Introduction - what is OCS in a nutshell
To cut a long story short, Operation Case Study exam - commonly known as OCS, is a 3 hour test of your E1, P1 and F1 knowledge application. Before the exam (on average, around 7 weeks before the exam) you’ll receive a 20-30 pages long document that describes the company you work for as well as it’s environment and any specific issues that the company is having. It gives you context to work with. On the exam day, you are going to receive new information (a.k.a unseen material) and you will be asked questions that you’ll need to respond to based on your technical knowledge and preseen + unseen information. You will have 4 sections and each section will have 2-3 tasks that you will need to answer. Each section will last for 45 mins (so 3 hours in total). As you are going to be completing your exam in specific formats (emails, reports, memos, etc), they will need to be manually marked so you will receive your score after around 6 weeks.
The overview of the Operational level - where does it all fit in
Each level of the CIMA Professional Qualification culminates in a case study examination, which integrates the knowledge, skills and techniques from across the three pillars into one synoptic capstone examination.
The operational level focuses on the short term and the implementation of decisions. At this level, you should be able to work with others in the organisation and use appropriate data technology to translate medium-term decisions into short-term actionable plans.
The case study examination is a role simulation, requiring you to respond to authentic work-based activities presented during the examination, applying the knowledge you got from the previous OT papers: E1, P1 and F1 and providing solutions to the issues and challenges you are asked to deal with.
Case Study exams - why
CIMA conducted some research before their last syllabus revision and it came through very strongly from employers that they wanted 2 things from their accountants; they wanted them to be technically strong (which is what the OT exams are designed to test) but they also wanted accountants to be able to function well in the workplace (which is more than just being technically strong).
It's our ability to recognize, appreciate and communicate issues by coming up with practicalwork based commercially astute advice.
And this is what the case study is trying to replicate; it's a work based simulation.
It is not, in any way, trying to retest the OT exams that you've passed already.
It's about putting you in context and seeing if you can function at an appropriate level in an organisation.
OCS exam - the basics
The case study exam can be described as a “role simulation”.
- It reflects what happens in the real world by providing scenarios which reflect various types of organisations and industries and require candidates to take on the kind of role a CIMA student or member would have in the simulated organisation.
- CIMA finance professionals (e.g. you) are expected to understand the entities that employ you. As you progress through your career, you are expected to be capable of accepting greater levels of responsibility.
- When assigned a task, you should be able to apply your technical knowledge to the entity itself and the position in which you find yourself. You are expected to make realistic and sensible recommendations that can be justified in the event of a superior who may ask: “Why do you think that?”
Each case study comprises two separate elements:
- The preseen information is released in advance of the exam.
- It describes an entity, providing background information on its industry and other information that should help candidates to understand any issues that arise.
- Each level has its own pre-seen.
- The unseen information is provided on the day of the exam.
- It comprises supplementary information that expands upon the background in the pre-seen.
- Along with this are requests for responses from a colleague/superior, which will be the exam task requirements.
How does a section with tasks look?
Your role in the exam
- Operational Case Study Exam is a real-world simulation, where you act as a Finance Officer, which is an entry level finance role.
- Your audience could be: a manager / peer / product owner etc
- Your tasks will include:
- assisting with preparation of reports (also financial reports)
- offering insights that influence decision-makers
- using available technologies for analysing data
- awareness of your personal responsibilities (ethics)
OCS Core activities
Within each Operational Case Study Examination, six core activities will be assessed. These core activities represent the tasks that are most frequent, critical and important to the Entry level finance professional role.
The six core activities are:
The 6 core activities are linked to associated assessment outcomes expressed in terms of ‘I Can’ statements that speak directly to the skills and competencies that drive the employability of successful learners.
Here is an example of the famous “I Can” statement from above mentioned ‘Activity A’. We’ve added the OT papers where those statements are coming from.
The exam cycle
Key facts about exam format:
- Preseen: industry background
- The exam:
- 4 x 45 minute sections, equally weighted
- Several subtasks within each section
- A subtask can examine more than one syllabus area
- Can finish a section early but cannot ‘bank’ time
- Format required in response: (e.g.) email, memo, report, briefing note
- Word processor provided in test software – PRACTISE ON THE CIMA WEBSITE
- No detailed calculations – it's all about interpretation
- Tables provided but rarely needed: present value, cumulative present value, normal distribution
Marking of the Operational Case Study Exam
- There are no negative marks for making a wrong point or omitting something, you will ONLY be rewarded for what you have demonstrated.
- All marks on the scheme are designed to be awarded and full marks should be awarded when all level descriptor criteria are met.
