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Student Insights

Meet the prize winner: Mandy Lai

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 01 Feb 2024

Mandy Lai ACA student prizewinner Malaysia young woman black hair black suit blue background

Mandy credits a strong support network and the right work-life balance, as well as a knowledge-based approach to studying, with her continued exam success.

Mandy’s top tips for exam success

Make a plan

I might not have a five-year plan, but I do have a weekly plan. Each Sunday night, I write a list of what I want to achieve that week. I try to make it as realistic as possible, and if I don’t achieve it all, I don’t feel too guilty. The world isn’t going to end if I don’t tick everything off my to-do list.

Study smart

Practising exam questions allows you to test your knowledge and familiarise yourself with the format. The marking scheme is your best friend here because, although the questions are all different, the type of questions are standardised, and there will be model answers. They’ll help you learn what the examiners are looking for.

Work hard…

There is no secret here. Work hard and follow your lecturers’ advice. Accept that for two or three weeks before your exams, you will be putting in more hours than usual into studying and revision. Personally, I find working with my friends to be really motivating.

… But find time for yourself

I try to run at least once a week, I play badminton, and I go to the pool with my friends. Make time to get away from your desk and have fun. And reward yourself: I focus on the small stuff, like an ice cream once you’ve completed a question.

Have a goal

It’s important to have something to work towards. For me, it’s making my family proud, especially my grandfather. When I told him I won the prize he said, “Thanks to you, I can sleep with a smile – I even dream with a smile!”

Mandy Lai may have only decided on pursuing the ACA the night before her application deadline, but it’s proving to have been a fruitful decision. Hailing from Sunway College in Malaysia, Mandy has picked up a series of honours since enrolling in September 2021: the Knox Prize for Professional Level Financial Accounting and Reporting in December 2022; the Watts Prize for Professional Level Audit and Assurance in March 2023; and, most recently, the Knox Prize for Professional Level Tax Compliance in June 2023.

That latest prize prompted congratulations from the King and Queen of Malaysia, no less. “That came as quite a shock,” says Mandy. “I was actually taking a nap – my mum woke me up to the news. It was all over social media!”

Despite her success, Mandy says she initially struggled with the transition from school to training. “I found Certificate Level difficult because I tried to learn it all,” she says. “By the time I reached Professional Level, I realised I didn’t need to completely memorise the textbooks. That reduced a lot of the unnecessary pressure I was putting on myself. The ACA tests your knowledge rather than your memory, so you need to understand the material, not just regurgitate it.”

As well as changing her approach to learning, Mandy says she is sustained by the friendships she has forged during the qualification. “My friends make studying a lot less daunting, especially when exams are looming” she explains. “I make it a point to study with them. It motivates us to keep going.” 

Those connections have helped Mandy find a better work-life balance, too. “In that first year, all I did was study, eat and sleep,” she says. “My friends told me that doesn’t sound very fun, so the day before one of my assessments they took me out for a swim. They told me to relax and take a break from my studies. I ended up getting 100 in that assessment. That’s when I realised I didn’t have to study all day, every day to get the results that I wanted.”

What does the future hold for Mandy? “I’ve received a few offers already, but I’m waiting for the results of my final Professional Level exam before applying for a training contract,’ she says. “I’d like to start in one of the Big Four and see how things go, but there’s no five-year plan for me. As long as I do my best at every step, I don’t think I’ll regret anything.”

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