Learn from ACCA SBL Examiner & Expert Tutors

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

ACCA SBL exam has been started since September 2018. The overall pass rates are ranged between 45% and 48%. As comparing to P1 or P3 in old exam structure, it is about 7 percentage points lower. In the near future, I don’t see there will be a significant improvement in pass rates given the same exam structure and syllabus.

From the first SBL exam, different examiner’s reports have been published to highlight what should be improved for students who will take the exam in future. Some of the problems can be improved by knowing what examiner would like to see from students.

In addition to a long syllabus, it is no doubt that you need to possess adequate exam technique to pass SBL exam. However, the technique is quite different from other exam in the same level. You need to understand and practice those exam techniques so that your chance to pass SBL exam increased.

In this article, I will figure out what common problems found in the past SBL exams. But more important is what examiner expect a “stronger” student to do which you need to be aware and follow.

Next, I share to you what are the exam techniques helping you to pass exam. I highlight the most important techniques by going through all published examiner’s report, reading different expert tutors’ articles and applying my tutoring experiences. The techniques are categories into three types, time management, application of your knowledge and presenting your answer.

The final part explains why practicing is important and how to practice effectively.

If you read through all the techniques and follow them, it will greatly assist your success in SBL exam.

What are the common problems identified by SBL examiner?

In addition to examiner’s reports, ACCA SBL exam team also published an article highlighting what were the problems seen in September 2018 sitting. Some of them were found in subsequent sittings, therefore, it is good to let you know what are they so that you can avoid.

The first problem is a misconception of putting all you know in the answer can help you to pass. As said by SBL examiner, “Knowledge is irrelevant unless it’s applied to the requirements.” Simply to explain a theory scores no marks unless you can apply that theory in the case.

You may think making comments after putting a theory could help you to score marks. But it is not true. An example in Question 1 in September 2018 sitting, general remarks such as “the company should consider health and safety or watch costs and time carefully” would not score marks as it is too general and not specific to the case materials.

Another problem is some students didn’t read through all exhibits before answering each requirement. In December 2018 Examiner’s report, it said some answers failed to make sufficient reference to the material or focused too much on only one or two exhibits are evidence on not reading all exhibits. Hence, many marks were lost if you didn’t read through all exhibits.

Next, some students didn’t recognize the specific recipient in the requirement. Sometimes, your role is fixed across all requirements and only recipients are different in each tasks. However, it is possible different roles are assigned to you in different tasks. You need to adjust the tone of the answer to different recipient as well as your different roles.

Last but not the least, many answers contained long paragraphs without headers splitting up the answer. Thus, they were not professionally presented while the recipient of your answers cannot read each point clearly.

ACCA SBL Exam common problems

SBL examiner’s messages to you

I find SBL examiner repeats same messages in the reports again and again. In March 2019 examiner’s report, it repeats the same as below –

  • Students should integrate and used the relevant case study exhibits throughout their answers;

  • Students should select appropriate syllabus knowledge to support the applied point they made;

  • Professional skills were demonstrated through analysis and discussion;

  • Students should know how to structure and present their answers.

You can find all these “repeated messages” from examiner focus on exam techniques while many students are not completely aware of their importance in SBL exam.

After going through all published examiner’s report, reading different expert tutors’ articles and applying my tutoring experiences, I highlight the most important exam techniques in next section that will greatly assist your exam success.

ACCA SBL exam technique

From SBL examiner’s messages above, I categorize three types of exam techniques, time management, application of your knowledge and presenting the answer.

ACCA SBL exam techniques
ACCA SBL exam techniques

Time management

ACCA publishes a leaflet called “How to approach the Strategic Business Leader (SBL) exam” states clearly you should spend at least 40 minutes and up to 60 minutes on reading and overall planning. I would like to make it more specific on how to utilize the reading, planning and reflection time (RPRT).

The first task you need to do is to skim read the requirements and remember them.

Next, you should read all exhibits and keep referring back to requirements when reading exhibits. Highlighting exhibits to different requirements is helpful in next step. As pointed out by Gary Leyshon, an SBL content specialist, in an article “Build your strength”, this step will provide you with context to plan your answer and allows you to compile a ‘big picture’ and the issues.

Thirdly, you should plan how to answer, for example, outlining what are needed to put in each answer, stating your roles and professional skills needed to demonstrate.

In this part, you should also structure your answer in a professional way, such as picking what points you will put in the answer and what should be put in heading.

To complete all preparation works before putting your answers for each requirement, spending 40 minutes is only the minimum while you are very efficient and familiar on how to do. If you need to spend 50 minutes or 60 minutes, I think it is still reasonable.

Hence, your time allowed to complete the paper is between 180 minutes and 200 minutes. As technical marks contribute 80% of the paper, it means the time per 1 mark is ranged from 2.25 minute to 2.5 minute, subject to your RPRT.

Apply your technical knowledge

‘Knowledge is irrelevant unless it’s applied to requirements.’

‘Making comments that apply generally won’t score marks.’

All these can be found in Examiner’s Reports in SBL exam. You are probably aware of but the next question is, how to apply?

In December 2018 Examiner’s report, it states that –

Up to two Technical marks are very often available for developing points. This can include evaluating how significant the points are, explaining the consequences they will have or supporting the points with examples.

Golden rule is 2 marks at maximum for each developed point. A very good approach to earn all marks for the point you put as suggested by Ashim Kumar, an SBL expert tutor, is following three key steps –

  1. Make the point;

  2. Explain the point;

  3. Answer the ‘so what?’ question.

Many students could do step number 1 and 2, but not for the third step. After explaining the point you have made, remember to explain the implications of that point to the audience to whom you are addressing your answer.

It is vital for you to earn all marks for that particular point you put in.

Presenting the answer

The last exam technique you have to possess is delivering a structured and professionally presenting answer.

First, considering to put paragraph headings, or using subheadings in presenting your answer. It is not only making it clearer for the recipient but also helping you to focus on writing about the areas.

Next, always remember who is recipient of your answer. There are 20 professional marks in the paper while you should always bear in mind who is recipient so that your tone is appropriate.

Finally, you should avoid long paragraphs. Although you need to develop a point to earn 2 technical marks, you are advised any paragraph that has more than four good sentences is likely to be too long.

Importance of practicing mock exam

In SBL study support guide published by ACCA, practicing questions should be started in your first day of SBL study.

Sean Purcell, who is a very experienced ACCA tutor as well as delivers the ACCA ‘train the trainer’ programme for SBL tutors, stresses doing some questions to time and getting them marked to pass the exam.

As SBL is a four-hour exam with a lot of readings and planning, practicing mock exam in a real exam environment can train your skills in time management, structuring your answers and applying your knowledge. No doubt your chance in passing SBL is increased given you practice mock exam under time constraint.

If you have your study buddy, it is good for both of you to mark the other mock exam paper so that both of you could learn from each other.

Alternatively, there are some learning providers offering mock exam and marking service which could help if you don’t have any study buddy.

The most valuable part in practicing mock exam is the feedback from others for SBL exam as you could improve before going into exam room for real exam.


SBL is a unique exam in ACCA strategic professional level in which you are not only required to demonstrate technical knowledge but also professional and exam skills.

ACCA published a lot of materials, such as articles and leaflet, to support you in exam success. For your convenience, I highlighted all important exam techniques here which are critical for you to pass the exam.

But you are definitely appreciated to go through all of them as you could know every details recommended by ACCA.

Don’t forget, practicing mock exam is the only key to improve your chance to pass and make sure you do it with feedback before exam.

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