The truth behind the pass rates for CIMA exams

By  •  Updated: 11/15/22 •  12 min read

CIMA had been running the 2015 syllabus for 4 years, so I thought it is high time to have a deeper look at the exams pass rates. Yes, currently we have the 2019 syllabus, and it is not that much different from 2015’s, so I thought it would make more sense to show you the full analysis from the past 5 years. Also, I don’t want to bore you with a full statistical analysis, because that is not the point. As a CIMA student, you should understand the numbers and get some insights from them. So here goes – the most recently released data we have is from April 2021:

(UPDATE – this article has been updated to show the most recent data from April 2021).

OT Pass Rates

It’s not rocket science to see that the more advanced you get in each level, the more difficult it becomes to pass the exam, hence the pass rates are getting lower in each section.

The exam pass rates are calculated as total exams passed over total exams taken for the periods stated below.

Papers with the lowest pass rates

According to the graph, the P pillar seems to cause most of the problems for CIMA students.

On the contrary, E pillar seems to get the highest scores. So if you don’t know how to approach a certain level and if you’re motivated by success, attempt the E paper first. 

Of course, that is not always true in reality. A little disclaimer here – statistics was actually my major at university… BUT… if a man is walking the dog, statistics say that on average, each of them (the man and a dog) has 3 legs 🙂 

The same goes for the E papers. We are individuals and we have our own preference towards a specific pillar. For instance, my preference rating is P > E > F. I always passed P without any problem on the first sitting. F was always a big stretch for me, and now I am a converted management accountant (I prefer the management part of that phrase 😉 ). I had financial accounting subjects during my  time at university. I had some exposure at work, but I’ve always been an auditor or a controller. And that explains why P was the strongest. Statistically, I’m actually among the minority here.

My point is that everyone has a preference for a certain pillar (paper). If a failure puts you off, start with a topic you enjoy most. If you are new to CIMA and cannot really judge based on the papers’ names, look at the syllabus. If you are still unsure and want the highest chance of success to keep you going, go for the E papers first.

Let’s look at each pillar across those 6 years:

Enterprise Pillar pass rates’ evolution

CIMA mentioned that over time, the questions would be revised and replaced. They do that every quarter. As you can see what was good, stayed more or less the same, even though I’m surprised that CIMA didn’t do anything to make E2 (the red line) a bit more difficult… the 2019 syllabus seems to make it even more manageable, which is great for students 🙂

The positive point here is that all the pass rates for the E pillar are going up.

Performance Pillar pass rates’ evolution

As mentioned above, the Performance pillar, on average, is the most troublesome for students. However, the chart speaks for itself – the pass rate for each P paper is going up!

I see 2 possible reasons here:

  • Questions have been slightly revised and therefore the exam’s difficulty has slightly decreased.
  • Students became more comfortable with CBA (Computer-based Assessments).

This is a really high-level overview. It would be really interesting to dive deeper and see which parts of P pillars are causing so much difficulty. But… this high-level data is all we have. Practice Tests Academy’s tests have a built-in functionality to always inform you how well you’ve done on a specific part and within a specific part or even its chapter – so you know where you need to improve. I’d like to see that kind of data coming from the CIMA exams one day.

Financial Pillar pass rates’ evolution

What can I say here – CIMA seems to be adjusting the numbers (slightly), but still, the “easy” F1 paper is leading the pass rates. The more difficult F2 and F3 papers are becoming a bit easier. I believe this is due to the amendments that CIMA does every quarter and also students are more familiar with the exam’s environment. However, you can see that F3 was growing for a few years and in the previous pass rates that CIMA released. we can observe a 4% drop. Overall, strategic papers need to be kept difficult somehow, and it was getting easier according to those rates – maybe for that reason.

CIMA Exam Pass Mark

  • You need around 70% accuracy to pass each objective test.
  • The CIMA exam pass mark is 100. (From a scaled score of 150)

The final comment on OT exams

That’s why I believe it is so important to properly plan your preparation. Kaplan did the research and the outcome was that the more knowledge (revision questions) you embed in your studying process, the higher the chance of passing the exam on the first try you will have. I would say it is common sense, but it is good to have the proper research done to back up what I keep saying.

For example, the screenshot I took during Kaplan’s webinar on CIMA exam success. FTP means First Time Pass rate. It represents only Kaplan’s students population, but I think it is safe to say that it relates to the whole CIMA students’ population. The outcome is simple – you need to practice more in order to pass. That was the reason why we created Practice Tests Academy in the first place.

Here is a little problem. The syllabus started only in January 2017, so there is not enough data to show you the evolution of the BA1-BA4 pass rates. However, we can still get a feel of how that could look if you look at the C01, C02, C04 and C05 papers. 

Well, the issue with the performance pillar trend starts from here. BA2 is called Fundamentals of Management Accounting and logically it is the basis for the further P pillar, so it is not a surprise that the pass rates are the lowest. 

