How to pass the APM exam (Advanced Performance Management Exam Approach)
This guide explores the exam approach needed to pass the APM and looks at the exam structure, use of models, and professional skills expected by the examining team.
Overall, the exam is 3 hours and 15 minutes.
Section A overview
Section A is a detailed scenario-based question of 50 marks, broken down into 40 technical marks and 10 professional skills marks. All the professional skills will be examined in Section A.
The professional skills tested in the Case Study question are communication, analysis and evaluation, skepticism and commercial acumen which will be covered in this article.
Section B overview
Section B is made up of two 25-mark scenario-based questions. The 25 marks are broken down into 20 technical marks and 5 professional skills marks. This section’s questions will examine a combination of professional skills relevant to the question.
Each question will examine a minimum of two professional skills from Analysis and Evaluation, Skepticism and Commercial Acumen. One of the Section B questions will come mainly from syllabus section D. However, the other Section B question can come from any other syllabus section.
Professional skills required
Four skills will be tested in the APM exam and these are:
Evaluation and analysis
In total 10 professional marks are given for the above skills demonstrated in section A.
How Models should be used in the exam
The aim of the syllabus is to apply relevant knowledge, skills and exercise professional judgment when applying strategic management accounting techniques to a client’s problems. The aim is to help an organization overcome or mitigate operational, managerial and strategic challenges that may stand in the way of achieving stated mission and goals.
The APM exam does not test your ability to define terms, describe theories, models, and management techniques or perform calculations. It’s designed to test your ability to apply your knowledge and give relevant advice tailored to the client’s stated needs.
It’s ultimately about trying to uncover how an organisation got to where it currently is, and implications for the future. The examiners have pointed out that candidates who come to the APM examination expecting to repeat memorised material will probably score only between 20% and 30%.
You will not get through this exam if you take a descriptive approach.
Think of yourself as an advisor
Compare yourself to a Medical Consultant, with the client as your patient.
The client presents you with symptoms of how the business is. It is your duty as the consultant/ advisor to look at the symptoms and give a diagnosis.
In the case of APM, you are presented with an organisation which is not functioning perfectly. The business could be a victim of changes in PEST factors, or displaying symptoms of corporate failure.
Whatever the case you are presented with, you are going into the exam as an advisor - to give solutions to the client’s problems. So as an adviser, the starting point is to understand what the problem is to avoid the misdiagnosis trap! Don’t just dive in and say, “The balanced scorecard will help!” and then start describing what the BSC is! You will not get through this exam if you take a descriptive approach.
Understand the client
It’s vital that you understand what the client wants. For the APM exam requirements are established in each paragraph in the section A Case Study question. So take your time to understand the requirement.
Once you understand the requirements, plan your answer. You can use models to structure your answer, but a detailed description of models to the client is not something that adds value. If you are going to use the PEST analysis, you can describe in a sentence what the letter P stands for, but immediately go on to apply to the scenario.
Make sure you tailor your answer to the specific requirements outlined by the client. Don’t give advice on anything that has not been requested.
The importance of communication
A key skill in a management accountant’s role is the ability to communicate issues in a clear and concise manner. Communication means - as a Management Accountant - that you need to engage well with key stakeholders.
Communication will be tested in Section A of the Exam, in the area where you are presented with a Case Study and asked to prepare a report addressing several issues to the senior management or Board of Directors.
The report should be: in the correct format, look professional, sound professional, with an appendix of any calculations or data analytics that you use in addressing issues raised. So no detailed calculations within the report itself.
The report should also use the correct language and tone for your audience. If you are writing to shareholders, they will not understand what “Minimax Regret” is, for example. So make sure your audience understands what you are communicating.
Your role is to explain what the model is and how it will address the issues raised.
If the requester of the report says not to cover a particular aspect then don’t cover it! A professional report only covers what has been requested for. Anything else is regarded as ineffective communication.
Excellent numbers and poor comments equal failure!
Skepticism in APM is all about having a questioning mind. This is the ability to continue questioning the validity of any assertions made in a given exam scenario.
So for the exam, the Board or Senior Managers may make proposals to implement Business Process Re-engineering and they have approached you for advice regarding this proposal. But as a management accountant consultant, be reluctant to agree with every proposal.
Skepticism requires you to ask the question, “Why this approach?”. It forces you to look at things with an open mind and sets you on the path to look for corroborative information from the scenario to support proposed assertions. This inquisitive approach can help you to unearth hidden agendas, or missing information, to help you challenge the stated position.
The scenarios in the exam are not set in a fantasy land. The organisations are real and so are the challenges the organisations face. So the organisation in the exam scenario will have both internal as well as external challenges to wrestle with.
In providing advice, you need to be aware about the prevailing external as well as internal circumstances, mission and organisational objectives. This awareness is the commercial acumen skill. So as a consultant your advice should be shaped by what is happening internally as well as externally. Your advice should be practical and within reason.
Your recommendations should be backed up by drawing from both the scenario and general commercial awareness. If you are suggesting ABC as an alternative costing method, bring in your knowledge on advantages of ABC and say if you decide to go ahead, there are disadvantages as well.
Analysis and evaluation
Analysis involves looking at the information given, sifting through the scenario and making a decision on what information to use in your answer. So you analyse first by looking at the information in front of you and picking up what you think is relevant for your evaluation. So analyse first, then evaluate.
Evaluation requires a balanced argument – so look at advantages and disadvantages. It also means making calculations where applicable and using them to back your argument. An evaluation should be followed by a conclusion or some form of recommendation.
Always look at the bigger picture set by the mission as this is always given to you in the exam. Try and focus less on the numbers and more on what is behind them. You can get the numbers there or thereabouts and do good comments and still pass.
Conclusions and recommendations
A good report sums up both sides of an argument and makes recommendations as to what course of action to take. So the conclusion should be concise!
Advice on using model answers
Your answer might not look anything like the “model answer”. This is because model answers are detailed marking schemes designed to cover all possible answers. So don’t get too worried if your response does not look exactly like the model answer. Finally, keep the following in the back of your mind - “What gets measured - gets done. What gets measured and fed back - gets done well. What gets rewarded - gets repeated.”