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Student Insights

Exam highs and lows – Professional Level

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 04 Nov 2021

Exams highs lows main
Top left: Eleanor Sharrock, Strategy Lead, HM Revenue & Customs, London
Top right: Carl Trinder, Audit Supervisor, RSM, Preston, Lancashire
Bottom: Dominic Buttery, Financial and Insurance Risk Trainee, IFGL, Isle of Man

In the second of our series of round tables, three students share their experiences of studying for and sitting their Professional Level exams.

Q What inspired you to complete the ACA?

Carl: It’s always been my goal to become a chartered accountant. I didn’t want to go to university, so I went into a training agreement straight from college. It’s a five-year contract with two years of AAT, then three years of ACA. Fingers crossed I’ll be qualified in two years.

Ellie: I did a law degree and then joined the Civil Service Finance Fast Stream. I’d always been interested in financial regulation and different financing mechanisms from a law perspective, and I chose the ACA because I felt it offered a really good fundamental understanding of the numbers people were discussing.

Dom: I have a different role to many ACA students, too: I’m a risk analyst, so I work for an insurance company looking at financial, insurance, business, IT and operational risks. Both my manager and the Group Risk director are ICAEW Chartered Accountants, and they wanted an ACA trainee to complete the team.

Q Where are you in your training?

Dom: I’ve got two Professional Level exams left to go – Business Strategy and Technology, and Audit and Assurance – which I’m planning to take in December. I sat Financial Management in June, along with Business Planning: Insurance, which I did instead of Taxation because I work in the industry. There were just four of us who took Business Planning: Insurance with my training provider this time!

Carl: I’ve also got my final two Professional Level exams – Business Planning: Taxation, and Business Strategy and Technology – coming up in December. I started my ACA training in September last year, so I sat Financial Accounting and Reporting, and Audit and Assurance in December, and Financial Management and Tax Compliance in June 2021.

Ellie: Because I’m in the Civil Service, it’s a case of creating my own study plan for deciding which exams to sit when, which has been really challenging at times. I sat Audit and Assurance in the June session, but I didn’t pass, so I’ll have to have another go at that one.

Q How have you found studying for the Professional Level compared to Certificate Level?

Carl: I actually started the Professional Level before I completed the Certificate Level. Because I did AAT first, I had exemptions from four of the six Certificate Level modules – I only had to take Law and Principles of Taxation, which I did in September. But I think Certificate Level is a really good framework in which to find your feet, then you can go into the Professional Level and really build on your knowledge. 

Ellie: I think one of the challenges of moving from Certificate to Professional Level is knowing when you know enough. You could spend hours and hours reading through the workbooks and doing questions and there would still be more to say each time, so it’s being able to apply that judgement. It’s not quite the same challenge at Certificate Level because you’re either right or wrong with the multiple choice.

Dom: I actually found the multiple choice more difficult – I failed my Management Information exam the first time. I did Classics at university, so I was used to written answers! The Professional Level exams are more aligned to the way I work and what I’m used to.

Q How do you find balancing work and studying?

Ellie: It can be really tough. You have to be really honest with yourself about what the priority is for the next six to eight weeks – there are lots of opportunities at work I’d like to have a go at, but you just have to be honest and say, ‘Maybe I’ll ask if I can do it after the exams, but for now I need to prioritise revision.’ I was redeployed in response to COVID and suddenly there were lots of short and unexpected deadlines, so it became really challenging keeping up with revision alongside work commitments.

Carl: The approach that’s always worked for me is little and often. I try to do an hour or an hour and a half every night – I’m one of those people who learns much better that way rather than trying to cram in six hours a day at the weekend; it just doesn’t go in. It’s a mind game really, telling yourself, ‘I understand that I have work commitments, but I will revise tonight.’ It’s just finding that balance, and the more you do it the more you’ll get into a routine and see what works best for you.

Dom: I wish I was like that – it’s probably more effective! I’m a bit of a last-minute sprint sort of person. However, a month before the exam I will just sort of shut down and spend my evenings studying, and I usually book some holiday just before too. That’s normally the way I get through it.

Q How have you found studying and sitting exams remotely?

Dom: I’ve been lucky – because I live on the Isle of Man, where we’ve had fewer lockdowns and restrictions, most of my tuition has been in person, and I’ve been able to sit all my exams in an exam centre.

Carl: I’ve sat my exams in an exam centre too, but all my tuition has been online. One of the biggest challenges is that it’s not like a Zoom call – they can’t see or hear you, you’re watching them and you just have a chat box. So if you have a question, it can be difficult to get it across to the tutor – by the time you’ve typed it out, they’ve probably moved on. I think it can stifle people’s ability to really understand that judgment that’s needed at Professional Level and how to apply it.

