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Student Insights

My ACA journey – the first exams

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 02 Dec 2021

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Audit trainee and ACA student Ashwini Poopalasingham has faced her first Certificate Level exams – and admits that the experience was a huge wake-up call.

I sat my first two Certificate Level exams, Accounting and Assurance, at the end of October. It was very intense – I had two weeks at college for both modules, then the Accounting exam was a week and a half later, and Assurance a week after that. The tuition itself was good – it was in person, so I was able to ask lots of questions, and I had completed some preparatory study beforehand, so I knew what to expect.

In terms of content I found it OK – the challenge was in how much we had to cover in such a short period of time. As soon as the two weeks of college were finished, I was straight back into the office, and trying to balance client work with revision before the first exam 10 days later. Luckily my managers were very understanding, and let me work from home so that I could use the time I would have spent commuting for revision instead.

To be honest, it was very overwhelming. I had a panic attack one day during revision, and then again during the first exam. I think it was the timing that panicked me, and the amount of information I had to take in. Part of it was also getting used to a new way of learning, and sitting an exam under proper conditions again – the last time I had to do that was in 2019, as I did a placement in 2020, and my final university exams earlier this year were all online.

During the Accounting exam, my mind just went blank. I was flagging lots of questions for review, and each time I did I could see the number of flagged questions rising and it made me start to panic. I was thinking, ‘Why can’t I do this? Why isn’t my brain engaging with this question?’ When I came out I thought I had probably failed. I went straight to work, and when I got home I just had to carry on revising for the next exam. But I couldn’t sleep that night. I got up at 5am to check my results, and I’d scraped a pass. So that was a huge weight off my shoulders.

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A week later, I sat the Assurance exam, and I failed. I was really shocked at first, because I thought it had gone OK, and actually I wasn’t far off a pass. I didn’t cope very well, I think because I’d never failed anything official like that before. It was my buddy at work who helped me through it, she was amazing. We hadn’t seen each other for a while, but we were both in the office one day, so we organised a meeting room and just chatted about it all. She gave me lots of tips and really helped me see it in a different light. Speaking to other ACA students I know helped too – they all said how challenging it can be at the beginning because it’s a completely different way of learning.

I resat the Assurance exam a week later, and I definitely felt more prepared. I was still nervous about getting my result the next morning, but I felt a bit more confident – and I got a really good score. Later that same day, I also found out that I’ve been granted exemptions for two of the Certificate Level modules, Management Information, and Business, Technology and Finance, so that turned out to be a really good day! That was thanks to my buddy too – my degree wasn’t listed under the ICAEW Credit for Prior Learning directory, but she suggested applying anyway. It’s such a relief to have those exemptions, especially as I know work is going to be very busy over the next few months. 

For me, it was the timing of the Accounting and Assurance exams being so close together that was the issue – it was burnout. Failing Assurance the first time turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it’s meant that the Principles of Taxation exam, which I should have been sitting in November, has been moved back to March. And because of the two exemptions, I now don’t have my next exam, Law, until February.

I’m finding work really interesting – I definitely prefer the work to taking the exams! I’ve found my way around the software now, and I’m really enjoying the variety – I’m working on a different client pretty much every week. The managers I’ve had are so nice to work with too – I don’t hesitate to ask them anything, which is always a good sign. It’s a busy time of year, but I’m making the most of not having to revise at the moment, catching up with friends and watching The Great British Bake Off religiously!

That failure was a huge wake-up call, but I believe things happen for a reason. And I’m glad it happened at the beginning rather than later on. It’s helped me understand how to better prepare next time, and that I need to take breaks and not burn myself out. It’s also taught me how important it is to be sure that I fully understand everything, not just memorise it. I think that’s the difference with these exams: school and university exams are more of a memory test; if you can remember the stuff, you’ll get the stuff right. With the ACA exams you have to understand every part of it, because you’re going to be applying it in your actual work – and, in fact, I already am.

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