Mapule Phathela dreamt of being able to put the professional and academic designations of CIMA, MBA as well as CA(SA) behind her name before she turns 35. At the age of 31, she is well on her way to achieving these goals. In 2021 she was awarded the CIMA (ACMA) and CGMA designations and also completed her MBA in 2020.

She joined EY in 2018 and worked as a Senior Associate – Business Consulting and IDF Capital before registering for the PGDA and passing it in 2022. Clearly ambitious and very driven, Mapule is currently preparing to write her board exams to qualify as a chartered accountant CA(SA).

While Mapule certainly makes it sound easy, her academic journey was not without upsets. She experienced personal tragedy with deaths in her family as well as occasional poor test results. But by making use of a few valuable study techniques, she was able to stay on track. Here are her top tips for study success:

1. Have a timetable – for everything

Milpark Education advises students to submit time schedules to help them plan their time better. These schedules are then sent back to students with suggestions for amendments. Mapule says, “It may seem like admin, but if you take it seriously, it will have a big impact on your ability to get through the work and be prepared for tests.” She says she had a huge calendar where she would write down everything she had to do every day, even scheduling in breaks.

Educators say that a timetable and study plan help students manage their time more effectively, which helps them be more clear-minded, productive and achieve more. It decreases stress as students feel in control of the workload and are less likely to be overwhelmed.

2. Reward yourself 

Psychologists say giving yourself rewards for small achievements, like managing your study load for the week or completing an assignment, can be a great motivational tool. Each reward provides the brain with small hits of dopamine, the feel-good chemical, creates positive emotions and makes you want more of it. “Behaviours that are rewarded are likely to be repeated in the future,” explains Elliot Berkman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon in a research paper.

Mapule says she would tell herself if she’d achieved a certain task or study module by Friday, then she could take three hours off on Saturday to treat herself to a massage, for instance. But if she did not manage the goal, she would not be able to claim the reward for herself – and she kept herself to it. This proved to be a very effective motivational tool for her.

3. Reach out to others 

“The PGDA was hard, in some ways harder than the MBA, and I often doubted myself and if I could do it. Then I would post something on Yammer about how I was struggling and other people would reach out and that really helped.” She also leaned on her family for support and booked counselling sessions with Terri-Leigh Ryklief, the Student Support & Development Advisor from Milpark, available to all students. Mapule found these sessions particularly empowering and motivational.

“I never realised how much I was affected by the deaths in my family. First my brother, and then my aunts and grandmother, too. I struggled with the reason for these deaths. But I started to see that if I achieved things, it could be for them. That helped to keep me going.” Terri-Leigh says that increased self-awareness helps students manage stress better, which has a huge impact on their academic success. “For students it is often not so much what they know, but how they feel that can determine the outcome of an exam,” she says.

4. Journaling

One of the techniques that Terri-Leigh shared with Mapule was to begin each day by writing down her thoughts and focusing on what she wanted to achieve each day. She found this very helpful. “It really helped to get my mindset right from the moment I got up and this would put me in the right frame of mind to study that day.”

There is much evidence that writing down your thoughts every day is a powerful tool for stress management as well as for dealing with emotional pain and trauma. It is even said to have physical benefits, helping people improve health markers. The key here is the idea of expressing emotions and letting go of negative feelings of, for instance, doubt, fear, and distress.

5. Don’t aim for perfection 

During the PGDA, Mapule found herself battling with time management, especially in tests. She would spend too much time on individual questions, trying to answer one section perfectly, and then not having enough time for other questions. “I learned at the beginning of each paper to plan how much time I was permitted for each question so that I would move on, even if I hadn’t finished that particular question.” She had to train herself to think of passing the tests – not achieving perfection for each answer. “That changed everything,” she says.

Currently working towards passing her board exams to qualify as a chartered accountant, this is the last big career goal Mapule wants to achieve. Then she would like to do many things, including consulting with firms and helping small business owners and entrepreneurs to grow and boost the economy. “Helping others improve their financial expertise is my real passion.”