ACCA F9 is a paper most ACCA students struggle with… but it needn’t be. It’s much less complex than you probably think. We sat down with expert tutor Steve McCormick and ask him for his top tips on how to pass ACCA F9.

From the type of questions you should expect to the common mistakes you should avoid, this is everything you need to know to pass ACCA F9.

If you’re sitting ACCA F9, this is for you.

Introducing… ACCA F9 Expert Steve McCormick

LS: Steve, hi! Thanks for making time to chat; it’s very much appreciated.

S.M: Not a problem. If this helps somebody somewhere earn those extra marks and pass ACCA F9, it’s been a good morning for me!

LS: Well, the pass rates for ACCA F9 hover around 40% each year. There’s obviously still a way to go to help more students pass ACCA F9.

S.M: Definitely. Students are unlikely to have had much practical experience on most areas of the paper, which means it can be difficult to contextualize their understanding.

ACCA F9 is fundamentally about managing the finances of a company. Except it’s not about the daily tasks an accountant would do. It’s not about producing accounts or dealing with auditors – it’s more about the behind-the-scenes knowledge.

LS: Behind-the-scenes?

S.M: It’s calling on wider knowledge about financial decision-making.

ACCA F9 is about decision making

(Source) ACCA F9 centres on wider financial decision making.

Financial management is about trying to control a situation, to guide it towards an acceptable outcome. ACCA F9 rests on the assumption that the ‘acceptable outcome’ you want is to increase the wealth of your shareholders.

…ACCA F9 tests you on the series of analyses and decisions you might make to increase the wealth of your shareholders…

So that’s what you’re looking to do. That’s the main premise, and ACCA F9 tests you on the series of analyses and decisions you might make with that end in mind. How much should we pay shareholders? How should we grow the share price? Where does the money come from? What types of investment should we be considering?  

ACCA F9 is a very broad paper, so there are lots of topics you aren’t expected to be an expert on. Many of the topics cover areas that would have a dedicated specialist in the real world.

You might be tested on the economic environment, for example, but you’re not expected to be an economist. You need to know about Islamic Finance, but to actually be an actual Islamic Finance expert would take several years.

Mergers and acquisitions are another good example. Unless you go on to specialize in M&A later in your career, you’re unlikely to ever have to lead M&A activity without calling in a specialist. To pass ACCA F9 you need to demonstrate that you know enough, but you’re not expected to be an expert.

LS: Would it be fair to say that ACCA F9 is a fairly generalist paper?

S.M: Yes, it is. I often say to my students, knowledge is often about knowing what you don’t know. So, let’s come back to mergers and acquisitions. ACCA F9 is testing whether you know when an acquisition might be appropriate and how you might value a company you planned to acquire, for instance. It’s that level of knowledge.

…ACCA F9 is a fairly generalist paper, so you don’t need to know the ins and outs of specialist areas but you need to know what the issues are, so you can identify when you need an extra level of specialist support….

You don’t need to know the ins and outs; but you need to know what the issues are, so you can identify when you need an extra level of specialist support.

ACCA F9 doesn’t give you those specialist skills. Someone studying F9 might become fascinated with an area of the syllabus and can then go on to specialize, but F9 isn’t going to get them there.

LS: So students need to know a little about a lot, to pass ACCA F9?

S.M: You probably could say that!

A big piece of advice to ACCA F9 students would be to keep it simple. Often students start from the perception that these are professional exams and professional exams are tough – so they assume that only complicated answers will do.

They get carried away, and write long, complicated answers trying to prove their in-depth understanding of a topic. As I said, remember that you don’t need to be an expert to pass ACCA F9!

…to pass ACCA F9 students need to keep it simple! Don’t assume complicated answers are needed just because this is a professional exam…

Some students will automatically think it must be more complicated because the answer does seem obvious, but that’s not the case. It only seems obvious to you because of your knowledge. It’s like, there are parts of brain surgery that are “common sense” if you’re a brain surgeon – what’s obvious, or common sense, to one person isn’t to others.

