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Student Insights

Exam guides: the inside track on… Accounting, Assurance and Business, Technology and Finance

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 30 Mar 2022

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In the first of a series of guides, we focus on the ICAEW CFAB and Certificate Level Accounting, Assurance, and Business, Technology and Finance exams, with insight from tutors and the ICAEW assessment team.

All Certificate Level exams are computer-based, so you can take them in any order and sit them anytime – and cancel up to 24 hours beforehand if necessary, without incurring any costs. ICAEW allows you to take each exam up to four times (though your employer may have different arrangements, so do check with them). Here, Catherine Christmas and Stuart Brunning of the ICAEW assessment team share their top tips for making sure everything goes smoothly on the day. 

1 Read your emails!

Whether you’re sitting at a test centre or via remote invigilation, you’ll receive a confirmation email when you book, as well as a reminder email 48 hours before the exam. Make sure you read these through thoroughly and double-check that all your details are correct, including any approved access arrangements.

2 Apply for access arrangements

If you need additional support during exams, find out more about our access arrangements here. If you have been granted access arrangements, make sure you know exactly what they entail and what to expect on the day – we have newly published guidance, which you can find here.

3 Prepare for remote invigilation

If you are sitting via remote invigilation, make sure you’ve done the necessary technical checks beforehand. We recommend using your own, rather than a work, laptop wherever possible – corporate laptops tend to be quite locked down and can interfere with the exam software. Check there are no automated processes such as software updates or antivirus scans set to run, as these can cause technical issues. You’ll also need a strong, reliable and preferably wired internet connection – avoid mobile tethering and hot spots and, if you’re at home, make sure no one else is trying to stream Netflix at the same time! Last but not least, always stay within the webcam view – if you move out of it for any reason, the exam will end.

4 Watch out for common mistakes

When it comes to entering your answers, take care: students commonly miss marks through making simple errors, rather than because they lack the necessary knowledge. Here are the top six mistakes students make:

  1. Adding an extra zero
  2. Inserting the right answer in the wrong box
  3. Putting 0 and – in the same box
  4. Putting a zero between brackets (0)
  5. Inserting the correct date but in the wrong format, eg, 01/02/18 instead of 01/02/2018
  6. Putting a comma within figures representing millions (eg, 1,200000; 1200,000)

5 Apply for special consideration

If something goes wrong during the exam that is out of your control, such as a technical issue, you may be able to apply for special consideration. You should contact ICAEW (rather than Pearson VUE) by emailing specialconsideration@icaew.com, quoting your Pearson VUE case number – and, importantly, within seven days, otherwise your result will stand.

ACCOUNTING

And now for those exam-specific tips…

The facts

Sitting: on demand

Duration: 1.5 hours

Pass mark: 55%

Format: 24 multiple-choice questions (60%); 1 preparation of single company financial statements (40%)

Syllabus breakdown:

  1. Maintaining financial records (30%)
  2. Adjustments to accounting records and financial statements (25%)
  3. Preparing financial statements (45%)

The inside track

From Kieran Doe, ACA Masters

Accounting is the first ACA exam most students sit and it is one of the hardest because it has the biggest jump from where you start to where you need to get to in terms of technical knowledge. Understanding financial statements is fundamental to the ACA qualification and the content covered in Accounting is developed in several of the later exams; performing well here will set you up nicely for the rest of your ACA journey.

In order to pass Accounting, you need a comprehensive understanding of how financial statements are prepared. This is not a subject where you can get through on loosely knowing the facts and writing well – this exam is more scientific and you need to know the exact answer. Further, the examiners test you in a way that makes sure you know the content inside and out. There really is nowhere to hide.

The long question accounts for 40% of the marks. You will be required to prepare either a profit and loss statement and statement of financial position, or a cash flow statement. Your performance on this question will have a significant impact on your overall mark. If you obtain the full 16 marks here (and with enough practice it is possible to do so), then you only need to get six of the 24 multiple-choice questions correct in order to pass. Whereas if you perform poorly on the long question and only score four of the available 16 marks, then you will need to get 18 of the 24 multiple-choice questions correct in order to pass – quite a tall order. It might be tempting to think the multiple-choice questions are more straightforward, but they are by no means easy and some of the options are almost correct – one small error in your calculation will lead you to one of the incorrect options and a false confidence that you are correct.

In my experience, the two most common mistakes made by students are 1) not fully understanding the underlying technical concepts, and 2) not working on their exam technique. Therefore, when you are working through a topic, do not just try to memorise it – make sure you completely understand the principles of what you are doing and why. My other tip is to develop a good exam technique so that you can be quick and efficient; all the ACA exams are time pressured, and you need to develop the skill of scoring marks in as little time as possible.

A key weakness area for most students is the cash flow statement, both in Accounting and the later exams. I think there are a lot of students who go into the exam hoping that they do not get a cash flow statement as their long question! This is a risky strategy given how important a good performance on the long question is.

