Before reading, please note that this is an extremely subjective blog. What I find difficult another person may not and vice versa. Find the details of my academic background here if interested (no prior accounting experience). Therefore, this is my personal opinion on how hard the ICAEW ACA exams are. I will also include ICAEW pass rates from the ICAEW website throughout to help give a clearer, more factual picture of ACA exam difficulty. Finally, I have ranked these exams in order of difficulty. I have shared my exam marks here too for further context!
This blog is grouped into the three ACA Levels (Certificate, Professional and Advanced) to discuss the ACA exam difficulty. For additional details on an individual module basis, please refer to those hyperlinked 15 ACA Exams Breakdown three part blogs.
Table of Contents
- General Difficulty of ICAEW ACA Exams
- How Difficult are the ICAEW ACA Exams?
- 15 ACA Exams Difficulty Ranking
- ACA Exam Difficulty Wrap Up
General Difficulty of ICAEW ACA Exams
The most common question I get asked around ACA exam difficulty is asking how hard the exams are with a comparison. For example, are ACA exams harder than university exams/A-Levels? It is worth mentioning that in my first blog I did mention the Level 7 ACA Apprenticeship is equivalent to a Masters. Therefore naturally you would think the ACA would be much harder.
Conversely, I think passing the exams is actually quite achievable. Although there were times I did not think this was the case when sitting the mock examinations. The struggle with ACA exams comes where you have to balance studying with a full time job and all the other ACA requirements. The difficulty can be intensified by having to sit more than one exam at once. I will be discussing these aspects in later blog posts so join the journey to find out more.
To answer the question how hard is the ACA as a whole, as a BSc Economics and Mathematics graduate with no prior accounting experience, the ACA exams are difficult. They are difficult but they are definitely passable and I did pass all exams first time with a lot of hard work to achieve this. The majority (70%+) of students in my graduate intake did too.
Note: If you are considering studying towards the ACA with no prior accounting experience, I would recommend reading this book I have written. It will teach you the basics of accounting and hopefully help you find out if you will have an interest in accounting before starting.
Back to the ACA, the content itself is not too complex if you are taught well and put in the time to learn it. I was taught by Kaplan and thought they were brilliant. There is just a lot of content in each exam and a lot to remember. Some exams are open book as discussed in previous blogs but the time pressure and extent of application adds difficulty.
Overall, I would say they are not significantly harder than university exams or even A-Levels. Off topic but I found A-Levels harder than university anyway.
How Difficult are the ICAEW ACA Exams?
The good thing about these exams is that ICAEW have many resources available to help you pass. There is a study manual and question bank full of plenty of practise questions for each exam as well as past papers and sample papers. Learning providers also provide further resources and assistance and hopefully my ACA blogs help too! You employer may also provide you with support through study days or extra notes to help. Essentially you should have all the information you need to do well in these exams if you put in the time to fully prepare.
Join my journey and I will send you some BPT notes and ACA Case Study help sheets if you need it!
Let’s now take a look at the different ACA Levels to assess ACA exam difficulty in greater detail.
Certificate Level ACA Exam Difficulty
Certificate Level exams are all predominantly multiple choice. This sounds easy but honestly these exams should not be underestimated. I would rank Management Information (MI) to be rank highly for ACA exam difficulty, see below. Some of these exams such as MI are not completely multiple choice and these other areas can actually be quite tricky. Additionally, as I did not have an accounting background there was a lot to learn and it can be seen as learning a new language. You must nail this to do well in the following Levels.
The ICAEW question banks are very helpful for these ACA modules. Sometimes questions from the question bank may appear in the real exam or may be very similar. I ensured to complete all question banks at least once through, sometimes twice. This involved non-stop question practice, even at train stations and all over. Others definitely did not do as much question practice but still passed. I do think though that with some good practice you should be fine for these exams. There is little time pressure at this stage.