So don’t belittle the knowledge you do have. Keep it simple, and don’t try to show off extensive expert knowledge. You’ll only complicate your answer and end up confusing yourself.

LS: Good advice, thank you. Are there any topics that almost always come up in the ACCA F9 exam?

S.M: You really do need to know everything on the syllabus… Saying that though, the ACCA F9 examiner really likes sections C, D and E of the syllabus – Working Capital, Investment Appraisal and Business Finance.

ACCA F9 syllabus

(Source) ACCA F9 syllabus.

You know you’ll get two 15-mark questions on elements on C, D or E in Section B, because those questions have to come from those areas. However, just because the two 15-mark questions can only come from C, D and E doesn’t mean that’s the only place C, D and E will be examined.

…ACCA F9 students will get two 15-mark questions on elements on C, D or E in Section B…

It’s also worth pointing out that ACCA F9 has no optional questions. Section A contains twenty multiple-choice questions worth 2 marks each, and Section B contains three 10-mark questions and two 15-mark questions.

Because you have to answer everything that comes up, you definitely need to study all the material if you want to pass ACCA F9.

LS: Which other ACCA papers are relevant to ACCA F9?

S.M: None, really. F5 builds on F2 and F7 builds on F3, but paper F9 is standalone. I mean, if you’ve done Business Studies at A-Level you might find some of that knowledge useful, or any professional experience will be useful.  

LS: How much maths do you need to know to pass ACCA F9?

S.M: Well, I’d regard it as some pretty basic maths but I know some students wouldn’t! I’ve always been a bit of a maths lover… To pass ACCA F9 you’ll need to be able to manipulate equations, and you’ll probably need to do multiple powers and multiple roots, but probably not too much beyond that. You’ll need a scientific calculator, definitely.

Calculator for ACCA F9

(Source) You’ll need some ‘basic’ maths to pass ACCA F9.

ACCA F9 is definitely not just about calculations though. You need to know what the numbers mean and how they’re going to help you. What role do the numbers play in terms of increasing shareholder wealth?

LS: What parts of ACCA F9 are most difficult for students, do you think?  

S.M: Many students dislike syllabus area G, Risk Management.

I think it’s because of the terminology. It comes back to what I was saying earlier, about students struggling to pass ACCA F9 because they lack context. Because the syllabus is so broad, and because most of the areas would have dedicated specialists in real life, you tend to have very limited practical exposure to the topics in question. That seems to be especially true of Risk Management.

…Many ACCA F9 students struggle with Risk Management because they lack context. Build context by proactively looking for ways to get as much business exposure as possible. Pay more attention to business news as well…

I’ve been teaching this paper for longer than I care to remember, and before I got into professional education I was Head of UK Finance for a major company – and I still lack practical real world experience in some of these areas.

I held very senior finance roles, but unless you’re a specialist you tend not to get the exposure. I mean, look at something like company acquisition. Unless you work in a company with an aggressive acquisition strategy, you might never come across it.

LS: So what can students do to help build context for ACCA F9?

S.M: Find opportunities to broaden your exposure. Ask your boss if you can sit in on that meeting. Ask if you can be part of that Investment Project Team. Make an effort to get involved in as many ways as possible.

LS: What if those opportunities don’t come up? As you said, you might never get exposure to certain areas.

S.M: It’s a longer-term attitude. I mean, it would be a huge coincidence if there was a big Investment Appraisal project coming up 3 months before you sit ACCA F9… Just keep your eyes open and look for ways to get as much broad business experience as possible.

I’d also say, pay more attention to business news. I’m not saying you have to read a newspaper from cover-to-cover every day, but you should be trying to be a little more aware of context. For instance, if you hear that shares in Company ABC went up by 5%, find out why and think about how that fits into your studies. Does that support the theories you’ve read? Does it not?

It’s important to understand how theory applies in the real world; it’s not black and white. A theory is just a theory; it’s about how it applies in different situations. A lot of students will just try and learn facts after facts, but that’s not as important as being able to apply the facts in context.

