How to Study

Achieving the ATT qualification is no easy task, and while studying, you are probably also working full time. After a day at the office, studying may be the last thing you want to do.

While there is no magic solution or secret formula that will take all the hard work out of studying for your exams, there are certain skills that will help you study more effectively.

Effective study skills not only significantly increase your chances of passing your exams, they also minimise the amount of work you need to do. Whilst they will never do away with all the hard work, they ensure you focus on relevant areas only which are then efficiently learnt.

The pains of studying are more bearable if you are certain they are bringing the gains of knowledge necessary to achieve a pass and to improve your performance at work.

Too few tax specialists understand the importance of study skills and the benefits they can bring. To minimise effort and maximise your potential, cultivate your study skills.

1. Motivation
2. Material handling
3. Time management
4. Environment management
5. Active learning


Any system of studying, no matter how effective, requires some work. Without a special goal or aim, you may find it difficult to work up the enthusiasm for study.

Passing exams is like a game. Any athlete will tell you that two essential ingredients to success are 'wanting to win' and 'confidence'.

Wanting to win ensures you put in the practice required. Confidence means that you stand up to difficult challenges, rather than backing away.

It is not necessary to be super-intelligent to pass the ATT exam. In fact, some extremely intelligent students fail because they have no competitive spirit. Yet other students do far better than they deserve. This is due to a combination of confidence, determination and good exam technique. Rather than backing away from a hard question, they go for it with all guns blazing. 'Having a go' gives you a far greater chance of winning.

It is important to play amateur psychologist to find your motivation for taking exams. Whether it is job security, higher income, seniority, increased opportunity or variety, a marketable qualification, pride or usefulness - it is imperative that you find a reason for wanting to pass as this will give you the cutting edge to succeed.

If you can find no reason to pass then there is little point in taking the exam.

Material handling

The day you receive your study texts can be a black one. The sheer bulk of the manuals can overwhelm even the most stout-hearted of students. Many students find even the prospect of starting work too daunting and put it off. This is not much help.

It helps to realise that study texts are written in a way that will bring out the key points of the syllabus and to focus on the things you really need to know. But some things are still more important than others.

Your first task on receiving the study texts should be to divide the contents lists into 'core' and 'non-core' topics. This ensures that you focus on key issues and will make the notes less daunting immediately.

There are two main ways of establishing what 'core' knowledge is:

1. Review past exams. Core topics regularly appear in the exam so reviewing papers and examiners reports for the past four years or so will give you a good idea of what the examiners consider important.

2. Ask the tutorial body with whom you are studying.

Time management

You must now set aside some time to study the core topics. Time is probably the most valuable commodity we have. In many ways it is similar to money - in short supply and used too quickly. Yet while most of us are fairly careful with planning the use of our money, we are not very good at planning the use of our time.

Good time management skills are the key to successful studying. Having sorted out the core topics to study you should draw up a time plan in the form of a chart showing each available day until the exam. When completing the chart:

  • Enter the real exam dates in a bold colour. 
  • Enter unavoidable commitments such as weddings and holidays. 
  • Put in key dates: home/course exams, review dates, courses etc. 
  • Allocate core topics in such a way that you cover the work due by a key date. Try to mix written and number topics for variety. 
  • Build in rewards for good behaviour (eg a week study free, if you have kept up to date). This also gives you 'catch up' times should your programme slip. 
  • Be realistic. If your plan is not achievable, you will soon become disillusioned and abandon it. 
  • Incorporate some pleasure time. There is little use in passing exams if you have forgotten how to have fun.
  • Try to create a balance between your social life and study.
  • Having prepared your chart put it somewhere visible. This will help encourage you to keep to it.

Environment management

Having set time aside to study it is important not to be distracted. It is surprising how, come study time, other tasks take on a new urgency.

Distractions eat into valuable study time. It is easier to keep something moving along than to keep stopping and starting again, so an uninterrupted period of study is crucial.

Prepare an environment that avoids distractions and is conducive to study. Choose a room away from the main living areas. Keep it well ventilated to avoid drowsiness and have a good desk and chair that are comfortable. Invest in a desk lamp to prevent eye strain.

Educate family and friends that you should not be disturbed in study time. Learn to ignore potential distractions. For example:

  • Ignore the telephone or buy an answering machine. 
  • Never turn on the television. Record essential viewing for later.
  • Do not answer the door to visitors.

 In addition, research has shown that you will recall information better if the environmental conditions are similar to those in which you studied. As it is unlikely that your favourite music will be playing in the exam room, you should focus all your senses on studying in silence.

Active learning

There is nothing worse than having to revisit topics countless times in order to learn them 'parrot fashion'. Simple active learning techniques should make you more efficient.

Psychologists tell us active learning (by doing) is far better than passive learning. In particular, reading is a very poor way to learn, yet this is the only form of studying that some people use.

Numerical topics are not such a problem as they naturally lead to an activity. You read through a text, work through an example and then do a question.

Doing the question is essential as this is the activity through which you learn. Getting it wrong is not a problem - you will learn by your mistakes and avoid them next time.

Written topics are more difficult as writing essays does not necessarily help you learn, though it can be good exam practice. It is necessary to create an artificial activity to help you learn. A possible approach is:

  • Read a paragraph of the topic. 
  • Stop at the end of the paragraph and ask yourself what is meant (this is an activity).
  • Summarise the paragraph in concise notes (this is an activity).

Just writing notes as you go along is not enough. It is the stopping and thinking, combined with working out how to summarise the paragraph, which makes an activity.

This will have implanted much of the information in your brain. The hard part is jogging your memory to recall it. The next time you visit your notes, you should convert them into a key point plan: This is a piece of paper or a postcard on which you will put a maximum of ten words that are key headings related to the topic.

These headings act as memory triggers to draw out the detail of the topic. 
Shortly before the exam, pace the floor and recite the key point plan to learn it.
Spot the topic in the exam, jot down the key point plan and, not only do you have a ready-made answer plan, but it will also provide cues for your memory to recall the detail.

Remember: 'Active' is far better than 'passive'.


Effective study skills enable you to pass exams whilst maintaining both your sanity and character.

These notes have been provided by the tax division of Kaplan Financial Ltd