Ellie: You miss out on those opportunities to talk to other students – it could just be a quick question across the desks, or a chat in a break – and that sense of being part of a group all working towards the exam. It’s hard to concentrate on video calls for seven or eight hours a day, too; you have to be much more self-disciplined with online tuition. I did remote invigilation though, and I found that very convenient – although it is strange to be sleeping, studying, revising and sitting an exam all in the same room!

Q How did you feel going into the exams – were you confident?

Dom: You can get a sense of how well you understand something by how well you can explain it – It’s called the Feynman Technique. So with the Business Planning: Insurance exam, I spoke about it to other people, and felt like I was in a strong position. With both the exams I took in June, I felt like I could talk to the moon and back!

Ellie: When I came out of the Audit and Assurance exam I knew I hadn’t passed, and I knew going into it that I was unlikely to. I just hadn’t had the time – I had just started a new placement and it was very full-on, so I hadn’t been able to plan in study leave in the normal way. It was more about making myself do it because if I didn’t, I’d feel too scared to try again. So it wasn’t a surprise, even though it was a disappointment.

Carl: I get paid time off to study, and I feel that the time we are given for the course gives you enough knowledge and confidence to pass. Then anything that you do in your own time is probably the difference between scoring 55 or 70/75. With my last two exams, Financial Management and Tax Compliance, I did a lot more work in my own time on Tax Compliance – I needed to catch up because I hadn’t yet done the Certificate Level Principles of Taxation module. I felt much more confident in Tax Compliance, but I’d let Financial Management slip, so I went into that one knowing I would probably just scrape a pass – and I did. I think you do get a feeling when you come out of the exam whether you’ve failed, just scraped through or done well.

Dom: I remember coming out of my first Professional Level exam, Financial Accounting and Reporting, convinced I’d failed – and then it turned out to be my highest mark! So sometimes you can’t read it.

Q How important is the support of fellow students when studying for the ACA?

Carl: I’m very lucky because some of my best friends are from my AAT cohort. We’re all at the same stage, we have the same tutors, the same deadlines, we can talk things through and we might even revise together. If you’ve never been in a classroom environment, you don’t have the same bonds to be able to speak to someone about it, just because you’re so used to sitting learning in your bedroom and not listening to your peers.

Ellie: Sometimes you just need that person to have a coffee with to say, ‘Yes, I know it’s hard, I’m struggling too, but we can do it.’ It’s really important to find those people who can support you. It’s hard for everyone, and it can be really challenging if you get stuck in your own head and start to think you can’t do it.

Dom: I’m the only ACA trainee in my firm, but I’m Chair of the Isle of Man Chartered Accountants Student Society, so I have around 80 other students around me! It’s so important. I think birds of a feather flock together – even my partner is doing the ACA. We really support each other, even if it’s just having a drink and complaining about how hard it all is, but how much we secretly love it! It makes such a difference – if we were doing it on our own, I genuinely don’t think we’d be able to do it. Students who self-study and do it completely on their own must be incredibly strong people.

Carl: I’m in the North West Student Society, mainly for the social side of it. As much as you sometimes have to let your social life suffer, it’s important to switch off and have that time with like-minded individuals.

Q What resources have you found most useful?

Carl: The ICAEW question bank comes in very helpful; you can go straight to the section you want to practise and all the past exam questions are already there. Obviously with it being online as well, it’s easy to flick there, screenshot a question, do it in Excel and then print it out or go over it on the computer.

Dom: All the practice materials ICAEW provides are brilliant. One of the big tips I’ve learned is that if you go on to the syllabus sheet, it tells you the high level of what they’re actually looking for in every exam. I’ve found that so helpful. There’s some great video content from tutors and former ACA students on YouTube too.

Ellie: I’ve found videos really useful too – if I’m struggling with a subject, I find it really helpful to have someone talking me through it.

Q What’s your advice for other students studying for the Professional Level?

Dom: These exams are about application as well as knowledge, so get the knowledge quickly, try to understand it, and then learn to apply it. And it’s true when they say question practice is king.

Carl: For me, I think it would be set the boundaries with yourself: how you’re going to split up your evening, when you’re going to start revising, how you’re going to revise and what frequency. And having the confidence to chat with your employer and set those boundaries as well. Obviously you have your work commitments, but there is always going to be the scope to flex, to maybe push something back for a couple of weeks. At the end of the day, they want you to succeed, so it’s just about having that dialogue.

Ellie: Something I’d add to that is having a really good support system; that might be your manager, your training supervisor, or just calling your mum. It’s about having somebody who can help if you’re having a tough time. There will be difficult days, there will be days when you feel like you don’t understand anything, so having someone who can just give you a little bit of extra support is really important.

We have a range of resources to support you on your journey. Visit the Professional Level exam resources.

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