Episode 7 – The Best CMA Exam Prep Secrets By IMA’s Vice President

CMA Exam Prep
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In this episode of The CMA Show, I have a very special guest who will reveal the best kept CMA exam prep secrets. This impressive man has 23 years experience with the IMA, is a certified management accountant, certified financial manager, as well as a certified association executive.

Impressive resume, right!

Read Full Transcript of this Episode

Nathan: Hello, CMA candidates. This is The Free CMA Exam Mastery Course. Thank you so much for joining me today. And in case you didn't know, I'm giving away 100 copies of my book, "The Ultimate Guide to the CMA Exam." To get your free copy, all you have to do is go to cmaexamacademy.com/guide to download your copy, and use coupon code (listen to the episode to get your coupon code) at checkout to claim a 100% discount. And there's no catch, but like I said, there are only 100 copies available. So if you act today, you will get yours.

So in today's episode, I'll be interviewing a very special guest, Dennis Whitney. Dennis is the Senior Vice President at the Institute of Management Accountants for the past 23 years, guys, 23 years. So we definitely want to talk to him today. He is a Certified Management Accountant, a Certified Financial Manager, and a Certified Association Executive. I'm very excited to have him on the show today because we are going to dive into questions and answers about the exam itself. Dennis, welcome to the show.

Dennis: Thank you, Nathan. I'm very happy to talk with you today, and I look forward to helping prospective CMA candidates learn more about the CMA program so that they can advance their career.

Nathan: It's great to have you here with us, Dennis. But before we start, could you tell us a little bit about your role and what you do over at the IMA?

Dennis: Sure. My role is to manage the CMA program in its entirety. That means I'm responsible for making sure that the exam is the highest quality, and that I maintain the integrity of the program. So I'm involved in setting up the standards of the program. I work very closely with our Board of Regions, which is a committee that oversees the program. And I work on supervising the development of the exam itself, the exam questions, reviewing the results of the exam including the reliability and validity statistics as well as the pass rates. And then in addition, I have a role in helping to grow the program. So I would get involved in business development, travelling the world, speaking to CMAs, CMA candidates, and prospective candidates to answer their questions, and help them in their careers. In addition, I'm involved in setting the strategy for the CMA program and IMA itself.

Nathan: Excellent. Excellent, Dennis. Thank you. So today, I've compiled a list of questions CMA candidates asked me over the years. And you're actually the perfect and ideal person to ask these questions to because of your experience and your role over at the IMA. So are you ready to get started?

Dennis: Sure.

Nathan: Excellent. So let's start with the first question. So Dennis, how is the CMA exam structured?

Dennis: The CMA exam is a two-part exam. Part one is financial reporting, planning, and control. And part two is financial decision making. Each part is four hours long with a hundred multiple choice questions and two essay questions. And they're given on computer testing sites, Prometric testing sites all around the world, and pretesting windows, January - February, May - June, and September - October.

Nathan: Excellent. And how is the multiple choice questions section versus the essay section graded?

Dennis: The multiple choice section is computer-graded. We have an algorithm that grades the questions, and it's worth 75% of the score. So the answers are either correct, or they're incorrect. As part of those hundred questions, however, 10 questions are unscored. The reason for that is before we actually put a question in live as a scored item, we pretest it to make sure it's a good question. So we gather statistics on the question and evaluate the reliability of the question.

So for example, in general you would expect the better candidates to get a question right. And if we look at the statistics and we're finding that the correlation between the high scorers and the correct answer on the question is not too good, then maybe there's something wrong with the question. Maybe it's not as clear as we thought it was or there's an alternate answer. So then we do further research, and we might decide to take that question out of the question bank.

Nathan: Okay.

Dennis: So those 90 questions though are scored automatically by the computer. And then the essay questions are a little more complex to grade because we have to get human graders involved. And that's a very labor intensive process. It takes time.

Nathan: I can imagine.

