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How to Pass the CII R04 | 5 Reasons This Paper Has the Lowest Pass Rate and How To Beat It!

The Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) R04 Pensions and Retirement Planning unit now has the lowest countrywide pass rate. In this article, Luiza Todd FPFS CFP explores five reasons why candidates can struggle with the R04 exam and offers her tips on how to pass the CII R04 exam.

I’ve completed the Certificate in Mortgage Advice. Can I start trading immediately?

Firstly, congratulations on achieving your Certificate in Mortgage Advice! We know how much hard work goes into studying and revising for the exams, so that’s a real achievement.  

With your Certificate completed, you are well on your way to being able to set up as a Mortgage Adviser, but there is another step you need to take first: achieving Competent Adviser Status (CAS). 

How to Pass the CII R04 | 5 Reasons This Paper Has the Lowest Pass Rate and How To Beat It!
How to Pass the CII R04 | 5 Reasons This Paper Has the Lowest Pass Rate and How To Beat It!

The CII pensions unit had a countrywide pass rate of 61% in the 2020 calendar exam year. This is a unit that requires a minimum of 50 study hours and gives candidates 10 CII credits towards the regulated DipFS, but don’t let this fool you.

Our years of experience coaching and supporting this unit have shown that most candidates will need more than the minimum study hours, and nearly all will come away baulking at the meagre 10 credits for the effort required (it should be worth more in our opinion!). So, what are the top five reasons for this paper hitting the charts as the exam with the lowest national pass rate in 2020?

1. Pensions aren’t simple

When HMRC came up with the phrase ‘pension simplification’ they were clearly having a chuckle! The changes brought in through the annual Finance and Pensions Acts, might have been intended to make pensions simpler, but there are still so many different rules associated with different pension policies, regimes, caps, valuation factors, tests, death benefits, state pensions and ages, only a real pensions technician would dare to say this was simple.

As an example, the annual allowance charge – one of the caps introduced in 2006 in an attempt to simply pensions, started off relatively simple, acting as a cap on annual defined contribution (DC) pension contributions and defined benefit (DB) benefit accrual.

If the cap was breached a tax charge was triggered at the individual’s marginal rate, known as the annual allowance charge.  Additional tweaks and changes brought in by successive Chancellors such as carry forward, tapering of the annual allowance and the cherry on its cake, the Money Purchase Annual Allowance (known in less respectful circles as More Pain for Advisers and Administrators), have muddied the waters somewhat!

2. Abbreviations, abbreviations and more abbreviations…

From your AA to your LTA, from the AAA to the MPAA, RPSs, PPS, SSASs, SIPPS and RACs to name a few there. Have you ever come across a subject that has more abbreviations than pensions?

Keeping track of what they each stand for is tricky enough without having to remember how they each work! Check out the BTS R0 glossary, available as a free pdf, to help you keep all your abbreviations in one place.

How to Pass the CII R04 5 Reasons This Paper Has the Lowest Pass Rate and How To Beat It!

3. So much history

To pass the CII R04, the examiner expects candidates to have a firm knowledge of not only the current rules, but some of the old rules as well! For example, simplification of the state pension came in from 6 April 2016, yet the R04 exam papers still contain questions on Category B basic state pensions, old deferral rules, how savings credit works etc. 

4. Dates, dates and more dates (there is a pattern forming here!)

Pension legislation is generally introduced via annual Pension and Finance Acts. This leads to so many different dates relating to when each change to pension rules came in. For example, inflation proofing of pensions, evaluation pre-retirement and escalation in retirement.

Both have minimums that DB schemes must usually adhere – so CPI capped at 5% and/or 2.5%. But the year this minimum fell is DIFFERENT for revaluation and DIFFERENT for escalation.

5. CII examiner use of the English language

Long question stems, use of double negatives, grids and tables; all of which make deciphering the questions tricky.  Candidates need to develop the skill of identify key question information and words that are ‘exam fluff’ before they can even begin to apply their knowledge to the question asked.

So, what can you do to achieve an R04 exam pass?

  • This exam is complex enough, to stand the best chance of passing the R04, choose study materials that explain key concepts simply. The CII R04 study text is very technical, lengthy and dry. Most candidates that come to BTS after having failed R04 (sometimes more than once) have been attempting to study from the CII R04 study text. The BTS R04 study guide has been written by Luiza Todd, BTS director, resident pensions expert and self-confessed pensions nerd! It has been designed as a complete replacement for the examining body text and will help candidates to get to grips with the concepts, history and application of pensions rules. 


  • Use practice questions that are as ‘exam-style’ as possible. Too many specimen questions are not exam style (either way too easy or terrifying complex and concentrating on minutiae that rarely if at all finds its way into the R04 questions bank). 


  • Book yourself onto a 2-day R04 revision workshop. BTS offers quarterly workshops on R04, designed and delivered by R04 specialists. They act as a platform for an exam sitting soon after attendance as they focus on the exam learning outcomes that are essential to a pass, whilst making the experience enjoyable as well (yes that is possible!).


View Our R04 Exam overview/toolkit to purchase any R04 Study support including Study Guides, e-Learning modules, online workshops and study buddy. 

Find out more in depth help and advise to structure your R04 studies by viewing our R04 Study Plan.

Chat with other R04 candidates in the dedicated BTS R04 online forum room to help keep up to date , find out any new information and gain help and advise from others.

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