Twenty toptips on how to write a good report in the


This Guide pulls together toptips on how to write a good report in the exam. There is little
point in being familiar with the technical content of the preseen/unseen if you cannot
communicate your findings and effectively present your analysis and recommendations. These
toptips are the cumulative input of a number of different report styles and identifies general
themes of good practice:


TIP01: Develop a good answer and report structure

A good answer will be based around a good structure. As well as being allowed to scribble on
the unseen in the 20 minutes reading time, you should also gather these thoughts into a plan.
Allowing plenty of time for each of the requirements, break down your plan into time bands
and stick to them.

Even before you go into the exam, you can pre-plan how long you will spend on each section.
There are lots of things to do in the 3h:20m, (reading, thinking, planning, and writing), so
allocating your time is critical if you are to produce a good and complete answer in the time
allowed. Keep to a strict plan. Do not over-run your time allocation, you´ll be surprised how
many do! Fail to plan - plan to fail!

Whereas the pre-May05 criterion for `structure´ no longer exists as a specific heading within
the TOPCIMA assessment matrix, it is of paramount importance that you are familiar with a
standard report layout. The list below provides an overview of the different sections you may
wish to consider (each is covered in subsequent tips):

- Front Cover (TIP03)
- Contents Page (TIP06)
- Background and Introduction (TIP07)
- Terms of Reference (TIP08)
- Executive Summary (TIP09)
- Main Issues Section (TIP10)
- Main Body (TIP11)
- Ethics section (TIP12)
- Conclusions (TIP15)
- Recommendations (TIP16)
- Appendices (TIP18)


TIP02: Develop a good report style

You may be able to quickly understand the requirements, but just as important is to make
sure that you know to whom you are writing. This critical detail is also usually defined within
the requirements or within the unseen scenario. By understanding the needs of your audience
(who the report is to be addressed to), you will then be able to appreciate their expectations.
You must then be able to write in the style that is appropriate to their needs.

For example, consider how a report to a Finance Director will differ in style to a report to a
Human Resource Director. The former will require relatively more financial information,
whereas the latter may require clarification of accounting and strategic terms. Do not assume
that communication within a standard report can be one-size-fits-all. Adjust your report style


TIP03: Start off with a front cover page

To make sure that your report stands out, consider using a front cover page (i.e. the first page
in the answer booklet). In our research we asked: 'did your report include a cover page?
Results suggest that 9 out of 10 candidates use a cover page, and those that didn´t often
combined a title and contents page. You could consider using the following headings:

- Report: if you are required to use a report, then write the word `Report´ so that the marker
knows that you have identified this requirement.
- Report title: keep the title brief yet descriptive and bring in key words from the
- To: who are you writing to and their title(s)?

Often as per the requirements:

- From/Authorship: you are often told who you are by title, either in the requirements or in
the unseen scenario. Do not put your own name!
- Date: either as per the requirements or just the date of the exam.

.and for the extra touch, previous candidates have also used:

- Version Number: for example: Version 1.0
- Status: for example: `Status: Final´
- Level: for example: `Confidential´ (especially if you are writing to senior management or a
report to the Board that is likely to contain sensitive information).

A cover page is very quick, simple and effective - 9 out of 10 candidates will be using one!


TIP04: First impressions are very important

Okay, a front cover page is a good idea, but it could work against you if you just scribble the
headings, give no thought or consideration to its layout, or plaster the page in correction-fluid
(assuming that you are not on the PC!).

First impressions are very important to a marker. You will start off on the wrong foot if the
cover page itself looks scruffy and unplanned! Do not waste this simple, yet very important,
opportunity. Consider the layout of the cover page. For example, write `REPORT´ in capitals
and bigger text and centre at the top of the page. Go the extra mile and perhaps draw a
border around the edges of the page.

Remember that the exam paper has fewer lines than standard A4 paper and the margin is on
the left for left hand pages and on the right for right hand pages.


TIP05: Practicing formats will save time in the exam

Drawing a front cover sheet is the first thing you could do when you open your answer booklet
and it should only take you a few minutes. Before your exam, actually spend time practicing
example layouts and stick to the one you are most happy with. Then do it over and over again
until you can draw a cover sheet neatly in seconds. For example, if you want to use a border,
practice drawing one quickly and neatly.

Spending a short period of time on practicing a front cover page will also help you to get
writing in the booklet and relaxes you before you even have to start on the rest of your report.


TIP06: How to develop a `Contents´ section

Once you have planned your answer and report structure, and drawn-up your professional
looking cover page, the next auto-set-up is perhaps to develop a contents (or index) page.
Imagine yourself opening-up the exam booklet, perhaps after your front cover page, and use
the next two adjacent pages as a contents page.

