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CMA Exam Essays

[Originally published on 06-18-2018]

[Updated on 01-04-2019]

Whether you’re an accounting professional or an accounting student, you probably prefer working with numbers over words. However, as a CMA candidate, you will need to be a proficient essay writer. More and more, CMAs are expected to count written communications among their on-the-job skills, and so the CMA exam requires you to write essays. Don’t worry though, we have everything you need to know about the essay portions of the CMA exam!

Why Does the CMA Exam Include Essays?

The CMA exam uses essays to test your ability to

  • Evaluate a given set of data
  • Make a judgment when given alternative solutions
  • Justify a selected course of action

Essays allow you to demonstrate these abilities and skills in a situation that more closely reflects the real world than multiple-choice questions can.

Furthermore, CMAs are called upon to provide analyses and recommendations based on the numbers, and fulfilling these responsibilities requires good written communication skills. As an accountant or accounting student, you’ve already learned how to effectively communicate. Therefore, you have no reason to stress about the essays. Instead, focus on learning the topics and practicing in a realistic exam environment.

How Many Essays Are on the CMA Exam?

The CMA exam has two parts:

  • Part 1: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics
  • Part 2: Strategic Financial Management

There are 100 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and two essay scenarios in each part. The essay section contains eight to ten written response or calculation questions based on two scenarios describing a typical business situation. There are typically two to seven questions per scenario.

How Much Time Do You Have to Complete the Essays?

The total testing time for each CMA exam part is four hours. You have three hours to answer all 100 MCQs. If you answer at least 50% of the MCQs correctly, the exam will present the essays to you once all MCQs are complete or after three hours have passed, whichever comes first. If you do not correctly answer at least 50% of the MCQs, your exam session will end and you will not move on to the essay section. Spending the entire three hours answering the MCQs gives you a maximum of 1 hour (30 minutes for each scenario) to finish the essays. When you finish the MCQ section in less than three hours, your remaining time from the MCQs will carry over and extend the one-hour time allocation. We recommend you aim to answer each MCQ in 1 ½ minutes to give yourself either 30 extra minutes to review your MCQ answers or to respond to essays. You can also divide this time between the two activities however you see fit. But keep in mind, you cannot return to the MCQ section once you’ve entered the essay section, so you’ll need to complete your review of your MCQ answers before you move onto the essay section.

What Are the Essays Like?

Refer to the images and descriptions below to learn about how a CMA exam essay question looks and operates.

Essay Question & Answer Screen

  1. Question and Section Number: Indicates which question you are answering and the section of the exam you currently have on-screen.
  2. Time Remaining: Displays the time you have remaining in the current section. Clicking it will display the total exam time remaining.
  3. Progress: Tracks the percentage of questions complete in the current section.
  4. Finish: Don’t click this button until you have responded to or flagged all of the essays. Clicking it will take you to a review showing questions unanswered or flagged, and from there you can move on to the voluntary survey section of the exam.
  5. Navigation Menu: A visual representation of where you are on the current section of the exam. You may use this menu to quickly move between questions. The numbered buttons change appearance according to their status (see below for more details).
  6. Essay Scenario: Displays a new screen with all of the information you will need to answer the questions. It will open as a PDF (see below for more details).
  7. Answer Box:  Where you type your response to the current question.
  8. Word Processing Tools: These icons, when selected, enable you to select headings, bold, italicize, underline, left align, center, right align, undo, redo, and/or save your progress (much like a standard word processing program).
  9. Question: Displays the content of the current question.
  10. Calculator: A basic tool for simple computations. It is similar to calculators used in common software programs.
  11. Time Value Tables: This gives you access to Time Value Tables for questions that require them. It will open as a PDF.
  12. Preferences: The gear icon leads to a preference menu filled with options for adjusting the text and background colors of the exam screens. If you experience discomfort or difficulty reading the exam screens due to the default color scheme, this menu is helpful for finding a more visually accessible palette.
  13. Help: Contains explanations of exam functionality, but you’ll be familiar with everything if you prepare with Gleim’s exam-emulating Review System.
  14. Flag: Mark a question for later review.
  15. Back: Move to the previous question.
  16. Next: Move to the following question.

Essay Navigation Menu Buttons

  1. Current: This button is green and arrow shaped, and indicated the question you’re currently viewing. It becomes gray once you select an answer choice.
  2. Complete: A dark gray rectangle indicating that you have selected an answer.
  3. Incomplete: A green rectangle indicating that you have not selected an answer. It becomes arrow shaped when it is the question you are currently viewing.
  4. Flagged: A green rectangle with a flag icon next to the question number. This is a question you have not answered, and have marked for review.