However, that being said I do think these questions can be difficult. The different multiple choice options in the more wordy exams are sometimes very similar. It feels like ICAEW are trying to catch you out. Even with all the practice I was rarely certain I passed these exams because of this. The most similar comparison I can think of would be your driving theory test but these ACA exams are harder. The pass mark is 55% though which helps!
Certificate Level ICAEW Pass Rates
ICAEW have provided exam statistics for the Certificate Level exams. You do need to be an ICAEW member to access these for this Level. I will therefore not disclose these individual exam details but I will say the average ICAEW pass rate is above 80%. On a first attempt only basis, the ICAEW pass rate is higher but for re-sits it is quite a bit lower. This indicates if you fail once you are more likely to fail again. Additionally, Accounting (AC) and MI are have the lowest ICAEW pass rates so it is not just me who found MI tricky. Hopefully these statistics boost your confidence but like I said, you do need to work for it!
Professional Level ACA Exam Difficulty
The Professional Level exams are definitely a huge step up from Certificate Level and I would say they are much harder. There is a lot of content in these exams so there is of course a lot to learn. What makes them more difficult is the fact that they are quite time pressured too. Given the content and all of these factors, I do think these exams at a stretch can be compared to A-Levels/University exams.
Again with these exams and the question banks I do think they are definitely ones that can be passed with practice. The past exam papers tend to have a fairly similar structure and I would say they do not have many surprises. Different topics will come up year on year but it is a case of which one more than anything else. BPT is one I will discuss separately along with the Advanced Level exams. This is because this exam is slightly different to the rest of the Professional exams.
The Professional exams pass mark is 55% too. With these exams I am genuinely not sure if they are scaled; I am unsure whether marks are inflated or deflated to ensure a set number of people pass. You will see the pass marks below are similar year on year but there is no proof of scaling. I can confirm that the exams are moderated as I was asked to be a moderator. This is where after passing the exams you will be asked to sit the same exam again and comment on the ACA exam difficulty. Perhaps this is why the ICAEW pass rate is usually similar.
Professional Level ICAEW Pass Rates
The exam statistics I will be discussing are for the exam sittings I sat. These were in March 2019 and September 2019. I sat three Professional Level exams at a time and will discuss this intensity in a later blog. Join my journey so you do not miss this.
A lot of information can be drawn from the March 2019 statistics below. Firstly, all ICAEW pass rates are higher than 70%. This is often the case in all Professional sittings. You may be thinking “70% is surprisingly quite high so they must be easy”. No, the exams are NOT easy – fail to prepare, prepare to fail. The ICAEW pass rates are high because students are dedicated and want to pass so work hard. As mentioned, employers may be able to dismiss you for failing so this added pressure could again explain the high ICAEW pass rates. As with Certificate Level, the statistics indicate you are more likely to fail if you have failed already.
It is definitely important to minimise exam stress for these exams as it is easy to get overwhelmed.
These statistics include international students; students who English is a second language to. I would therefore say others in the UK are at an advantage as there is no language barrier. This also includes self-taught, independent students who do not have as much support as those with say Kaplan or BPP.
Moving onto September 2019, we can see a similar trend. The ICAEW pass rate is higher than 70% for all except BPI. However, this is likely to be due to the number of students sitting the exam being so low.
Advanced Level ICAEW Pass Rates
As mentioned, I will include BPT in my discussion of Advanced exams as well as Corporate Reporting (CR) and Strategic Business Management (SBM). ACA Case Study is very different with many ways to fail but it too is passable with practice. Click here for my ICAEW Case Study Made Easy blog post for in depth details. Join my journey to get free Case Study ‘help sheets’ within a few days of joining.
These three exams (BPT, CR and SBM) are completely open book and have a great deal of content. These are somewhat similar to university exams where you have to learn say ten topics and only three will come up. However, these exams have many, many more topics that could come up and then only a few will be examined in detail. This is why the open book does help but it means you need an awareness of numerous areas.