Better results we can see on the BA3 side – Fundamentals of Financial Accounting, which is an introduction to the F pillar.

Update made in 2019: The outcome of the last 2 years of pass rates published by CIMA are terrible! I thought I got my numbers wrong, so I triple-checked them! It is true. BA2 was kind of “going downhill” but reaching 59% and then 60%, that is a bit of an exaggeration! And the fact that the “always good pass rated” BA4 has almost reached the bottom, is astonishing! We should ask – what does it mean? Either the quality of the students have decreased (difficult to believe in that) or CIMA has embedded too many tricky questions inside their tests. Maybe it is because BA4 has 85 questions and not 60 like any other tests. That is a new feature – and I am tempted to point out that the numbers indicate that 85 questions might be an overkill. But that is just my humble opinion…

Update made in 2020: Good thing is that since the introduction of the 2019 syllabus, BA level has significantly increased (even though those 2 syllabuses, changes are not connected). It seems that CIMA has realised and made improvements in the exam questions, which is excellent news!

Update made in 2021:

And it seems we are back to the usual trend line… It seems to me that 2020 was just a blip in the pass rates. Cima decided that it needs to be adjusted. Maybe they have decreased the difficulty level due to COVID and the fact that students have been sitting exams at home, or maybe students simply perform better at home 😉

Case Studies

This chart looks more like the Alps or Himalayas! 

What this could tell us is the fact that by the time you reach the MCS and SCS level, you will have the necessary skills and experience to apply yourself well.

Frankly, I don’t even know how to interpret that. Let’s try…

  • OCS – from what I hear from students and what I read in different study groups, most of the students try to prepare for these exams on their own. It is a bit of a shock to jump into the OCS after passing only OT exams. Also, the population of those exams is the lowest as some of you get the exemptions from the full operational level. One additional thought that comes to mind is that MAYBE whoever is writing questions for OCS exams are not really… congruent as they once were. That is all I can say on that matter for now…  PTA had introduced OCS packages a while ago; do have a look at the OCS packages page to see if what we offer fits your needs.  
  • MCS students are doing pretty well. The pass rate is around 60-70% and was even close to 80% during a one-year period. In one of my previous blog posts on How to pass your MCS I recommend that you shouldn’t do it alone, meaning that you should actually sign up with a tuition provider because otherwise you will waste a lot of time and risk failing the exam. Retaking the exam costs more than signing up for the basic online package for MCS – so why risk wasting money? Check out PTA’s complete MCS courses. We’ve put a lot of thought into creating them, so they cover all the possible aspects of case studies and will train your writing technique along the way.  From my experience, I can say that the majority of students actually sign up for these courses, and is obviously reflected in the pass rates. 
  • Gateway – what is sad though, is the pass rates of the CIMA Gateway exams. Just to remind you (in case you don’t know), Gateways exams are actually MCS (no difference as per the content of the exam). However for Gateway students, this is their first point of contact with CIMA and it is assumed that the knowledge that they should have gained if they didn’t have an exemption, is already there. Frankly, there is a lot of material to cover because you need to review the whole Operational and Management level papers (CIMA also suggests reviewing the Foundation level, but I think this is a bit of a overdo). Here I strongly suggest signing up for a revision course designed specifically for Gateway students. 

    We do have revision materials, however they are aimed to refresh your knowledge only. But, if you would feel confident to revise the material on your own, I think it is a great resource to make sure you have covered and understood the content of all the previous CIMA papers. We also have a course called MCS Preparation, which aims at giving you condensed information you need before you start preparing for your exam. In my opinion, it is better to listen to tutors who have trained thousands of students, listened to their feedback, and based on that, have content that they can share with you. 

    Again, if you are thinking about sitting the next CIMA Gateway, sign up by clicking the above button, so I can provide you with guidance, tips and free materials for the MCS exam.
  • SCS – The trend seems to have increased with a “hick-up” in November 2016. Here’s a tip – if a previous case study pass rate was rather low (like Nov’16), you can expect easier versions in the next sitting, but… this is just my speculation. The only thing I can say is to practice as many mocks as you can get hold of. PTA have created SCS courses in such a way, that you have plenty of practice embedded in the course of your SCS studies. There are 5 mocks and 18 extra tasks to get you properly started and make sure that getting that pass is almost guaranteed. 

If you are thinking about preparing for your next SCS exam, the first step is to revise the knowledge you’ve learned from the E3, P3 and F3 papers. We’ve made that easier for you and prepared a set of 3 videos revising the theory from the strategic level, keeping in mind the Case Study exam. Let’s face it, this is a Case Study exam, you’re not redoing OT papers, so you don’t need the same knowledge level as for the OT papers. You need to have a different perspective and this is what our tutor has done. 

I hope you found this article insightful and now you have a bit of different view on the CIMA pass rates within the cima syllabus

Overall the conclusion is obvious, you won’t improve if you don’t practice – as they say – practice makes perfect (well, at least better 😉