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Student Insights

Exam highs and lows – Advanced Level

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 01 Apr 2022

Exams main
Left: Fay Bartlett, audit senior, PEM Accountants, Cambridge
Right: Jasmine Cheong, audit associate, EY Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur

In the third and final of our series of round tables, two ACA students share their experiences of studying for and sitting their Advanced Level exams.

Q What inspired you to complete the ACA?

Fay: For me, it was the opportunities it gives you. Once you’ve got the ACA under your belt, you can go off and do so many different things. I work in audit, and I see people doing a variety of things every single day.

Jasmine: It’s pretty similar for me, because I feel it’s a very holistic programme. It doesn’t limit you to just doing audit – I’m also in audit, specifically for banking and finance, but you can see how the ICAEW qualification will benefit you no matter what career you choose.

Q Where are you in your training?

Fay: I started straight out of school. I joined Grant Thornton in Cambridge when I was 18, and started studying for the AAT. The Level 4 AAT qualification gave me exemptions for the ACA Certificate Level, so then I moved on to the Professional and Advanced Levels. I’ve got two exams left out of 25 in total, so the end is coming! I sat Strategic Business Management in November, so I just have Corporate Reporting and the Case Study to go, which I’m planning to take in July and November.

Jasmine: I’m currently working at EY Malaysia, and I also have two Advanced Level exams left. I sat Corporate Reporting in November but I failed, so I will take that one again in July.

Q How have you found the Advanced Level compared to the Professional Level?

Fay: It’s definitely a step up, not so much the learning, but how the exams are structured – it’s a more practical approach. With Strategic Business Management, for example, there are only two questions, but you have to go into much more depth. The most challenging thing for me was not knowing how the marks were split across the different points in the question.

Jasmine: I agree. For me, it was certainly a step up. I think one of the biggest differences is that for the Advanced Level, we integrate and apply knowledge that we’ve gained throughout the Professional Level – and that’s actually quite difficult. As Fay said, I also had the same struggle to figure out which points I should be spending more time on to get more marks.

Q How do you find balancing work and studying?

Jasmine: It’s been difficult, especially when I was attempting my most recent exams in November. Although I did have quite a few days of study leave, once you’re working you keep getting pulled back to work, especially in audit. When it comes down to it, it’s just about making sure that you put time aside, and doing small bits at a time – even 10 minutes of revision is better than nothing if you can’t find a full hour.

Fay: I completely agree. As a school leaver I have five years’ experience under my belt by this point, and therefore my role on audits is more key. There’s a lot of pressure to take responsibility and ownership, and if something doesn’t go to plan for whatever reason, I still have to make sure it goes over the line. So I’ve struggled with that a bit.

Q How have you found studying online rather than in person?

Jasmine: All my tuition up to Advanced Level was in person, but since then it has been online, so that was a new struggle. 

Fay: Yes, mine has all gone completely online too. I struggle to concentrate on the same thing for an extended period of time, so I found learning with pre-recorded videos really difficult. My exam results suffered as a result – I could see the difference from being quite generously over the pass mark to just scraping through.

Q How did you feel going into the exams – were you confident?

Jasmine: I was not! I was actually in hospital for a few days in October, which made studying difficult. So I wasn’t very confident. Corporate Reporting was the first exam I’ve failed – everything up until now has been smooth sailing. It was mainly a lack of preparation, though I did struggle a bit with the time and the data analytics software. When I found out I’d failed, I was disappointed but not surprised. It’s a difficult exam and failing is not the end of the world. You can always have another try.

Fay: I’m always nervous going into exams no matter how much I’ve studied. With Strategic Business Management I passed the mocks, so that set me in good stead, but overall the nerves never shift for me! I found the change in exam conditions since the pandemic difficult too. I failed Business Planning: Taxation at Professional Level the first time – it was an open-book exam, and the space available with my books and laptop made it really tricky. I just ran out of time.

Q How important is the support of fellow students when studying for the ACA?

Fay: It’s definitely good to have people with you who are in the same boat, as you keep each other accountable. Also, with remote learning, when you don’t have a tutor immediately available to ask questions, you can ask each other if there’s something you don’t understand. So that’s been really key.

Jasmine: I find it vital as well. Especially in online classes, it makes a big difference to have people around you. And aside from sharing knowledge, I think it’s important just to be with people who are going through the same things that we are.

Q What resources have you found most useful?

Fay: All the exam resources are really helpful, particularly the past exams, and being able to practise with the data analytics software for Corporate Reporting. The Student Insights articles are great too – it’s comforting to know there are other people across the world who are going through the same thing as you – and I try to attend lots of events and webinars, because they can be really useful for advice and insights as well.

Jasmine: I agree, these are all useful. There’s a lot of ICAEW-related resources online too – even if you search on YouTube, you’ll be able to find quite a lot.

Q What’s your advice for other students considering the ACA, or studying for the Advanced Level?

Fay: Know that you will have to work hard, it’s not going to be easy, but at the end it will be so rewarding. So just persevere! Also, speak to other people around you because you’re not in it on your own. There are so many others, whether that’s within your own firm or the ICAEW world, who are going through the same thing.

Jasmine: I agree, and also to utilise the resources that are there. I think it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you start, so do your research and talk to people. Once you reach the Advanced Level, many people start to feel demotivated because it gets significantly more difficult, so you need to have a reason to keep going.


We have a range of resources to support you on your journey. You can find the Advanced Level exam resources here.

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