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Student Insights

Exam highs and lows – Certificate Level and ICAEW CFAB

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 30 Jul 2021

Exams highs lows
Top row from left: Tran Phuong Diem Hanh, Vietnam; Nguyen Dac Hieu, Vietnam; Maria Kythreotou, Cyprus; Christos Savvides, Cyprus
Bottom row from left: Megan Fitzpatrick, UK; Nguyen Quynh Nhu, Vietnam; Vuong Phuong Thanh, Vietnam; Yajna Christna, Mauritius

In the first of a series of round tables, we chat to a group of Certificate Level and ICAEW CFAB students from around the world to find out more about their studying and exam experience.

Q What inspired you to complete the ICAEW CFAB/Certificate Level qualification?

Hanh: I’m studying an ICAEW CFAB integrated programme at the National Economics University in Hanoi, so passing all the modules is one of the graduating conditions. I’m in my final year now, and have completed five out of the six modules.

Nhu: I have also completed five modules – I’m a third-year student at the Foreign Trade University in Hanoi. When I started, I was considering both the ACCA and ICAEW qualifications. ICAEW is one of the most reputable bodies in accounting in Vietnam, so I felt the ICAEW CFAB would be more valuable.

Yajna: I agree – it’s a qualification that is recognised worldwide. We have many people in Mauritius who are doing it, and there are big opportunities in the workplace. So that’s really a motivating factor – you can see where you’re going to be in some years going forward.

Thanh: I felt it would help me gain an internship position, especially in an auditing firm. My university, British University Vietnam, has a partner programme with a company that provides ICAEW CFAB training, and I thought it would be a good way not only to enhance my knowledge, but also to gain credibility when applying for internships. 

Maria: For me, it was the opportunity to gain work experience while studying. I was considering doing a master’s after my maths degree, but I liked the idea of seeing what I was studying in practice, and gaining greater insight that way. 

Christos: It was my goal even before university to pursue the ACA qualification. I was inspired by my father, who used to work in a bank, and I chose my degree in accounting and finance because it gave me exemptions towards the qualification – I had exemptions from four of the six ICAEW CFAB modules.

Hieu: My major is not accounting or finance – I won a scholarship in my second year of university to study the ICAEW CFAB. At the time I didn’t really get the idea of accounting or auditing, but I was interested in a career in finance, so I decided to jump on the qualification right away – and I really enjoyed the knowledge and skill I got from it.

Megan: I don’t have a finance or business background – I’ve got a degree in English Literature and Language. My job involves networking with senior finance professionals, so for me it was a way to learn about something I didn’t know much about, and bring myself up to be on a bit more of a level playing field.

Q Are you completing it with tuition or via self-study?

Nhu: Like Hieu, I got a scholarship for the accounting modules through a competition at university. I had a tutor for the first module, but I taught myself for the others. I set myself a goal to finish all the studying and take the exam for each module within about six weeks, and that was hard because I had a lot of other university work and exams at the same time.

Megan: I’m doing it quite slowly because I’m teaching myself. I’ve found it quite hard to motivate myself at times, especially during the first lockdown last year. I need time pressure to make myself work, so I look at my diary to see when I’m going to be able to put enough time in, and then just pick a date for the exam. It’s long days when you’re studying around work, and it does get quite intense. And because I’m doing it partly because I enjoy learning, I want to give myself the space to enjoy the thinking and taking on new information.

Christos: My company has implemented self-studying for some of the modules, like Law and Accounting. Colleagues who have been through the self-studying process have told me that it’s really difficult; it’s not the same having a mentor and studying alone, because you don’t have that personal contact and all the things that come with it.

Q Have you found the studying challenging?

Thanh: I think the level of knowledge in the ICAEW CFAB and Certificate Level is challenging. You need a basic knowledge and background to fully understand the complex questions in the question bank. But I keep saying to myself that the reality is complex like that! And that helps me to reduce my stress in practising the challenging questions and motivates me to learn more.

Maria: Before deciding to do the Certificate Level I had heard from a lot of people that it was difficult – not so much in terms of the syllabus or the tuition, but in terms of the pressure you’re experiencing and the fact that you have to manage your time and be very disciplined. So I came prepared, but it was harder than I expected, especially my first exam, Accounting.

Megan: To be honest I was expecting it to be a breeze, but it’s been quite hard, and there are a lot of complicated things to get your head around. The first couple of exams, Assurance and Business, Technology and Finance, I found easier because it’s more a case of right or wrong. But the Management Information and Accounting exams I found much harder because you have to work through problems and use your brain a bit more. 

Yajna: I agree – I thought it was going to be straightforward. But it’s not just learning the theory – you have to apply some logical thinking, and try to navigate through the questions quickly and find the answers, even if it’s multiple choice.

Q How did you feel going into the exams and then waiting for the results – were you confident?

Hanh: I was really confident before the exams. I believed I would pass, but I set a really high target for myself – my university has prizes for students who score over 80 – and I wasn’t sure whether I would achieve that. So I was confident but nervous at the same time!

Nhu: I felt the same as Hanh – I was confident because I had prepared well, but I was also nervous waiting for the results. But I learned on the day before the exams to relax and reduce the pressure, so I can clear my head and feel more confident. I also made sure I got to the test centre early so that I didn’t feel rushed, and that helped me to feel calm.

Maria: The night before exam results is really nerve-wracking – you don’t get much sleep! And because all students have different questions, you can’t compare your answers, so it’s more difficult to know whether you did well or not. But I felt confident that I had passed most of mine, apart from that first Accounting one.