- There is a marking scheme provided for markers for each task. You can see that it talks about “levels”. Basically level 3 is the best and shows that you understood the requirement, you apply them to the preseen and unseen information, you laid out solid arguments (they don’t have to follow all arguments, but any valid point is good and will get marks as long as you justify it). You also need to make a recommendation. Please check the screenshot below.
- An answer which does not address the requirements of the task will be awarded with no marks (that is literally what is written in the marking guide for teachers).
How is the OCS exam marked?
The case study exam is an exam that is marked by a human. You will be given appropriate credit for comments that you make. Broadly speaking, if you make a relevant point, you will get a mark. Additional marks may be given for further explanation and analysis.
Our tutor, in the first part of the OCS preparation package is referring to the so-called “rule of two”. That means that each valid point made will be worth a minimum of 2 marks if it’s correct, relevant and well-explained. Of course in the OCS exam you usually write a bit more, make more comments, hence the whole marking may be more diluted, which means that some comments may be worth only 1 mark. But in general - 2 marks for each valid point.
Your writing technique is fundamental to your OCS success.
Writing technique can mean many things. Here, I just want to focus on the most important bits; structure planning. If you get that right, the rest will follow - and to get that right, you NEED to practise writing answers (meaning you need to do mocks). There is no other way to do it I’m afraid…
When you read the requirement, I’m sure you will have many random thoughts that fly through your head. Having those thoughts is good, but the big mistake here is not writing them down as bullet points, in a structured manner.
STEP 1 - look at all the requirements and split the time accordingly.
● You have 45 minutes for Section 1. There are 2 requirements, task a worth 60%, task b worth 40%.
● 1st of all, let’s do some simple calculations first:
- In the OCS exam, each section (45 minutes long) is worth 100/4=25 marks.
- If you are wondering why I’m taking 100 and not 150, that will take too long to explain, but in a nutshell - CIMA marks are based on a 100 scale originally, and then adjust the difficulty of variants using the famous “scaled scores” technique to make sure that all the candidates have a fair chance of passing.
- If you have 2 requirements (a and b) split 60-40, that means that roughly the “task a” will get 15 marks and the “task b” - 10 marks.
● Assuming that a valid point is worth 2 marks, for “task a” you would need to write around 7 points, and 5 for “task b”.
I found a below example from this article on the CIMA website: Answer planning - does it really matter?
Don’t be afraid to use ‘bold’ and ‘underline’ formatting tools in your exam text editor. Structure planning provides a structured layout that allows you to allocate your time in proportion to the allocated marks and, most importantly, answer ‘all’ requirements in the task.
How to study effectively for the Operational Case Study exam? How to prepare for OCS?
Don’t spend hours and hours relearning OT’s, you’ve already passed them! You’re not expected to know how to do detailed calculations of the topics tested there BUT, what you are expected to do, is to be familiar with the concepts presented in those E1, P1 and F1 papers and apply them to the scenario.
We believe the best way to do that, is to go through our OCS Revisions videos. Our tutor has recapped all the important parts from the case study POV, so you don’t need to spend weeks revising everything you’ve already passed. We’ve included handy PDFs there too, along with our slides that could be used as your “pocket notes”. Give it a go, I’m sure you won't be disappointed!
You must be familiar with the content of the preseen, so it is extremely important that you go through it few times. But don’t overdo it. Students have a tendency to learn it almost by heart and that’s not the point here. You’re expected to apply your technical knowledge to the information from the preseen and the new information that you’re going to receive on exam day.
Reading the preseen a few times, highlighting any possible issues and analysing it from the E (Enterprise), P (Performance) and F (Financial) point of view is crucial. One thing I can tell you from my own experience, is that it’s just not worth it to do everything on your own. It takes an incredible amount of time. We’re all busy at work and, as they say, “time is money” - why would you spend your valuable time analysing the preseen and researching the industry while you can use the analysis made by tutors, who are doing that for living and are extremely experienced and knowledgeable? Let them guide you through the whole process. Of course, the best approach is to get 1 to 1 tuition, but that’s very pricey.
Online masterclasses are another option, but here, we’re talking about roughly £500-£800 (looking at prices from other tuition providers). And then you have pre-recorded lectures, covering literally everything you need to pass your OCS exam. Compared to the above-mentioned prices, they are very affordable. For example our basic package, with a set of preseen analysis videos, OCS revisions and any other exam preparations videos, plus a number of tasks that forces you to start writing (18 to be exact) and on top of that, 3-5 really high quality mocks will cost you only £99. It really is a big bargain.
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Access to the selected current pre-seen materials and preparation videos, e.g. a deep dive into your role at the exam.
3 Practical Tasks with solutions, covering E1, P1 and F1 papers. All carefully prepared for the current OCS preseen.
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Practise the above mini mock under exam conditions i.e. timed and using the similar word-processor, so you can improve your writing technique.