[Editor's Note: this article is in reference to the old paper-based exam, not the computer-based exam that is now in use.]
At least two questions (or parts of questions) on each section will be selected to be graded for writing skills. The same graders who grade the conceptual and technical content of your answers will also assign a point value (0 to 5) to your writing skills. This approach is known as the holistic grading method.
The holistic grading method is based on the whole rather than a sum of the parts. Thus, the grader will make an overall assessment based on his/her assessment of your writing ability relative to other papers (s)he is grading.
Each AICPA grader has been trained to be sensitive to six writing attributes, which are discussed in the "AICPA Position on Writing Skills" listed in the box on the opposite page. The graders do not assign grades on any one of the attributes. Rather, they assign a single grade based on their overall evaluation of the six attributes.
Finally, be aware that if you choose not to answer a question or part of a question that is being graded for writing skills, you will lose the conceptual and technical points as well as the writing skills points. Also be cautious of the parts of computational questions requiring explanation, as they also may be graded for writing skills.
AICPA position on writing skills
Selected essay answers in the Business Law & Professional Responsibilities, Auditing, and Financial Accounting & Reporting sections are used to assess candidates' writing skills. Five percent of the total points available on each of these sections will be allocated to writing skills. Effective writing can be characterized by the following six elements:
- Coherent organization. The writer arranges ideas in a smooth, logical flow, enabling the reader to easily follow the train of thought. The writer develops each main idea in a separate paragraph and places the idea in the first sentence of the paragraph. Sentences that follow describe, define, clarify, illustrate, or explain the principal idea. Connectives and transition words link sentences and paragraphs.
- Conciseness. The writer conveys points in as few words as possible without scrimping on important detail or substance. Short sentences and simple wording contribute to concise writing.
- Clarity. A clearly written response expresses the writer's meaning or reasoning to the intended reader. Well-constructed sentences and carefully chosen words, including proper technical terms, contribute to clarity.
- Use of standard English. Effective responses use standard English, which is defined in The Business Writer's Handbook as follows: There are two broad varieties of written English: standard and nonstandard. These varieties are determined through usage by those who write in the English language. Standard English is used to carry on the daily business of the nation. It is the language of business, industry, government, education, and the professions. Standard English is characterized by exacting standards of punctuation and capitalization, by accurate spelling, by exact diction, by an expressive vocabulary, and by knowledgeable usage choices.
- Responsiveness to the requirements of the question. The writer should address the requirements of the question and demonstrate awareness of the purpose of the writing task. Answers should not be broad expositions on the general subject but should focus on specific elements presented in the question. However, answers should not be so narrowly focused that they omit key elements of the requirements.
- Appropriateness for the reader. Writing that is appropriate for the reader takes into account the reader's background, knowledge of the subject, interests, and concerns. Some essay questions may require candidates to prepare a written document for a specific reader, such as a memorandum to a CPA's client. In such cases, technical terms may have to be defined for the specific reader. When the requirements do not identify a specific reader, the candidate should assume the intended reader is a knowledgeable CPA.
How to maximize your writing skills grade
Understand the process and standards. The process refers to your test preparation, its administration, your performance, and grading. The standards are those listed on the previous page. Review the AICPA's six characteristics and rank-order them; ranking them will help you visualize interrelationships between the six characteristics
Practice writing and critiquing. As you practice your question answering technique on essay questions, you will be practicing your writing skills. Practice makes perfect! Critiquing your own and other candidates' solutions, as well as AICPA solutions, to essay questions will give you insight into improving your writing skills. Focus on eliminating your weaknesses and faults! Constructive criticism develops a positive frame of mind. It's fun to be positive!
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1. Charles T. Brusaw, Gerald J. Alred, and Walter E. Oliu, The Business Writer's Handbook, 4th ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), p 227.