The Professional papers start to focus very heavily on context, and F9 is moving in that direction. Simply learning facts isn’t going to help you pass ACCA F9, I’m afraid!

LS: What’s the biggest reason that students fail ACCA F9?

S.M: Time management, 100%!

I think it’s because accountants are trained to work in almost the exact opposite way. We don’t work 9-5. If something needs doing, you stay late to do it. You always get the job done, and it’s not about how long it takes. It’s an accountant’s nature to assess a given task, identify the trickiest bit, and approach that first. In the exam, it’s the complete opposite – you do the easy bits and then move onto the next question. Almost all students will leave some questions unfinished.

Need a watch to pass ACCA F9

(Source) Time management is the biggest reason students don’t pass ACCA F9.

Now imagine if you did that at work. “Oh, I did the easy half and then went home”. You’d be sacked! In the ACCA F9 paper, that’s what you should do. You only need 50% to pass – and that’s the easiest 50% of each question.

That’s why students find exam time management so difficult – because we’re asking them to break a fundamental habit. We’re asking people to think completely differently from how they’re programmed to think.

It feels really wrong, to stop writing and move on before you’ve completed an answer – but that’s what students need to do.

LS: What can students do to improve their time management?

S.M: Practice lots of questions. You’ll learn much more than just reading material over and over.

Also you should always set yourself a time limit and be strict. The point is to get used to the idea of leaving questions unfinished. You’re trying to condition yourself: no one dies if you don’t finish a question!

LS: What are the biggest mistakes ACCA F9 students make?

S.M: It sounds daft, but not answering the question that’s set. For example, you might be asked to do a couple of calculations and then recommend the option you’d choose based on those calculations. Too many students just forget to make the recommendation – and that’s a really easy mark.

…many students fail ACCA F9 with 47% or 48% because of stupid mistakes like not answering all the parts of a two-part question…

It might be as simple as saying, ‘because A is higher than B, I’d recommend following A’. And you get the mark for the thought process, even if your calculation is wrong. The marking scheme for ACCA F9 will only penalize you once for an error. So even if your calculation was wrong in the first line, you can pick up marks for following your own internal logic.

The number of students who fail with 47%, 48% and you just know they’ve made stupid mistakes like that! When you think you’ve finished the question, read the requirement again quickly and make sure you’ve not missed out anything simple.

Try to think about presentation too. Leave a couple of blank lines between every paragraph; use short paragraphs; use subheadings. It helps you to structure your thoughts, but it also helps the marker to clearly see that you’ve addressed the question.

For example, if you were asked ‘what are the advantages and disadvantages of using a money market hedge?’ you should put a subhead ‘Advantages’ and a subhead ‘Disadvantages’. Don’t just throw out points and expect the marker to navigate.]

… the best papers read like they are grabbing the marker by the hand and walking them through the script…

Imagine you could grab the marker by the hand and walk them through your script. That’s what you’re trying to do. “Here’s where all the disadvantages are, Mr. Marker, you get ticking”.

LS: So many students focus just on content, and you’re right. Technique is such an important part of the ACCA exams.

S.M: Technique is critical if you want to pass ACCA F9. That’s something I focus heavily on when I do question debriefs for LearnSignal students. You could learn the solution to every ACCA F9 question there’s ever been but if you don’t know how you got that answer, it’s useless knowledge unless that exact question comes up.

That’s why I think LearnSignal is valuable. It helps you understand in a way that can be applied to any question. We don’t just focus on teaching you the answers – we focus on teaching you how to apply the theory to get the answers yourself.

LS: Amazing Steve, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it – and I’m sure our ACCA community will too!

Steve McCormick has many years’ experience in industry working in increasingly senior positions. He’s CIMA qualified and has taught many accountancy qualifications, including the ACCA F9 paper since its inception (and the previous equivalent before that). He’s also been shortlisted by PQ Magazine for Private Sector tutor of the year, so it’s safe to say he’s very good at what he does.

If you want Steve to help you pass ACCA F9, try our LearnSignal 7 day free trial HERE.