Dennis: Because we want to make sure that it's very high quality. But we do what's called sample scoring. So we grade a sample of the questions, and to make sure that there are no other possible ways of looking at the question, that the grading guide that we create works for the question. Then we make some adjustments and we start what we call "production grading".

We go through all the grading, and at the same time, another reviewer is looking at the papers to make sure of the accuracy of the grading. And then when all the grading is done, we go through another process which we call "marginal review". And the reason why we do that is we want to make sure for those candidates who were right at the borderline of passing who just missed by a few points, we want to make sure that the papers were graded at the highest quality level. So we go through and we grade all of those papers.

And then when that process is done, we combine the scores of the essays with the multiple choice. We have our psychometricians, who are specialists at testing — basically statisticians — to scale the scores on a scale with 360 as passing and 500 as a perfect score. So it's a scientific process, and we're very confident in the reliability and validity of the scores when they do get released.

Nathan: And when a candidate goes into the testing center and takes the exam, I know that they need to have a certain score in order to move to the essay section from the multiple choice section. What is that grade?

Dennis: Yes, they need to get 50% of the questions correct before they go on to the essays. And the reason we do that is if you don't score at least 50%, there's no way that you can pass. So to go on to the essays, it really is not a good use of the candidate's time nor good use of our grader's time so we just end the exam right there.

Nathan: And by 50%, you mean 50% of the 100 questions or of the 90 questions?

Dennis: Of the 90 scored questions.

Nathan: Okay, so that will be 45 questions. Okay, so for candidates, if you score 45 questions correctly, or if you get 45 questions correctly in the multiple choice section, you will move forward to the essay section.

Dennis: All right.

Nathan: Okay. Excellent. Awesome. All right, now the next question I get asked a lot is which sections of the textbook should a candidate focus his or her time on the most while studying for the exam?

Dennis: Well, the answer to that really depends on the candidate's background, what their strengths and weaknesses are. If you're an accounting major in school, which most of our candidates are, I find that they have the most difficulty with the finance section in part two, because it's a little more mathematical. It's a little different from accounting, although of course closely related. So that's the topics I would focus on in part two.

In part one, even though it's a small section of the exam, it's only 15%, the financial reporting part...a lot of management accountants, once they get into business, they're not doing a lot of financial reporting so they forget all those rules, the GAAP rules or the IFRS rules. So I think there they need to review that section a little more than the other sections.

Nathan: Okay. Now, the essays stressed out so many candidates right? Because it comes to...they don't know how exactly they'll be graded. So what would you say are the best exam strategies to tackle essays?

Dennis: Yeah. In fact, in my opinion, candidates should have a good view of the essays because here is an opportunity to get partial credit. In the multiple choice section, you're either right or you're wrong even though you may have been close, but there's no way for the grader to see that, so you're either right or you're wrong. In the essay section, you can get partial credit. So you might have, let's say, a capital budgeting question and you set out your response, but you make a silly mistake in your calculator and so you finally get your NTV...your Net Present Value calculation is wrong.

The logic is right, but you just made an addition error. You put the wrong number in the calculator. You can still get maybe even all the points because as long as you showed all your work, and showed the steps you went through, the grader will know that, okay, this person does know how to do this, so we're going to give them all the points in the grading guide. So that's a great benefit.

Nathan: Absolutely.

Dennis: Yeah. So partial credit or full credit even if you make an addition error. So I think the candidates should be positive about it. In terms of the writing, they should try to be clear and concise, and answer the question as thoroughly as they can.

Sometimes, candidates are too concise. They'll just put one word as the answer. They should try to show the grader that they know a little more about the topic, and give a reason for their response.

Nathan: These are essays after all, right?

Dennis: Exactly. Exactly, so you do want to express yourself. And we do give a couple of points for your ability to write well. That doesn't mean you have to be like an English major, but a professional accountant should be able to write a clear, concise memo to their boss, explaining why they're recommending this particular course of action.

