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Student Insights

My ACA Journey: the home straight

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 28 May 2024

ACA student Ashwini Poopalasingham young asian woman standing in front of a brick wall and tree black clothing long hair

As she prepares for her first Advanced Level exams, Ashwini Poopalasingham looks back at everything she’s learned so far, and forwards to life after the qualification.

I’m now part-qualified and preparing for my first two Advanced Level exams, so completing the ACA is in sight! This time last year, I faced my toughest exam challenge yet, and a few weeks later found out that I’d failed Business Planning: Taxation (BPT). It wasn’t a big surprise – I knew when I came out of the exam that it hadn’t gone well. The run-up to BPT and Business Strategy and Technology (BST) coincided with my busy season at work, and I just wasn’t able to spend as much time studying as I would have liked. I also found those two modules challenging – they’re big topics that require really good technique; it’s not just a case of learning facts.

Although I was expecting to fail BPT, it’s always disheartening – there’s part of you that hopes you might have done enough to scrape a pass! In a strange way, though, it also gave me confidence. It was a really tough exam – everyone found it difficult – so it didn’t knock my self-belief. I re-sat the exam in December, and the second time around I knew I’d done enough. There was a silver lining to failing, too: it meant that my Advanced Level exams were pushed back to this year, instead of starting in November. Some of my colleagues went straight back to college over the summer, and I saw how stressful they found it. I’m really glad I had that break.

Studying strategies

One of the things I’ve learned over the past few years is the importance of taking breaks. It’s tempting to think that the more hours you put in, the better you’ll do, but it doesn’t work that way. I finished college tuition for my next exams, Corporate Reporting (CR) and Strategic Business Management (SBM), a couple of weeks ago and started studying straight away that weekend, but nothing was clicking. I was a bit under the weather, we had family visiting from abroad, so I decided to just stop – and not beat myself up about it! After two weeks of college, when you’ve put so much new information into your brain, you need that mental break. I felt so much more positive when I went back to it a few days later, and was able to engage a lot more with the questions. I’ve promised myself I’m not going to burn out this time.

I’m quite disciplined when it comes to studying. When I’m revising for two exams at once, I try to divide my time equally, alternating practice questions. If there’s one module I find a bit easier, as I did with Financial Management, then I try to spend more time on the other, with a ratio of two questions to one. I haven’t found a balance yet with CR and SBM because I’m still learning the content, and the questions are so different. It’s definitely a big jump up from Professional Level – some of the questions have six or seven exhibits to look at rather than one or two. I keep telling myself it’s still early days and I’m sure it will be second nature by the time the exams come around.

Another advantage of delaying the Advanced Level is that I’ve got friends who’ve already sat these two exams, and they’ve given me tips and shared their materials with me. I’m currently focusing on preparing my open-book resources – I’ve created a summary page for CR and shared it with my colleagues, and someone else has made one for SBM and sent it around. It’s nice to have that network and a pool of knowledge you can dip into. 

I’ve sat lots of exams now but I still get nervous. The day before, I usually just read through my material and go back over my mocks and feedback rather than doing any last-minute question practice. Then I’ll try to get an early night, though I don’t tend to sleep well. By the time you get to the morning of the exam, you’ve just got to go for it! Breathing is important as well – it’s such an underestimated thing, just to breathe. 

ACA student Ashwini Poopalasingham young asian woman standing in London city street long hair black blazer

Looking ahead

I’ve booked a few days’ annual leave before the sitting in July to give me time to really focus – that’s something I wish I’d done with the last two Professional Level exams. Communicating with managers is also key; making sure they’re aware of what you’ve got going on so that you can find a compromise. That’s another thing I learned from taking BPT a second time - finding that balance. 

It helps that work is more manageable than it was this time last year. I got some really positive feedback from managers I’d worked with at my last appraisal, too, which gave me a boost. And I’ve worked on a few statutory audits, one of which was particularly large and complex, so that was a good learning opportunity. My main aim now is to tackle those bigger kinds of projects. 

I’ve started to think about life post-qualification, and what I might like to do next in my career. My firm offers a four-month secondment in Australia, as well as a data analytics rotation, so there are plenty of opportunities. Data analytics is something I’m definitely interested in, especially with artificial intelligence playing such an important role in the world now. Australia would be great too, but only if it’s the right thing – a data analytics opportunity in Australia would be the best of both worlds!

Now that I’ve reached the Advanced Level, I’m really starting to see how everything I’ve learned over the course of the ACA links together. I’m also a more confident person than I was at the start, and my time management has improved. Hopefully everything goes smoothly with my final three exams, and I’ll soon be a fully-qualified Chartered Accountant.

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