Students who perform well in Accounting are those who have a comprehensive understanding and know why they are doing everything they are doing. If the questions are different from those they have seen previously, they are able to apply their technical understanding to get to the right answer.

ASSURANCE

The facts

Sitting: on demand

Duration: 1.5 hours

Pass mark: 55%

Format: 50 multiple-choice questions (2 marks each)

Syllabus breakdown:

  1. The concept, process and need for assurance 20%
  2. Internal controls 25%
  3. Gathering evidence on an assurance engagement 35%
  4. Professional ethics 20%

The inside track

From Jenny Winstanley, Reed Business School

Assurance is another exam that students usually sit first: it’s fundamental to being a professional accountant, and is built on later at both the ACA Professional and Advanced Levels. At this level it is knowledge-based but, as assurance in the real world is all about application, some of the questions will be scenario-based. 

The key to passing this exam is being prepared to learn all the key theory elements: what assurance is; the different types of assurance; what audit risk is; the components of an internal control system; the various control activities; elements of all the different internal control cycles; what evidence needs to be; the financial assertions for both balances and transactions; the fundamental principles of the Code of Ethics; and general threats to independence. It’s also important to have a good awareness of the factors to consider before accepting an engagement, how the internal control cycles work in practice, substantive procedures for key balances, and the statement of profit or loss.

Non-auditors tend to find the substantive procedures area more challenging, as they have no practical knowledge to fall back on. Obviously you won’t have to come up with any actual tests in the exam, but it might give you an example of a substantive procedure and then ask what it is trying to achieve. So it’s important to know your financial statement assertions.

Once you have the knowledge, then it’s all about question practice – focusing in particular on any weak areas – using the workbook, the question bank and any additional questions from your tuition provider. There are also two sample exams available, and you can make up extra mocks from the question bank using the syllabus weighting.

The exam has 50 questions worth two marks each, and a lot of them will be multi-part – you must get all the parts right to get the two marks. Assurance is not the most time-pressured exam, so you may have time to flag any questions you’re not sure about and revisit them at the end. Some students will have time to go back over all the questions, but my advice is not to: you may end up changing right answers to wrong, so trust your gut!

BUSINESS, TECHNOLOGY AND FINANCE

The facts

Sitting: on demand

Duration: 1.5 hours

Pass mark: 55%

Format: 50 multiple-choice questions (2 marks each)

Syllabus breakdown:

  1. Business objectives and functions 10%
  2. Business and organisational structures 10%
  3. The role of finance and the finance function 25%
  4. Key issues for the accountancy profession and business 20%
  5. The external environment of business 15%
  6. Technology and data analysis 20%

The inside track

From Steve Checkley, First Intuition

Business, Technology and Finance has a reputation for being one of the ‘easier’ exams, but actually it’s got a super-high knowledge content, and one of the challenges is learning all the definitions and terms. In this exam the questions aren’t necessarily about thoroughly applying that knowledge – that happens later, in the next level with Business Strategy and Technology – but there’s a huge amount to learn. It’s a lot of very fine detail, too – there are four different definitions of ‘manager’ for example, and various acronyms to learn – so the challenge is to commit it all to memory. It’s like the world’s strangest quiz!

The six syllabus topics all have broadly similar weightings, so there’s no one area to focus on to get the majority of marks. What I do say to students, though, is that if there’s a particular area you’re struggling with, don’t get too hung up on it. Some students find the concept of elasticity in economics difficult, for example, but at the end of the day that’s probably only going to be a question or two if it does come up. The areas I find students generally aren’t quite so strong on are the wider accountancy profession and corporate governance, mainly because they can be quite dry subjects. 

When we sit a mock exam in class, I’m often surprised how quickly students get through it. There’s no computation involved at this level, just interpretation, and it’s those questions that tend to take the most time. If you do have extra time at the end, go back and check your answers. If you stumble on a question early on, don’t dwell on it – just flag it and park it for later. You might find you build your confidence later in the exam, or you might see another question that helps jog your memory.

My top tip is to take the exam as close as possible to having studied it. There’s a lot of information to assimilate quickly, and if you delay then you’re going to start losing it. Success lies in your memory retention technique and your ability to embed that knowledge. Flashcards, making sheets of key terms, spider diagrams and getting someone else to test you are all great ways of really getting it into your brain. 

I believe passing an exam like this is all down to question practice. The more you attempt, the more it will help you understand the nuances. When we do question practice in class, a well-revised student will be able to work out which of the answers is correct – or at least eliminate the wrong ones – but someone who hasn’t revised is not going to understand the terms. On the rare occasions that a student doesn’t pass, it's usually because they didn’t do enough question practice.

 

You can find resources for all the Certificate Level exams here and ICAEW CFAB here. Remember that marks feedback is available in the event of a failed exam – find it under the ‘Examinations’ tab of your online training file.

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