A significant amount of question practice is needed for these exams, especially BPT where application is key. The question banks and past papers will help but they do vary massively paper to paper because of the amount of content. The exams are also ridiculously time pressured and this adds a lot of difficulty. Otherwise, the exams would definitely be much easier. The pass mark for BPT is 55% as it is within the Professional Level but the pass mark is 50% for CR and SBM.
When studying for BPT I was quite stressed by the amount of content. Click here to find out my study technique for BPT. With CR and SBM however, the content was fairly ok as I had learnt a lot of the content already during Professional Level. That being said, there is some difficult new content/standards taught in CR. Before even studying for CR and SBM I was made to sit a mock exam and actually passed! Professional exams are probably the biggest hurdle so by Advanced Level you should have the confidence to succeed.
That being said, I did almost fail CR and will be sharing why so again, join my journey!
Advanced Level ICAEW Exam Statistics
When it comes to the exam itself, CR especially is quite hit and miss depending on what questions come up. I will be writing a blog about how I felt I almost failed the exam as mine was a big miss. I would however say Professional Level is harder than Advanced when revising for the exams as there is more to actually memorise. When sitting them though, the Advanced (CR mainly) threw me a lot more because of the difficult topics that came up and the immense time pressure.
The ICAEW Advanced statistics for August 2020 exams (my CR & SBM sitting) can be seen below. It can be seen that the ICAEW pass rate is again quite high at around 85%. Again, this definitely does not mean the exams are easy. This could be a reflection of students who have got to this stage would have the work ethic to pass. Additionally, the lower pass mark at 50% definitely helped me. For those who failed, it is likely they either had a bad day, were not prepared on those particular exam topic areas or messed up their timing.
15 ACA Exams Difficulty Ranking
Below I have ranked the exams by difficulty (1 being the hardest) but this is definitely going to be controversial. I have a feeling most people who have sat the exams will not agree with me completely. In all honestly, it is probably in order of which exam scarred me the most! I have therefore also added my mark out of 100 for context.
Note: if you are viewing off your mobile I would recommend rotating the screen for this…
|1||Advanced Level – Corporate Reporting (CR)||53||I would rank CR as the hardest ACA exam. Although I prepared a lot for this exam I was convinced I had failed. Given there is so much content, this exam can have the most surprises and can really dive deep into the most difficult accounting standards. |
It is open book but you still need to know what you are doing and the unpredictability and time pressure (even though it’s 3.5 hours) makes it tough!
Therefore, ACA exam difficulty: rank 1.
|How to Pass Corporate Reporting|
How to Almost Fail Corporate Reporting
|2||Professional Level – Tax Compliance (TC)||70||Many would argue Business Planning: Taxation (BPT) is harder than TC. The reason I have ranked TC so highly is because there is a LOT to remember. There are so many tax rules that it is so easy to drop half marks and it does all add up. With a 55% pass mark you do not need to know it all but this exam requires a lot of practice to pass.||TBC|
|3||Professional Level – Business Planning: Taxation (BPT)||81||The majority of ACA students would rank this as difficulty rank 1 but not me. This exam is open book but similarly to CR, there is a vast amount of content. However, I do think this exam and the content would not be as bad if it was not for the time pressure (2.5 hours). |
Once you have mastered the skill of recognising which tax rule is relevant you can with a good open book file start writing and stacking up marks.
Note: as I did BPT, I cannot comment on BPB (banking) or BPI (Insurance).
|How to Pass BPT and Open Book File Made Easy|
|4||Professional Level – Financial Accounting and Reporting IFRS (FAR)||79||This exam is one you should be able to nail with some serious practice. |
Motto: A consolidation a day keeps the resit away!
