Some top tips to passing CISI’s PCIAM exam

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PCIAM exam

The Private Client Investment Advice and Management exam delivered by the CISI, has been categorised at QCF Level 6. It is therefore going to be a tough exam to pass unless you have prepared well. By preparation we mean not only study of the syllabus but also active practice on exam technique. In this article, we shall provide you with some ideas about tackling the different types of questions that you will come across.

Basics of the exam

This is a three hour written exam. There are 100 marks on offer and these are broken down into different sections. Section A provides 40% of the marks, Section B 20% and finally Section C, another 40%. Calculators are allowed but they have to be of a certain non-programmable type prescribed by the CISI. Questions can be answered in any order.

Section A

This section is worth 40 marks in total and consists of 10 short answer questions each worth 4 marks. Answers should be succinct but detailed enough to provide relevant points to answer the exact question set. Much of the testing will be knowledge based although there may be analysis style questions too. When answering calculation questions, show all your workings as the examiner may provide you with some credit for understanding a calculation process even if your final sum is incorrect.

Many candidates like Section A. If they have a reasonable knowledge of the syllabus, they will be able to answer a number of the questions well. Psychologically, this is a good section to start with as it gets “marks on the board”. Apart from not having sufficiently in-depth knowledge, the big danger with this section is spending too long on it to the extent that you have little time to complete questions B and C. You can only get a maximum of 40 marks so give it 40 marks worth of your time (just over an hour).

Section B

Section B requires you to answer an essay question worth 20 marks. You will have a choice of three alternative questions and can decide on which one to write about. With a reasonable level of knowledge and good exam technique, you can pick up a pass score quite comfortably. Even in these circumstances however, you may find that your knowledge is not deep enough to talk about any of the subjects on offer. It is all the more important therefore, to practice answering past exam questions under timed conditions and comparing your efforts with the examiner’s reports (last 4 available via the CISI’s website). Some basic knowledge of essay construction here will help:

i) Provide a brief introduction to the topic and put it into the context of the question set.

ii) Provide an analysis of the pros and cons of the subject being asked about. Use examples or actual case scenarios to illustrate any perceived strengths and weaknesses.

iii) Provide a conclusive summary. Here you need to wrap the argument up. It is not necessary for you to come down heavily on one side or the other. The examiner is more interested in your understanding of a topic and ability to analyse it.

Dangers with this section are people writing reams of paper on all they know about a topic and not being anywhere near to answering the question set. Stick to the key words and phrases in the question (often one or two lines), pick them out and structure your essay around them. Even if you are short of time, you can provide a framework plan to answering the question and get some credit from the examiner.

Section C

This is the one that most candidates either sink or swim with. Section C will involve a case study scenario, usually with a fair amount of detail to digest on the client’s situation. This will include their financial status, their objectives and aims, attitude to risk, existing portfolio and arrangements such as pensions, protection plans, wills etc. You will then be asked a number of questions around the scenario. These could include tax calculations, more detailed analysis questions and in some cases, recommendations that need to be justified.

Again it is good practise to review past exam papers to get a feel for the style of questions and review examiner’s reports to understand what is wanted for the marks on offer. One question type that candidates get stuck on is analysis of the client’s portfolio. It is something that many of them do day to day but can be an onerous task when the clock is ticking against them. You could help yourself by writing down a framework of points that you could discuss about any portfolio. These include:

What is the strategy of the current portfolio and how does it relate to the client’s needs generally? Here you could discuss the management style(s), asset allocation and how it relates to certain benchmark standards e.g. Wealth Manager’s Association benchmarks or the life styling approach.
Then for each asset type being used, you could summarise the risks, rewards, timeframe, accessibility and taxation of the investments being used relative to the client’s circumstances.
Summarise with an overview of how the portfolio could be adjusted to suit the client without going into too much depth – unless of course the examiner follows up the question asking for specific recommendations.
If asked to make recommendations, be very specific e.g. “I recommend the client invests £20,000 net of basic rate tax relief into a SIPP with a term to retirement age 65. I recommend he invests his contribution into a UK equity passive tracker fund.” When justifying the recommendation also stick to the point: “I recommend that he effects this plan so that he can obtain tax relief on his contribution at his highest marginal rate. He does not need to access these funds until 65, so he can make use of tax advantaged growth within the fund. He can also draw 25% of his fund at retirement tax free. The remainder can be used to provide a taxable replacement income in retirement.”

In summary, the way to pass this exam is two fold and quite simple:

1. Do your syllabus study. Make sure that you are sufficiently technically adept to answer questions across the whole syllabus.

2. Practice, practice, practice with answering exam questions. Sooner rather than later, you will get a good understanding of what the examiner wants from you. Make sure that you don’t get any shocks in the exam.

Good luck!


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    Cris thanks for your help during and after the CISI Pension Transfers and Planning Advice course, I found the course and your support invaluable.  My understanding and approach to answering the questions was much improved giving me more confidence in approaching the exam.  It was good to be able to have a wider debate and discussion around the aspects of the syllabus for which I needed more clarification particularly when I don’t work in the industry.

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  • Victoria YungPerformance Measurement

    Cris Glascow was my tutor when studying for the CISI Level 7, Chartered Wealth Manager qualification, which I achieved in 2014. Cris was a brilliant tutor, not only did he cover relevant topics but he explained them in a very clear and concise manner. One of the most valuable parts of the support were the mock exams provided. They were set at the appropriate level, they were marked quickly and relevant feedback was provided. To have a well prepared, approachable and knowledgeable tutor is so important when studying for the CISI exams especially at higher levels and as such I would strongly recommend Cris as a tutor to anyone studying for CISI qualifications. He is an excellent tutor.

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