Nathan: Yeah, so definitely a skill that every accountant needs. Given that the designation is global, and there are many candidates who take the exam and English is their second language, do graders see that on their writing and take that into account or no?

Dennis: Yes. First of all, I have the greatest respect for people who take this exam and English is not their first language. Because learning the material itself is difficult, but when it's not in your strongest language, it must be particularly difficult...particularly the speed of reading the questions and then having to create a response in English, I certainly understand the challenge, and the graders do, too.

So in terms of the response for getting the essays correct or incorrect, the graders will look past the English to see if they got the question correct. If they answered it correctly, they'll get the full points. When they'll be penalized is that at the end of the grading guide, there's two points that we allocate to writing. And if the writing is really bad, they wouldn't get those two points. But in terms of getting the majority of the points, the grader is not going to look at their writing ability. They're going to look at whether they answered the question correctly or not.

Nathan: Okay. That's really good to know.

Dennis: But they're not going to check for spelling and everything like that.

Nathan: Okay, very good. How many questions are in an essay section of the exam?

Dennis: It varies, but generally it's between four and six questions. So for example, there'd be a scenario, and there might be a question on identify some strengths and weaknesses, explain your answer, maybe do a short calculation, let's say CAPM, the capital asset pricing model. There might be a short question, and then maybe a couple of other questions trying to elicit a more qualitative, non-quantitative response. So generally about close to five or six questions.

Nathan: Okay, five or six questions. How long do they have to complete the section?

Dennis: They have an hour. Each one is half, but we try to allocate a half hour to each one. But if you finish one sooner, then you have more time for the next one.

Nathan: Right, right. Okay, good to know. On the multiple choice questions section, I know there are three hours total, right? Three hours to answer those 100 questions. What would be the best exam strategies for tackling MCQs or multiple choice questions?

Dennis: Well, time management is key. So you definitely don't want to spend too much time on any one question. A lot of candidates think that the long difficult questions must be worth more points, but they're not. Each question is worth the same. So if you get to a question where you're struggling, take an educated guess. Chances are you're able to eliminate at least one, probably two responses.

Take an educated guess, and then mark the question. Within the software at the Prometric test sites, there's a button at the bottom that says "Mark" so you could mark the question, and then you can come back to it later. The worst thing that could happen to you is that you're spending time on questions and then you run out of time. And it could be that the last five questions were the ones that were easiest to you. So you want to make sure you answer the questions that are easiest to you first.

Get through those hundred questions, and then you can come back and tackle the more difficult ones. And you know what? No one gets a hundred, so don't worry if you're going to miss a couple of questions. It's not the end of the world. Just go on to the next one.

Nathan: Okay, very good. So did you hear that, guys? Answer the easy questions first, and then come back to the ones that look more difficult or that are more difficult for you. Because they all weigh the same as far as scoring goes.

Dennis: Exactly.

Nathan: Very good. What are the prerequisites or qualifications in accountant or anyone who's looking to become a CMA that he or she must have to actually become a CMA, besides passing the exams?

Dennis: Okay. Besides passing the exams, the CMA should have two years of management accounting or financial management experience. That's a pretty broad experience, everything from staff accountant to CFO. Most people are financial analysts, senior accountants, roles like that. So experience, and then they have to have the education requirement which is a bachelor's degree. And the bachelor's degree does not have to be in accounting. Most of the degrees are, but there are people with finance degrees, economics degrees, general business degrees who take the exam as well.

Nathan: Okay. Now, regarding the work experience requirement, the two-year requirement, is that consecutive years in management accounting or can it be like...

Dennis: Generally consecutive, but we evaluate it on a case by case basis.

Nathan: Okay, good. Good to know.

Dennis: Yeah, because we know some people have different things that happened in their life, and they need to take time off or they get laid off or they're involved with starting a new family. So we evaluate that on a case by case basis and try to be understanding.