It is still difficult because you do really need to know your accounting for this one and it is a big step up from Accounting at Certificate Level. For this reason I have given FAR ACA exam difficulty ranking 4.
|How to Score an Unbelievable 100% in FAR|
|5||Advanced Level – Strategic Business Management (SBM)||52||Surprisingly, this was my lowest mark of all the 15 exams but it is not the one I found to be the hardest. As stated above, I passed the mock for this exam without any prior revision and got a higher mark! |
The tricky aspect of the exam is that there is a CR element of 15-20% depending on what comes up. This exam pulls in a lot of knowledge from Professional Level making it easier.
|How to Pass Strategic Business Management|
|6||Professional Level – Financial Management(FM)||83||I did actually really like this exam because in all honesty, it is quite predictable and structured. The content is useful to know such as learning about different derivatives and how to value a company. |
Do not underestimate the amount of content you need to learn though and try not to leave all the wordy aspects until the end.
|How to Pass Financial Management|
|7||Certificate Level -Management Information (MI)||62||Right, MI. This is also an exam is was convinced I failed and on that basis, it has definitely scarred me. As for all exams, I did revise a lot. I think I just struggled to really understand the content at that point in time. Others may find it easier.||Certificate Level Exams|
4 Ways to Shake Off a Bad Exam
|8||Professional Level – Audit and Assurance (AA)||75||This exam is quite easy if you have a job in audit. I did but I had little audit experience at the time I sat this exam. For someone who does not have a job in audit then, there are standard answers that can be learnt. |
When in doubt: ‘inspect board minutes’ for a half mark.
|How To Pass AA|
A Career in External Audit
|9||Certificate Level – Accounting (AC)||86||Like I said, as I had no accounting background this was like learning a new language. However, it is all fairly logical. |
I will be writing a blog to help with the basics of accounting that would really help here. Join the journey!
|Accounting For Beginners|
|10||Advanced Level – Case Study (CS)||72||The Case Study exam itself is not actually hard and it requires little technical knowledge. What makes it difficult is that there are many ways to fail. |
With plenty of practice you should pass though.
However, it is a 4 hour exam so it is very tiring to practice and what is worse is practicing with different case studies that are not relevant to your exam. The exam is time pressured too even though it is 4 hours!
|ICAEW Case Study Made Easy|
Case Study Software Testing
How Much Preparation is Enough?
Master the Marking Key
|11||Certificate Level – Principles of Tax (PTx)||70||I genuinely think I had a really nice exam for PTx. This exam teaches the basic tax laws and because it is multiple choice, it does feel easier.||Certificate Level Exams|
|12||Professional Level – Business, Strategy and Technology (BST)||80||You may be interested why I ranked BST so low on the difficulty scale. This is because all the technical knowledge you pretty much have from BTF (number 15). The rest is essentially like sitting a comprehension exam. State the obvious and use common sense!||How to Pass BST|
|13||Certificate Level – Law||78||Most people find this exam very irrelevant and do not enjoy it. I got my lawyer on and actually enjoyed it. There is of course new content as I did not have a background in law but this was not too bad. |
The multiple choice answers are very similar though so you do feel as though you are being caught out, adding difficulty. You really need to read the question for this one.
|Certificate Level Exams|
|14||Certificate Level -Assurance||72||With law, the content is not too bad but you do need to read the MCQ answers carefully.||Certificate Level Exams|
|15||Certificate Level – Business, Technology and Finance (BTF)||73||I do think most people would agree with me on this one and it is no surprise BTF has ACA exam difficulty ranking 15. For this exam you literally need to learn and memorise models. The answers are black and white, right or wrong.||Certificate Level Exams|
ACA Exam Difficulty Wrap Up
To summarise, although ICAEW pass rates may seem high the ACA exams are still difficult. That being said, there should be enough resources available to you where if you put in the work you should be fine. You may of course have a bad day or a bad paper but hopefully the 55% or 50% pass mark helps.
I would love to hear whether you agree with my opinion on this so please comment below. It would also be great if you could add your own comparisons to help others get a better picture of what these exams are like.
If you would like to connect and talk to others, feel free to join the ACA LinkedIn group. Here you can also find details of ACA Telegram groups (essentially WhatsApp without phone numbers) where you can chat to other aspiring/Certificate/Professional/Advanced/qualified students!