structured in a way that you can quickly look up information should you need.

Given the technical nature of FR and FM topics, we suggest that your notes include a summary of the key technical points for each topic. As assurance requirements frequently focus on due diligence, it is advised that you also include a list of due diligence procedures.

As explained earlier, whilst the data analysis and business strategy questions tend to be scenario specific, it is a good idea to have a reminder list of the types of points to consider including.

The example below demonstrates how to do this, which is taken from our SBM Materials.

As mentioned above, any time spent looking something up in your notes is time which could have been spent typing a mark scoring point. Therefore, you should aim to build your FR and FM knowledge, as well as your exam technique skills, to the level where you use your open book notes sparingly, if at all. This will then enable you to secure marks far more easily within the tight time constraints of the exam. Personally, I only use our Open Book Notes if a very technical FM question comes up, such as annuities, futures or traded options.

Tip 5 – Bag the relatively easy ethics marks

Ethics is examined in all the ACA exams and whilst ethics questions do get harder as the ACA progresses, the ethics marks remain comparatively easier to the technical marks. A typical SBM paper includes around 8 marks for ethics which equates to 16% of the marks needed to secure a 50% passing grade. Therefore, comparatively easy ethics marks offer the opportunity to secure 16% of the marks you need to pass.

The most efficient exam strategy is to ensure that you have an exam technique which will ensure that you make the eight points needed to get maximum marks for ethics.

Need Help Passing the ACA SBM Exam?

Our SBM classroom and online courses focus on the most frequently examined technical content and demonstrate the optimal exam technique for each type of SBM question. Sample classes from the course, our SBM Open Book Notes and our SBM Master Plan can be found here.

About the Author

Kieran Doe is a Senior ACA Tutor at ACA Masters. Kieran won ICAEW prizes for his performance in Financial Accounting and Reporting, Tax, Financial Management, Audit, Business Strategy and Case Study. This is in addition to winning several prizes at university for various Accounting, Management, Business and Economics subjects.

Kieran’s tuition is based around the learning techniques and exam strategies which enabled him to win prizes for all the subjects he teaches. Under his guidance, several of his ACA students have also won ICAEW prizes.

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