My advice for anyone taking a remote tax exam

In this blog, C+T’s Fraser McCallum shares his experience of taking a remote tax exam to help him achieve his tax qualification, and what advice he would give others who are planning to take an exam remotely.

I was due to sit my final two exams on the ATT/CTA Tax Pathway at the start of May 2020 and, once passed, I would be a fully exam-qualified Chartered Tax Adviser. However, at the end of March the Coronavirus lock down came into effect, and The Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT) cancelled the majority of paper exams. Thankfully, one of my exams was only postponed and would be sat by ‘remote invigilation’ at the beginning of July.

Initially I was sceptical about taking an exam remotely, but keen to take advantage of writing my exam answer on my own computer. The exam in question was a case study with a big emphasis on structure and presentation. My theory was that the ability to re-organise and perfect a word document via a machine was surely a huge bonus, compared to writing it all out on paper.

Throughout the whole process, both the CIOT and my exam training provider were extremely helpful and provided masses of guidance, including a mock exam setup that allowed you to practice with the software with extensive FAQs.

As the exam neared I started to appreciate the various issues of remote invigilation. During the exam invigilators would watch and listen to all of the students via their webcams, so laptops and internet connections needed to be up to the task. Luckily my ‘system readiness check’ was a success and I was able to borrow a good webcam from the Chiene + Tait IT team. There were other interesting requirements too, all laid out in great detail in the CIOT’s FAQs:

  • I had to be sitting at a desk,
  • I had to have a mirror on hand and
  • My work environment had to tick a number of boxes, or I wouldn’t be allowed to go ahead.

The night before the exam an email from the CIOT outlining that some exams had already taken place, and third-party invigilation provider had experienced a few issues. They were only minor but gave me a sense everything was not going as well as expected.

On exam day, I had a start time slot and was paired up with an invigilator for the meticulous pre-exam checks. Among other things, I had to pan around the room with my webcam (including under my chair) and hold up all of my tax legislation books (I have 8!), front and back, and give them a shake!

I started my exam, and all was running smoothly. Then with 1 hour, 38 minutes to go a big error message popped up, and a few minutes later the exam software kicked me out! This was exactly what I had had nightmares about. Then ensued a half hour of sheer panic.

I attempted to find a help contact number, failed, loaded up the software again, waited several minutes for someone to acknowledge me and then had to go through all of the pre-exam checks again! Luckily, my session was recovered, and the timer had frozen, but I had been thrown completely off my train of thought and did the second half in fear of being kicked out again. Apparently, the more your connection fails, the less likely you will be allowed to continue – not the best environment to sit any exam.

In the end, I finished it and, hopefully, all was well. However, the overwhelming stress on the day came almost entirely from technology and not from the exam itself. One of my colleagues took several hours to even get access to her exam in the first place. It was not an ideal experience but unfortunately, it’s difficult to envisage any other way such important exams can be sat remotely. The CIOT have been very understanding of all issues; there will be big changes made before the next remote sittings in November.

My advice to anyone planning to sit the exams remotely in the future is:

  • Practice, practice, practice with the mock exam software provided, especially writing out a calculation or tax computation. You want to be as comfortable as possible with it on the day;
  • Do your exam somewhere your internet connection is rock solid, as the slightest interruption can kick you out of the software;
  • Talk to someone who has sat a remote exam. I would have loved to have had a chat with a co-worker who’d been through the experience before me;
  • Thoroughly read all of the guidance and FAQs, and drill into your head exactly what to do if you have a problem on the day. Remember, you can’t have any emergency notes on your desk!

Fraser McCallum is a Senior in the Chiene + Tait Corporate Tax team.