Christos: It’s good that the results are up the next day. You may be confident, but you can never be 100% sure that you passed. But the timing of the results is really helpful, because you can understand what you did wrong the previous day and be prepared for the next sitting, which can be just a few days later.

Q Did you sit any exams via remote invigilation? How did you find the experience?

Maria: I did all my Certificate Level exams at the exam centre except one, during lockdown last year. It was quite a different experience! There’s the added pressure of worrying that the technology won’t work, but actually everything ran smoothly. It did feel like I was taking a mock though, rather than an actual exam, because it was in the place where I study all the time.

Megan: I agree – it’s funny doing an exam at home. The first time I did remote invigilation it was really difficult, and I found it hard trying to keep myself on track. But the next ones were much easier. To start with I missed the adrenaline rush of going to an exam centre, but actually it’s less stressful, so I’m going to do the next one remotely by choice.

Yajna: For me it all worked really well. You have to test your system first when you’re applying for the exams, so I knew everything was good: my internet speed was up to the requirements and my laptop was working fine. And the on boarding was really simple – the only thing that stressed me out was that the picture on my ID card doesn’t look like me! But it was all fine.

Q Did you fail any exams? How did that feel?

Hieu: In my fourth exam I got 54 out of 100 [just under the pass mark of 55]. It was a bit embarrassing. I was quite surprised as I thought I’d done well enough to pass. But after that day I got much more serious about studying and did a lot more practice for the remaining modules.

Christos: The exam I failed I got 53. Like Hieu, that was really tough for me because I thought I’d passed. But then I realised my mistakes and understood what had gone wrong: it was my first exam, and I wasn’t focused or prepared enough. At least at Certificate Level you can take the exam again whenever you want – three days later I sat it again and passed.

Hieu: Yes, that is one of the benefits. I retook that test about a week later, so the knowledge was still very fresh in my head, and I passed.

Yajna: I had a fail on the borderline too, the Management Information exam. It was a shock, but I knew I didn’t give very much effort because I was really busy with work at the time, so I couldn’t revise. I plan to take it again this year, when I have time with work to revise and take it seriously.

Q How important is the support of fellow students and senior professionals when studying for ICAEW CFAB or Certificate Level exams?

Hanh: I have my ICAEW CFAB modules at university, so I have my classmates to study with and the teachers really supporting us to pass the exams. We all study really hard and motivate each other, and our teachers motivate us with things like the prizes for high scores.

Thanh: My major is in accounting and finance, so I have a range of friends with the same interests, as well as my teachers and the tutors in my training centre to ask if there’s something I don’t understand. My teachers have taught many others who have previously passed the modules, so I can always ask them to put me in contact with them for advice and tips.

Megan: I have a mentor at work who has been just fantastic. It’s been so helpful, especially when you’re isolated anyway because everyone is working from home. It’s been a really nice way to connect with someone internally in a different team, and it’s improved our working relationship. 

Yajna: We set up a student community as part of our Student Society last year. We now have a group of around 150 students connected through a Facebook group, so we can ask questions and help each other out. Throughout my Certificate Level I’ve been able to help other students, because we were all studying at home online, so we created a small group, and helped each other with questions. I work in a company where there are no other students doing the ACA, I’m the only one.

Nhu: I’m also the only one in my class studying for the ICAEW CFAB. It’s been quite hard for me to learn by myself, but I shared this with one of the ICAEW staff and she put me in touch with other teachers and people who had passed the exams. So that’s been really useful.

Q And what about the support and resources available from ICAEW – what have you found most useful?

Thanh: I think the question bank is really useful. There were some parts of the learning materials that I found confusing or difficult to understand, but the explanation in the answer part of the question bank was really useful, and helped me to better understand the phrases and knowledge in the workbooks.

Hieu: I agree with Thanh – I always go to the question bank two or three times before the exam. I also use the sample exams on the ICAEW website the day before to practise.

Nhu: As well as the question bank, the ICAEW Facebook community has many people that have passed the exams, and they share their experience. And there is a syllabus overview document that you can download to review your knowledge.

Yajna: The Student Support team is really helpful. Although they have a lot of queries throughout the day, they try to respond to you quickly when you have an issue. Especially throughout Covid, when we were really stressed not knowing whether we would be doing remote invigilation or going to the exam centres, they were really quick in responding to us.

Christos: I think ICAEW takes good care of students; the resources that they provide, the software that they are trying to improve, the application that we have on our mobile that helps us see the results – all this stuff.

Q Do you have any advice for other students studying for the ICAEW CFAB or Certificate Level exams?

Hanh: Having colleagues and friends studying with you is really important, because you can share anything with them. Sometimes you might have a question and it’s too late for a teacher, in the middle of the night say, but you can ask your friends and there is always someone who can answer you immediately.

Thanh: I would say decide your interests and career path first, and choose the most suitable qualification. Then just practise and practise the question bank to pass the exams, and connect with other students for advice and tips.

Hieu: Again, I agree with Thanh that students need to know their interests and their career path first. Then it’s the same as with anything: you have to work really hard and do a lot of practice to actually grasp the knowledge.

Maria: I would tell them not to give up. As Christos said, he failed one exam but now he’s doing great, so one fail does not have to set you back. Also don’t be afraid to pursue it or think that just because you’re studying something irrelevant it will not be a great fit for you. There’s a very strong community of past students who can help throughout the process and give you support, because everyone has been through what you are going through right now.

We have a range of resources to support you on your journey. Visit the Certificate Level exam resources or the ICAEW CFAB exam resources

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