Nathan: Okay. Very, very cool. All right, because I get asked that question a lot, too. Because I do see people who email me a lot and asked me, "Nathan, I have experience of one year here, but then there was a gap. And I did three more years later, or actually a year and a half later. Do I qualify?"

Dennis: Yeah, that's probably going to qualify.

Nathan: Okay, very good. What would be your advice for people who are looking to take the exam for the very first time?

Dennis: Well, first of all, make sure that you set the goal. When you make that decision, it should be that you're definitely making the decision. You're going to sit for the exam at a particular time. So in fact, if you can, I would even register and select your exam date and time. So this way you have a goal to work for. And then create yourself a study schedule. Work backwards and how much time you think you need to study. And plan it out. Everybody is different, but whether that's two hours a day and some extra hours on the weekend. But also give yourself time off because you don't want to overdo it. You want to reward yourself for the progress you're making. You want to keep up the energy. But planning is key; doing a lot of practice questions.

It's one thing to sit and hear a lecture and say, "Oh, okay. Yeah, I think I understand that." And then when you see the questions, you say, "Oh, geez. I forget how to do that." You want to do a lot of practice questions. So this way, when you get into the test, you see a question, and boom, right away. Okay, I know what they're asking. I know how to answer this and you can go at it right away. So practice is key, setting a plan or goal, and working with someone like yourself to get...for help, for motivation, it's also helpful, working with other students, getting everybody involved and helping each other, encouraging each other.

Nathan: Yeah, peer support is so important.

Dennis: Peer support, yup.

Nathan: What is the current exam pass rate?

Dennis: The pass rate worldwide is...just for part one 35%, and for part two over the last year it was 52%. Now, that's the global pass rate. It differs by region. In the US, it's a little higher because English is the first language. In the Middle East, it's lower because English is not the first language. And so the pass rates in the Middle East are about 10 points lower, and in the US and Europe it's about 10 points higher. In the Asia Pacific, it's in the middle of those. They are higher than the published pass rates.

Nathan: Okay. I know that CMA is relatively new in China. How are you seeing the CMA designation being accepted over there?

Dennis: It's showing great level of acceptance in China. We offer the exam in both English and Simplified Chinese. And over the last year, we've given close to 10,000 exams in China. We have certified over 6,500 CMAs in China now,and it's definitely the fastest growing market for us. So we're seeing 25%-30% growth rate over there; definitely showing strong rate, growth rate in both the English and Chinese language exam.

That makes sense. It's a market that's still relatively new, growing fast. And they need the skills of the management accounting, the skills of being able to identify new opportunities, those insight skills, the foresight skills of projecting Transcription by www.speechpad.comthe future, right? But at the same time, they need the control and management skills to make sure that the growth, the value of creation is sustainable. So the skills that we test is very, very important for China and throughout the world.

Nathan: Definitely. Are you guys looking to translate the exam into Arabic, for example?

Dennis: At the current time, we're not. We have looked into that, but when we do the research in terms of the demand for an exam in Arabic, it's not that strong, or at least it's mixed. Things like many more people in the Middle East prefer the exam in English.

Nathan: Oh, is that right?

Dennis: Yeah, and I think the reason for that is it helps them show prospective employers that they have Business-English skills, which is in high demand in the region. So for that reason, they prefer to take it in English. But there are people who would, I think, prefer it in Arabic but the demand is not strong enough yet for us to warrant the investment.

Nathan: Right. Okay, okay. Now, there's part one and part two. So who would you say should take part one first versus part two of the exam, and vice versa?

Dennis: Well, it definitely depends on where you feel you have the most strength. For most accounting majors, they're going to feel more comfortable with part one. So I would recommend they take part one. Someone who's a finance major, they're probably going to feel more comfortable with part two, so for them I would recommend part two.