Essay Scenario Screen

Elements of the CMA exam essay scenario screen

The Essay Scenario will open in a separate screen, to the left of the screen displaying the Answer Box, as seen above. On the Essay Scenario screen you are able to:

  1. Zoom: Using the “+” and “-” buttons (top left) you may manually zoom in or out, adjusting how large or small the essay text appears. You may also click on “Automatic Zoom” and quickly jump to a preset zoom distance.
  2. Navigate: In order to move to the next page of the essay scenario, simply click the “>” button (top right); to move to a previous page, click “<“. Similarly, to quickly jump to the final page, click “>|”, and to jump to the first page, click “|<“.
  3. Scroll: The gray scroll bar (right edge of the screen) allows you to scroll up and down the page. If you are zoomed in, and essay texts runs off-screen to the right, you are also able to scroll horizontally using the gray scroll bar at the bottom edge of the screen.
  4. Grab: Clicking on the green button with the hand icon (top left) will activate the ability to “grab” and move the essay page using the mouse. To “grab” the page, click and hold the left mouse button, then drag the page in any direction you wish.
  5. View Page Thumbnails: By clicking the green button with the double rectangle icon (top left), you are able to see thumbnail images of all pages of the essay scenario in a gray panel that appears to the left of the essay scenario screen. Opening this panel enables you to click on a thumbnail image of any page of the essay scenario to quickly open it in the main viewing area.
  6. View Table of Contents: By clicking the green button with the “bookshelf” icon (top right), you are able to view and open links to the Essay Scenario as well as all of the Time Value Tables.

Essay Review

Familiarizing yourself with the format and functionality of essays allows you to test confidently and with good pacing. When you make the most efficient use of testing time, you are also able to review your essay answers before finishing.

If you have time remaining after you have answered all of the essay questions, and before you click the “Finish” button, be sure to review your answers. Navigate through the essay questions once more by clicking each numbered tab (left side of the answer box screen), and make sure that you have answered all of the questions and addressed any questions you may have flagged for review.

How Are the Essays Graded?

Each type of CMA exam question counts for the following percentage of your total score:

  • MCQs: 75%
  • Essays: 25%

MCQs are automatically graded online, but essays are not. Instead, subject matter experts grade the essays, and you can receive partial credit for your answers. For example, if an essay asks for three reasons why a selected alternative action is good for a business, and you provide only two correct responses, you will receive partial credit for those two responses. Likewise, you will receive partial credit for having the correct formula for a calculated response question even if your answer contains a mathematical error resulting in the incorrect answer. The possibility of receiving partial credit is the reason why it is important to show your work on the calculation questions on the CMA exam.

The ICMA grades essays on both the correctness of your answer, your knowledge of the subject matter, and writing quality (communication skills). The subject matter experts will only grade responses relevant to the question asked. The specific criteria for grading the essays is

  • Use of standard English: text includes proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
  • Organization: response is arranged logically and coherently.
  • Clarity: analysis is clearly communicated with well-constructed sentences and appropriate vocabulary.

How Should You Answer Essay Questions?

Each question within the CMA exam essay section requires you either to write a response or complete a calculation pertaining to the scenario provided. Read the question carefully so you can identify the requirements. Then, outline the grading concepts and any related information on a piece of scratch paper.

When submitting a calculation, show your work! The more on-topic information you provide, the more partial credit you can receive. To create a table, use the space bar to separate the columns, and label all columns and rows. Include all supporting calculations, but focus more on getting the question correct than perfecting the formatting.

When crafting a written response, be as detailed as possible and mention anything you can on the topic to maximize your score. Proofread and edit your answer once you finish your first draft, but only expand on it if time permits. You want to make sure you can address each question before the total testing time expires. So, you should hold off on improving your answers until you’ve responded to every question and started your review.

How Can You Practice Writing Essays?

When you prepare with the most-widely used CMA review course on the market, you’ll have everything you need to excel at the CMA exam essays. Gleim CMA Review covers the ICMA’s Content Specification Outlines and Learning Outcome Statements better than any other provider. We do this so you can be completely confident in your knowledge of the exam content. Our course also includes the largest test bank and most realistic MCQs and essay questions on the market. Such a high-quality test bank affords plenty of practice and familiarity with the exam questions. See how well Gleim prepares you to pass by learning more about the exam from our free CMA exam guide.