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student insights

Find your own approach to studying the ACA

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 02 Feb 2021

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From switching career paths and finding the right fit in an employer to fine-tuning his approach to the ACA, Chris Sutcliffe is a great believer in following your own path.

It was while studying sports science at university that Chris Sutcliffe started to seriously consider a career in finance. His degree choice was based on the advice he had been given at school – to pursue the subject he found most interesting – and he admits that, at the time, he didn’t really appreciate the opportunities accountancy could offer.

“That first year at university opened my eyes to the world of business finance,” he says. “When the recruitment fairs and career discussions started, it really broke the stigma around accounting for me, and showed that it’s not just number crunching, it’s advising on all sorts of business-related issues. The opportunities are infinite really.”

It also helped that he had a successful role model at home: his mother worked for the Halifax (in their home town of Halifax, West Yorkshire) for more than 30 years, and he had seen first-hand the diversity of her role and her career progression.

In his second year at university, Chris attended an insight day at PwC in Birmingham, which further reinforced the idea of making a change. “But I decided that, rather than dropping out of my sports degree, I’d use the platform to kick on into a master’s degree and switch disciplines at that level,” he says.

After completing his master’s in finance, Chris followed the “well-trodden path” of working for a year to save up enough money to go travelling. On his return in September 2017, he joined Legal & General’s finance graduate scheme. It was the size and scope of the firm that appealed to him, he says, as well as its culture. “I liked its purpose of building a better society and investing in the real economy,” he explains. “A lot of the work we do is around urban regeneration in under-invested areas. That really struck a chord with me, and I thought it would be a good cultural fit.”

He also liked the fact that the scheme had a relatively small intake – just six graduates in the finance section – and offered year-long rotations through different departments: in his case, Group Statutory and Regulatory Reporting, Investment Management, and his current department, Group Tax.

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Moving to London and starting a new full-time job after travelling for a year was tough, especially as Chris also began studying for the ACA at the same time. When he joined Legal & General, he was given the option of working towards the ACCA and CIMA qualifications, but chose the ACA because he felt it offered a greater breadth of topics. “It wasn’t just technical knowledge – there’s an emphasis on professional skills alongside the core accounting,” he explains. “It felt to me that the ACA opens more doors. It’s easy to switch between practice and industry, and it tends to be the preferred qualification.”

He says that he found balancing work and studying difficult at first. “The balance was tough for the first couple of exams, just to know when to say no to work and prioritise studying,” he explains. “But once I found my own method a couple of exams in, it was manageable. I found a tuition provider I liked and stuck with them throughout, and I found a method I enjoyed.

“It’s about finding an approach that works for you. You should definitely pick the brains of people who have done it before and ask what their approach was, but there’s no one-size-fits-all way to complete the ACA. You need to find your own way, from doing the training file to sitting the exams – and you need to find a good balance.”

Having passed all his exams first time, Chris qualified as an ICAEW Chartered Accountant in December. “At the onset it felt a million miles away and quite unachievable, so to do it with first-time passes in three years is something I never thought I would achieve,” he says. “Equally it’s a bit surreal – I was sat at home on my own when I got the results, and I’ve not had a chance to celebrate properly yet. But it’s definitely one of my proudest achievements.”

For him, the pandemic wasn’t all bad news – the fact that the July Advanced Level exams were pushed back from July to August last year actually worked in his favour. “July is the middle of our half-year process, so it’s a really busy time in our team. August is typically quieter, so it meant that I could have some time off to prepare.”

Like many others, Chris has been working from home since last March, and has been into the office in London just once in that time. “Because we’re an internal function in Group Tax, most of our stakeholders are internal too, so thankfully it’s a lot less strange having to do virtual chats with people you work with. I have missed face-to-face contact, though, and the ability to just turn around and ask a question.”

He has a great support network around him at Legal & General. “We’ve had a very close grad community,” he says. “You get assigned a buddy in the year above aligned with the qualification you’re doing, then you have your counsellor who signs off your training file, and each year group has its own exam manager. You can kind of see it from all angles: you’ve got grads in the year above who’ve gone through what you’re going through 12 months earlier, you’ve got people who’ve been qualified for 30 years, and you’ve got people who are just looking at the exams. So it’s a really good network of colleagues and mentors.”

Having now completed the three-year graduate scheme, Chris plans to stay with the Group Tax team until later this year, then look for a more permanent role within the firm. “I have no desire to leave,” he says. “It’s a great company from what I’ve experienced so far, and there are so many opportunities here.”

Under normal circumstances – and with more free time on his hands – he would now be returning to his first love of sport: running, boxing, and playing football and rugby league. “But for the immediate future, my spare time is going to be going into wedding planning with my fiancée,” he says. “We always said we’d do it once we’ve finished studying, and we’ve got the date pencilled in for June next year.”