You'd probably noticed when I quoted the pass rates that the pass rate for part two is higher. That doesn't mean necessarily that it's easier than part one. What happens is most people, because it's logical, and because most of us are accountants, we start with part one first, right? But there's a weaning off process, the people who...some people give up after they can't pass part one. And then the better candidates go on to part two, so it makes sense that the pass rate for part two is higher because the better candidates in general are taking part two.

However, I don't think it necessarily means that the material is any easier than part one. It really depends on your background.

Nathan: Okay. So accounting majors consider part one first. Finance majors consider part two first.

Dennis: Yes, but that would be my advice.

Nathan: Right, that's a guideline. And then I'm sure candidates can take a look at the learning outcome statement for each part and decide which part would be easier for them.

Dennis: Exactly.

Nathan: Yeah, but it's good to have some sort of guideline to go off of. All right, so let's say a candidate studied for three months for, say, any of the parts, and takes exam and finds out that he or she failed. What should be the next steps of this candidate? What would he or she do?

Dennis: Well, the first thing to do is to look at the performance report that we'll send them out, which shows how they did in each section, and to get a feel for where they think they need to focus their studies. And then they should evaluate the approach they took the last time whether they think, did they really study enough, did they spend enough time doing practice questions, was the review material they had really the best for them. So reevaluate the course of action that they took, and if they feel okay with what they did but they just need a little extra, then certainly don't get discouraged. Many people have failed, and it's really not a bad reflection on the individual. It could be a lot of reasons.

Sometimes people get nervous taking a test and so they're not going to perform their best. Other times maybe they were just a little...didn't feel well that day, or they go a little uncomfortable, their first time taking a computerized test, or maybe they just missed it by a few points. So if you're close, you should feel encouraged. That means that you just need a little extra studying.

The worst thing to do is to give up. The best thing to do is to just study more, do some more practice questions, talk to your peers or if you have an instructor, and get ready to take it again, and never give up. If you have a goal, you've just got to keep working toward the goal.

Nathan: I like that, Dennis. Never give up, guys. Never give up. If you really want to become a CMA, it can be hard at times, but if you don't give up you will get there.

Dennis: Absolutely.

Nathan: Dennis, is there an option to request a regrade of an exam?

Dennis: Yes, there is. If you feel that you want to have your exam regraded by someone who is not involved in the process, we have that option. You just send us an email making that request. There's a fee for that. I can't remember the Transcription by www.speechpad.comexact fee, but there is a fee. And we will send it out to have it regraded, and just to make sure that the grade is what it should be.

Nathan: Now, the passing grade is 360. Correct?

Dennis: Yes.

Nathan: So what's the range of a score below 360 that a candidate should consider a regrade?

Dennis: If you got from 340 to 350, then I think that's something you could consider a regrade. If it's much below that, maybe a 330, but if it's much below that, then the chances of being passed are very slim.

Nathan: Okay, that's really good to know. Okay. So this the last question I have for you today, Dennis. Thanks again for taking the time to answer all these questions. And the question really is wide open. Is there anything you'd like to share about the exam that we haven't covered yet?

Dennis: Just that it's a wonderful opportunity for you for a couple of reasons. One, no matter what your background, you're going to learn a lot. You're going to develop skills that you'll be able to use on the job, to bring back onto the job, to help your company grow, and will help in your career; not only in your current job, but to get new jobs, new promotions. So you're going to develop new skills, and then you're eventually going to earn a credential that's a global passport that you can use all around the world.

So it's a great decision. You do have to make that decision because it's a sacrifice, but anything worthwhile in life requires effort. So you have to make that goal...

Nathan: Amen to that.

Dennis: Right, and you'll get there.

Nathan: Absolutely.

Dennis: Make your mind up, you'll get there.

Nathan: I appreciate you stopping by so much, Dennis. Where can listeners find more about you and the CMA designation?

Dennis: On our website. Go to imanet.org and click on the certification section, and you'll find all you need to know about the CMA program. And if anybody has any questions, feel free to email me at dwhitney@imanet.org. And my last name is spelled W-H-I-T-N-E-Y.

