Did you know that if you whisper the words “leaving certificate” into an Irish person’s ear, you can visibly see the shiver as it travels down their spine? Jokes aside, exam stress is very real, and for trainee accountants getting ready for their Association of Chartered Accountant (ACA) or Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) exams, it can be particularly tough because they will also be juggling a full-time job.
We’ve found that every trainee accountant tends to have their own techniques to tackle the challenge, but we thought getting a few insights from our own Ellen Dudley could be very beneficial for accountants looking for study tips. Why? Well, we’re proud to say Ellen has proved she knows how to keep a cool head in the face of exam pressure because she just came 4th in Ireland for her CAP 1 ACA chartered accountancy exams!
We sat down with Ellen to chat about what she thought of the exams and the preparation involved. This is what we found out…
How it works
The classes for trainee accountants are set up so that you work as a trainee from 9 to 5 at an accountancy practice during the week, and then you go to your classes in the evening or at the weekends. Classes can be three-hour long sessions or all day at the weekend. For ACA students, there is a final year exam covering all the subjects, and for ACCA students, there is one exam every quarter so that by the end of the year they have all the subjects completed.
Choosing between ACA and ACCA
Ellen chose to do ACA instead of ACCA for a number of reasons. ACCA taps into all the conveniences modern technology can offer by allowing students to attend classes from home. Lectures are recorded live, and students can ask questions from the comfort of their home with the lecturer being able to respond in real-time. However, the upshot is that students who prefer to attend the classes in person can find themselves with only a couple of other classmates for company, or even none! The ACA tends to have a much fuller class because although students can still study from home, the recordings are of old lectures. Therefore, if you want to be involved in the live event, you have to show up for class! The Big Four prefer to send their trainee accountants to ACA because attendance is visible and checked. Therefore, if someone was to fail an exam, they can check if they had attended their lectures. Ellen chose to do ACA because of the comradery that comes with a real-life class. In this scenario, you get to grab a pint after class while swapping study notes and progress with the same classmates from one year to the next, just like in college.
CAP 1 covers the basics…
The first-year programme is called CAP 1 and, for Ellen, it took place from October 2017 to April 2018. The great thing about CAP 1 is that it covers a general overview of the basics. Therefore, for a trainee accountant working in a small practice a lot of what is being covered can be practically applied straight away:
“My job is very varied. I’d experience a lot of tax issues, management accounting, the legal side of things, bookkeeping and general financial accounting. CAP 1 is very practical and you find yourself thinking about specific clients, ‘This would really work for Gary because he is looking to save on tax’ and applying what you’re learning to a real situation.” – Ellen
For someone working in the Big Four, the experience could be different because with such a large organisation they may be only focused on one particular area. However, this is just CAP 1 and as the years progress and the subject matter changes, Ellen has heard that it can become less relevant to day-to-day work.
Ellen’s top study techniques
For the ACA you are advised to take three to four weeks off to study for the exam. Ellen, a self-confessed nerd who loves exams, thought she wouldn’t need all that time. In the end, however, every minute counted! So how exactly did she use this study time? Here are Ellen’s three hot tips for exam success…
1. Practice and repeat!
You need to read about a subject to learn about it, but reading is not enough. The most important thing to do is to practice. It is easy to think you understand something completely when you’re reading it, but when you actually sit down to do the calculation don’t be surprised if you forget everything! Take the time to do your calculations not once, not twice, but as many times as it takes until it feels comfortable. This is your new study mantra – read, practice, repeat!
2. Pomodoro technique
Have you ever been in a stationery shop and seen a tomato-shaped egg timer? Well, it’s not an egg timer. It’s a study timer! Ellen has been using the Pomodoro technique since the leaving cert and it has stood her in good stead. It’s a time management system devised by Francesco Cirillo which states that you should spend 25 minutes studying and then take a 5-minute break. Mark the page where you took the break and continue with this routine until you have 4 check marks. At this point, you take a longer break of about half an hour. After that, the process starts again from the beginning.
3. Create new neural pathways (easier than it sounds!)
Ellen adds her own spin to the Pomodoro technique for an added study boost! After the 25 minutes is up, she takes out a blank sheet of paper and jots down all things she just learnt in the 25-minute session. The next day she spends 5 minutes trying to recall everything that she wrote on the sheet. Then she goes back to the sheet and circles the things she didn’t remember. A week later she will try to recall the sheet again.
“It’s important not to look at the sheet when you try to recall because it is the retrieving of information in the brain that creates new neural pathways. As for the things you forget and have to go back and check, they’re the things you’ll never forget again.” – Ellen
We’re sure that Ellen’s study techniques would work for any exam situation, accountancy-related or otherwise. Just don’t forget to reward yourself occasionally and get enough rest before you tackle a new day!