The contents page is simply a list of your reports´ section headings (perhaps detailed to sub-
headings) together with a page number. You could also include a list of appendices at the end
of this section. Not only will it act as the usual reference page within a report, but a well-
presented contents page will give the marker a good impression of your overall content,
planning and structure. Completing a contents page early in the exam is difficult, unless you
know a good structure and can stick to it. Consider leaving it towards the end of your exam.

Again, before the exam, spend time thinking about how to lay out a neat contents page.
Perhaps indent the sub-headings. Perhaps draw a pencil line one centimetre away from the
right hand margin and head this column `page number´. It is always important to go for the
professional touch, but you must keep it simple!

Practice by timing yourself when drawing-up a contents page and write-in some headings. You
will then know how long to leave at the end of the exam for drawing-up the page. The more
you practice the quicker you get!


TIP07: How to develop a `Background and Introduction´ section

The purpose of a background and introduction page is to set the scene for the rest of the
report. Prior to your exam, prepare yourself a brief background using the preseen, and learn
it. When you get into the exam, you will be able to start writing with confidence, rather than
wasting valuable minutes thinking about what to write. Finish it off with a few lines from the
unseen material to complete your synopsis of the overall scenario.

You will not receive credit for simply rewriting the scenario and a lengthy section will only
waste time. It is likely that the recipient(s) of your document will already know most of the
facts about the scenario anyway. Keep your background and introduction as brief as possible,
perhaps no more than 5 to 10 lines.


TIP08 - How to develop a `Terms of Reference´ section

The `Terms of Reference´ is the scope of your answer and sets a limit to your liability by
defining your boundaries. This could include:

- what is the purpose and objectives of the report? (straight from the requirements)
- who asked for it? And why?
- who did the work?
- what has been looked at? (documents, references, other reports considered, interviews etc)
and what hasn´t been looked at?
- what are you trying to find out?
- what aren´t you trying to find out?
- what has been done?
- what hasn´t been done?
- any constraints imposed?
- links to other reports?
- conclusions going to reach.

However, you must keep this section short. Do not feel that you need to include all of the
above. As with your introduction, the terms of reference should be brief and about 5 to 10
lines to set the scene of who you are - for example a consultant, and to state who the report
was commissioned by, and who it is aimed at.

Prepare what you can before the exam. This will save you a few minutes rather than having to
think about what to write. The remaining part of the Terms of Reference can be drawn from
the requirements and the unseen material.


TIP09: How to develop an `Executive Summary´ section

The Executive Summary highlights the key points for management that you think should be
brought to their attention (and can be before or after your terms of reference). It should give,
for example, a brief overview of the situation/options, outcomes and recommendations. Put
simply, Executives don´t have time to read the whole report. It should therefore be short and
stand-alone (i.e. could be read in absence of the rest of your report).

However, to be able to write this section you should have finished your report. Since the exam
is extremely time-pressured, allow space for an Executive Summary and head-up the page,
then complete it if you have time towards the end of your exam.


TIP10: Main Issues section

A short quick-win and essential for the criterion of prioritisation: identify and prioritise the
main issues facing the company. Show and justify the top five issues in priority order. Relate
back to your SWOT or position audit.


TIP011: How to structure the main body of your report

The main body of the report will contain your findings, analysis and evaluations. Unless the
arguments are overwhelming, try to avoid taking a single position. You should cover relevant
issues from a balanced viewpoint.

Break-up the report into neat sections and leave plenty of white space. This makes it easier to
both read and mark. Perhaps start each new section on a new page with its own underlined

Your answer must be professional, clear, concise and well structured. In order to be effective,
any formal business communication document should have a beginning (the introduction,
background and/or terms of reference, a middle (the evaluation of issues), and an end (the
conclusions and recommendations).

The main body of your report will require a discussion and analysis of subjects and issues and
your answer should ideally consist of a good evaluation of options with conclusions stated
clearly with valid recommendations.

In the real world, things don´t often work the way textbooks suggest that they should. Most of
the analysis tools and theoretical frameworks are based on a simplistic view of the world or a
series of assumptions. If you are applying a theoretical approach or model, mention its
weaknesses and limitations in the specific context of the scenario.

Remember, point-illustrate-explain: what does your point indicate and what does it suggest?
Ask yourself: `why is this point relevant?´ if you can´t answer this question yourself, then why
are you writing about it?

`Identify and prioritise the main issues facing the organisation, showing the top five items in
priority order. This area of the report should also include discussion on your position audit or
SWOT analysis. The main body of your report should discuss in depth all of the issues you
have identified above and should be supported by numerical evaluation of the proposals,
which should be shown in appendices. Note: key data and analysis given in appendices should
also be discussed within the body of the report (CIMA)´.