Nathan: Awesome. I'll definitely add that email and those links to the show notes for people to go and reference to. Thanks again for stopping by and answering all our questions about the CMA exam, Dennis.

Dennis: Sure. Happy to talk to you today, Nathan.

Nathan: Well, that was the show for today. I hope this episode answered your questions about the exam and how to best tackle it. If you have additional questions, you can reach out to Dennis. He shared his email address. And if you would like to reach out to me as well, you can do that. My email is nathan@cmacoach.com.

Thank you for joining Dennis and myself today as we dive into what the CMA exam is and how you can prepare to pass on your first attempt. And lastly, if you are on your iPhone, please go to cmaexamacademy.com/review, and leave a review of the show in iTunes. It'll mean the world to me, and it'll help the show tremendously. And if you happen to be on an Android phone, go to cmaexamacademy.com/stitcher, and leave a review there as well, and you'll help us spread the word about the show, and help others learn about the CMA designation.

There's a lot more episodes coming soon, guys, a lot more. So I don't want you to miss out on any of them. And if you don't want to miss out, subscribe to the show in iTunes, or in Stitcher and you'll be notified when a new episode is published. And before I sign off, remember to dream big and realize your full potential by becoming a certified management accountant starting today. Until next time.


Dennis Whitney is the Senior Vice President of the Institute of Management Accountants and has heaps of knowledge to share with us about how to CMA exam prep. The advice and information he shares in this episode are truly invaluable to future CMA candidates, so let’s dive right in.

To listen in, click the play button at the top of the page, download this in iTunes or listen on Stitcher.

Like what you hear? Give us a 5-star rating or leave a review!

Here’s What You’ll Learn in this Week’s Episode:

  • A deeper look into what he actually does for the IMA
  • An insider look into the CMA exam structure and why it has been created this way
  • Which sections of the textbook candidates should focus their studying on
  • Strategies for tackling the essay section of the exam
  • How to pass the essay section if English is not your first language
  • Dennis’ top tip for crushing the multiple choice questions section
  • The prerequisites you must fulfill in order to become a CMA
  • Dennis’ advice for those about to take the exam for the first time
  • How the CMA is expanding globally and what we can expect from it in the future
  • When to consider asking for a regrade on your exam score


  • CMACoach.com — The most comprehensive online resource for CMA candidates
  • The Ultimate Guide to the CMA Exam — Listen in for your FREE download discount code
  • CMAExamAcademy.com — The best online, Instructor-led CMA review course
  • Get in touch with Dennis Whitney — email him at dwhitney@imanet.org
  • IMAnet.org — learn more about the CMA

Like what you heard? Be sure to share it with your friends, family or coworkers and join me for brand new episodes every week.



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8 Comments on “Episode 7 – The Best CMA Exam Prep Secrets By IMA’s Vice President”

  1. Pingback: The Institute of Management Accountants - CMA Exam Academy

  2. Pingback: CMA Exam Essay Questions - Everything You Must Know

  3. Episode 7 is the most informative of the first seven podcasts. I highly recommend potential
    CMA Candidates listen to this podcasts. The podcast provided exam information. Thanks Dennis and Nathan.

  4. Highly informative session 🙂 Got to know many things like “how to approach the exam” , ” what to expect” and how will be the correction of Essay Questions , Awesome 🙂

      1. It’s an amazing episode, thank you for making every thing clear.
        I just want to ask a question, what do you think about taking both exams at the same window, separated by 2 or 3 weeks for example?

        1. It’s my pleasure, Khalid. I’m glad you enjoyed this episode 🙂

          I usually advise my students to focus on one part per exam window so they don’t feel overwhelmed and thus increase their chances of passing.

          But if you have extensive accounting/finance background and can devote around 20-25 hrs/week to your exam prep, this can be an achievable goal for you. I’ve seen students pass both parts within one exam window, so it’s totally possible 🙂

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