Why students fail assessments

aat comment

There was a time when British cyclists barely won any Gold medals and not a single Tour de France, despite 110 attempts.

Then one day along came a new coach Dave Brailsford, with a different philosophy of doing a hundred things 1% better.

They call it the theory of marginal gains. And just as it brought fame and success for cyclists, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome; and Sir Bradley Wiggins, it can work wonders for you.

Doing things 1% better

From planning revision to booking your assessment, there are a host of small things that you can do just a little bit better, to give yourself a precious edge. We have spoken to a range of tutors and training providers to find out where students slip up. Armed with their advice, this could help you avoid common mistakes.

Here is our list of marginal gains for you to achieve your breakthrough:

Pitfall – poor time management

Many students are running out of time in their assessments because they have no plan once the assessment starts.

This is often mentioned in connection to the Advanced Diploma assessment when working with spreadsheets in section 2.


Practice more mocks. Get used to the type of question. Work out which ones you can do quickly, and those that require more time.

Example: Phil Toomer MAAT, a former AAT student, and now an online tutor, recalls his experiences studying AAT’s Professional Diploma.

“I took mocks and found I was running out of time. So I began looking  at how much time I was spending in each section. I noticed I could do the numerical questions quite quickly. So I decided to do those first so I would know how much time was left for the written questions.

“Then I started practicing on the written questions so I could get my time down. When I came to take the actual assessment I finished with 25 minutes to spare.”

Pitfall – finishing too soon

Often students will close their assessment with time to spare.  For example, students for their Foundation Certificate may complete in half the time allotted and then just close the assessment.


Use left over time as an extra opportunity to check every question, you could pick up precious marks.

Pitfall – failing to get feedback

You might be taking a mock assessment from a book and then marking yourself. It’s crucial to get feedback on the written elements too.


Use resources like flashcards and take mock assessments. But also get feedback, especially on written elements, from your tutor or study buddies.

Arrange to take mocks a couple of weeks ahead of the actual assessment to give time to act on feedback. If possible, ask your tutor to comment.

If you are self-studying, join a Facebook group. Post your written answers and ask if someone will give feedback.

Pitfall – misreading the question

When it comes to the paper, read the questions calmly and thoroughly – don’t just dive in assuming you know what the examiner wants. Sometimes students will answer only half the question.

The question might be: ‘Identify X and describe with examples’. If you haven’t included the ‘examples’ – which many students don’t, you won’t get the full marks for that question.


Misunderstandings happen when students dive headlong into the question, because they are panicking about time. Make sure you manage your time, so you can read a question through thoroughly.

Pitfall –  writing skills

Accounting is no longer just about numbers. Explaining complicated things to non-financial readers is becoming an increasingly important part of the profession. It’s also increasingly important in assessments.

Marks can be lost through poor spelling and grammar. At Foundation and Advanced, the examiner’s report specifically highlights that spelling and grammar will be considered in the marks. At Professional, this is expected – as are detailed answers.


Practice as much as you can. Brush up on key words. Many students struggle in the assessment because they’ve misunderstood the ‘command words’ that crop up within the questions. Here’s a refresher on what the key verbs mean:

  • identify: Pick out several key points or assets from a list. There’s no need to be  over-descriptive
  • describe: Detail the features of a subject/object
  • explain: This means you have to include a ‘why’ or ‘because’ element. Simply outline how or why something happened
  • compare: Talk about the similarities and differences between two or more objects.

Learn more tips on study verbs. Or for Advanced Diploma, try this two-part series.

Spreadsheet skills

At the Advanced level, the big issue is spreadsheets. The students who have dealt with spreadsheets throughout the year are the ones getting good results.

If you’re not being taught spreadsheets, mention it to your tutor. You need to be using Excel on a regular basis to do well in the assessment.

You can hone your spreadsheet skills with our Excel Tips series.

Don’t forget the ‘standard’

The standard is the assessment syllabus, which students can access from AAT’s website. You should be able to see from the standard what topics will come up, and be able to go into the assessment armed with that knowledge. So few students are taking advantage of this – many don’t know it’s available.

Parting tips

  • Do all of your mandatory assignments, and make sure you pass them before you take your assessment. Some students are failing because they haven’t done this. It is better to book an assessment than cancel, because you are not ready than to go ahead without a pass under your belt.
  • Link your answers back to your scenarios.
  • Plan your schedule to give yourself the greatest chance of success. Do all the necessary work and submit it, get feedback from your tutor, then start your revision. What you don’t want is a six week gap in the middle.
  • Leave work that is not essential to the synoptic assessment. For example, postpone standalone units such as indirect tax. The same applies to optional units in level 4.
  • If your exam involves using accounting software, check that the venue uses software that you are used to. If you are used to the desktop version, and are asked to use the cloud version instead it could feel very unfamiliar and affect your performance.

Browse the full range of AAT study support resources here

David Nunn is Content Manager at AAT.

Related articles