TIP12: Ethics Section

Section-up a heading for Ethical issues and report them under this heading and cover a
number of ethical issues whilst offering advice on how these issues could be resolved. Do not
simple list them. Make sure that you identify the ethical issues, justify why you consider them
to be ethical issues and to make recommendations on how to resolve several ethical


TIP13: .and `Other Key Issues´

A useful section in your report could be headed `Other Key Issues´, which could be used to
wrap up a number of other relatively less important points. Calling the section `other´ means
that you have considered breadth and `key issues´ shows depth.


TIP14: Know the difference between Conclusions and Recommendations

Your report should contain sections dedicated to both `conclusions´ and `recommendations´.
Note that there is a difference between them:

- Conclusions are observations that are true or not true. For example, `it has been
demonstrated that the option to . is profitable because..´

- Recommendations - action points and what should be done. For example, `we should do
project x because [action point here].´ These should be justified. `As a result of the findings, it
is recommended that..´

You could state that both your conclusions are based on limited information (as perhaps
defined within the scope of your terms of reference), but do not suggest that you need more
information in order to draw any valid recommendations.


TIP15: How to develop a `Conclusions´ section

Conclusions summarise your main findings, and they should be brief. This section is simply a
collection of your key points in your report, which summarise the findings of your analysis.

Do not just repeat what you have said earlier. You could give conclusions as a list of brief
bullet points (the only time you can perhaps get away with a phrase after a bullet), and cross-
reference each conclusion back to the appropriate section of your answer/report.

If you have any reservations or concerns about your conclusions then state them. For example
`Even though further work is needed because., and on balance it would appear that.for the
following reasons.´ (which must not be a new statement, rather from the body of the report).

Your conclusions are an opportunity to present your overall assessment of your analysis, so
make sure that you do so.


TIP16: How to develop a `Recommendations´ section

Your recommendations are very important to your answer. However, they are also a very
common reason for exam failure. It is quite likely that within your requirements you will be
asked to provide some recommendations; even if you aren´t, the recommendations should still
form a vital part of your answer. The criterion of `logic´ demands `effective communication and
recommendations that are realistic, concise and logical´. As good practice, consider the

- Recommendations must be developed and justified using the available information.
- Do not make up recommendations if you haven´t discussed them in the main body of your
report. Put recommendations in order of importance and note the major areas to concentrate
on first and state this - prioritisation is important!
- State what action (or non-action) is recommended as a result of the conclusions reached.
- If possible, include a realistic time frame for each recommendation.
- If asked for a single recommendation you must give one, and justify it.
- Remember that your recommendations must be realistic, concise and logical.
- Simply stating the need for more information and further investigation will not suffice.

Do not underestimate the importance of pre-allocating plenty of time to your
recommendations in your exam. Put simply, if you get this section wrong, it will be very hard
to obtain an overall pass!


TIP17: How to use `Assumptions´

In your previous CIMA studies, it may have been appropriate to make assumptions for
calculations, or to simply state that further investigation should be undertaken. Consider the

- If the data is given in your material then obviously you can't replace it with assumptions. Do
not ignore the factual data given in the unseen.
- If data or information is not there, then the chances are that it´s not important.
- If you need to make key assumptions state what these are within your report or perhaps
have a key assumptions page as an appendix.


TIP18: Appendices must link to your main report

Any detailed analysis or calculations should be put into appendices (such as your numerical
workings or a SWOT analysis) and give each appendix a reference and clearly highlight your
answers. In this way, the message of your work will be clear, and the reader will be able to
concentrate on the key issues in the main body of your answer without getting lost in the

You must then bring these key points or solutions into your main report. A common reason for
failure is that students can write good appendices, but do not reference them into the main
body of their report. When you have come to a final set of numbers in your appendices (even
if they are wrong!), bring these into the main report.

Perhaps use a summary table and give it a reference and title. Use a small ruler and draw a
box around the results for that extra touch.


TIP19: A `report´ is not the only required answer format

Note that all of the previous Case Study exams have required candidates to answer the
requirements in a report format. However, even though never tested in the Case
Study/TOPCIMA exams, the scope of formats for your TOPCIMA exam also includes writing
(perhaps as appendices) examples of presentation slides, a memo, a letter, briefing note or
any combination of these.

When you read the requirements on the front of your exam paper to understand what you are
being asked to do, look carefully at how you are required to present your answer (i.e. the
required format(s)).

Do not get caught out by automatically assuming that you will be required to write just a
standard report format. Will you be required to produce a presentation as an appendix as well,
or something else? As a reminder below is an outline of other likely formats:

Presentation/slides - these have not as yet been specified as a requirement in the previous
Case Study exams. You may be required to include a presentation (i.e. a series of slides)
within your report, perhaps as an appendix. Start each new slide on a new page. Draw a
rectangle at the top of a page - this is your slide. Within this box list bullet-points (with a
maximum of about 8 - 10) that cover the main points. Then elaborate on your bullets (the
delegate notes). They should not simply be a copy of the slide. A structure could be:
- Slide 1 Title slide (similar to a report cover page).
- Slide 2 Summary slide.
- Slide 3+ Slide for each topic.
- End Slide Concluding points.

Memo - very similar to a report format, but headed `Memorandum´ with a section for each

Letter - Address. Date. Dear [name/unnamed such as Sir or Madam]. Main body that is not as
structured as other formats. Yours [sincerely/faithfully].

Briefing Notes - To/from/subject/date. Summary of key issues relating to a topic. Allows the
reader to become familiar with the situation. Written in a concise manner and normally
informal. Use bullet points, but full sentences.


TIP20: Writing and presentation

Even though there is no specific criterion for format, you are still expected to present your
answer in a professional manner. A well-presented report is easy to read and pleasing to
mark! Below represents good practice from previous candidates:


- Use clear headings - perhaps use `what´ and `why´ in your headings.
- Underline headings - perhaps double-underline key headings or section titles.

Use a numbering system for each section, headings and sub-headings. This is good for cross-
referencing, but do not over do-it, as this could be very annoying if the marker has to skip
around your report.

- Start each new section on a new page.
- Use lots of white space and clearly define each paragraph.
- Limit your use of bullet points/lists.

Spend time before your exam thinking about how you are going to layout your answer. Do not
leave this thought until the actual exam.


Your answer must be easy to read. Use basic/simple everyday English (write as you would
talk). Keep on good terms with the marker by making their job easy. Consider the following:

- Do not use jargon, slang or colloquialisms - this is a test of `professional´ competence.
- Avoid the use of metaphors.
- Do not use complicated words just to look clever. This isn´t a scrabble competition!
- Ceteris paribus, do not use Latin just to show off!
- Do not invent your own abbreviations. If you want to use abbreviations, first write the words
out in full and then put the abbreviation in brackets, which will then be a valid reference
- Do not shorten words. For example, do not refer to issues or problems as `probs´ or the
organisation as `org´.
- Do not use the term "I¨. Write in the third person and as an objective observer.
- A business name should always take the single form. For example, `[Company name] is.´
rather than `[Company name] are.´.

Keep it simple!

Keep it simple! Consider the following as general good practice:

- Keep your answer simple to follow - do not over-do it with complicated numbering or get too
keen with the ruler!
- Keep sentences short and to the point. Rather than use commas, can you end the sentence?
A short sentence is easier to read/mark.
- Keep paragraphs short. Perhaps a few sentences in each. Just enough for a `point, illustrate
and explain´ per paragraph.
- Do not waffle just to add padding. This will not score you marks and will simply waste your
valuable time.
- Keep punctuation and grammar simple. Do not use too many semi-colons etc. just to look
- Avoid the passive, and use active statements.

Basic standards

You cannot afford to let your standards slip. A number of recent post-exam reports note that
even basic standards are now very high. For example, the May04 review noted the need for
good English and report layouts that are clear and easy to navigate.

The anticipated level of quality is very high and this high standard has been set by previous
Case Study exams. Don´t forget to work hard at the basics!

What to do in the last few minutes

In the last few minutes of your exam consider:

- Numbering your pages at the bottom of each side of paper.
- Complete the Contents page.
- Complete the Executive Summary page.
- Never leave the exam room early. The invigilators will mark your leaving time on the front of
your script and what will the markers first impression be?
- Never give-up. Use the full-time allowance.

Important stationery

Just for fun we also asked: 'what colour pen did you use in your exam?´ The myth that every
candidate uses black and the advice to use blue to make your paper stand out from the crowd
is not necessarily true! Our results suggest that 51% used black and 49% blue.

Out of interest, in Nov05 we have previously identified that 1in5 non-UK candidates wrote
their report in either pencil, green or red ink - coincidence that CIMA now includes a sentence
that states the following on the exam paper: `Use black or blue [in bold] or ballpoint only.´

Choosing black or blue makes no difference. But keep to one colour and do not switch
between colours for headings etc. Do not use red, green or any other coloured ink, as this
does not look professional. Have at least one spare of the same colour and type. Rather
obvious, but make sure you have a good pen that does not leave ink marks on the page. You
could also have:

- A 15cm rule for underlining and boxes, and a 30cm rule for your cover page border.
- Calculator with spare batteries (or perhaps two calculators!).
- Pencil for drawing slides, boxes or graphs (with good eraser!)
- A highlighter pen could be useful for when you are reading the unseen scenario.
- Do not over-do the correction fluid! Just a neat line through a word will suffice rather than a
painted page - it´s quicker as well!

.and 'relax!´

As important as any other toptip offered so far, don´t forget to rest and recharge your
batteries! We asked: 'how did you feel when you went into the exam room?´ 9 out of 10
candidates around you in the exam room will feel okay. Get an early night and relax before
your exam - you will perform and write a better script!

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