This blog is for those of you who are studying for the ACA qualification independently or for those whose employer offers the choice and flexibility over your exams. For me, my exam sittings and exams were predetermined by my employer. However, now that I have sat all 15 ACA exams I am able to provide an insight into what I believe the best order to sit the ACA exams is. In this blog, will assume you are familiar with the ACA exams and the different exam Levels. If not, more information can be found here.
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ICAEW Rules for the Order to Sit the ACA Exams
Before I start making any suggestions, I of course should make sure this is actually possible and is not restricted by ICAEW. Fortunately, there really are little restrictions put in place by ICAEW around exam order. The only black and white rule is that the ACA Case Study must be sat last of all ACA exams in the final year of your training agreement. It can be sat alongside the other ACA Advanced Level exams but it must be attempted last.
With the above in mind, I will mention that there are some unwritten rules. For example, as you progress through the 15 ACA exam Levels, the earlier exams may be pre-requisites of those in the later stages. For example, Certificate Level accounting is a pre-requisite for Professional Level Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) and Advanced Level Corporate Reporting (CR). This does not mean you need to sit it first but it would help massively.
Certificate Level Exams
Based on the above pre-requisite rationale, I would highly recommend sitting Certificate Level exams first. These six exams are all mutually exclusive where there is no overlap in content at this stage. I therefore feel these exams can be sat in any order. Fortunately these exams can be sat at any time of the year too and you can sit as many as you would like together. I sat Accounting, Assurance and Principles of Tax together (with a weekend in between). It did not help sitting these together but I managed to get through it quickly. The following month I sat Management Information alone and then the remaining two (Law and Business, Technology and Finance) the month after.
Accounting, Assurance and Principles of Tax
With a weekend in between
This exam is tough!
Law and Business, Finance and Technology
Coming on to the point about Law, this is the only Certificate Level exam that is not a pre-requisite for other ACA exams. A different approach is where some may choose to leave Law to a much later date, say after sitting some Professional Level exams. The reason I would avoid this is because I did actually hear of somebody who did this but kept failing. This individual had passed some Professional Level exams, which arguably are much harder, but kept failing Law.
Another rule of ICAEW is that all exams can only be attempted a maximum of four times (besides Advanced Level that has unlimited attempts). ICAEW states “if a student fails the same exam four times, that student will be excluded from continuing as an ACA student”. I personally would rather get all Certificate Level exams under my belt before continuing to the next stage on the basis of the above scenario. I think it is much worse to go through Professional Level exams and get banned for failing Law four times than the other way around.
Professional Level Exam Order
Naturally I would move onto the Professional Level exams. I do think it really does make sense to work your way up through the different ACA exam Levels. These exams can only be sat in March, June, September or December given they are much longer and take a lot of time to mark and moderate. This does not include the alternative Business Planning papers (Insurance or Banking) which are less frequent. Note that I sat Business Planning: Taxation so this is the exam I will discuss further below. Regarding all six Professional Level exams, I think you could technically sit all six together but I would call you mad if you wanted to do this.
My Professional Level exams were taken in March 2019 and September 2019 (showing my age here). I sat three Professional Level exams at a time. From the ACA exam statistics, the maximum I have seen is three at a time. In this blog, I will allow you to make up your own mind about how many are best to sit together. Three is possible but it is a lot of hard work. Two is probably more manageable and ideal but three does get them out of the way. If I sat two in March, two in June and two in September I would have passed just as quickly. However, that would involve constant studying without any breaks.
Combination of Professional Level Exams
To start, I will mention the two Professional Level exams which I would describe to be “lighter” ACA exams. What I mean by this is that there is not as much content for these exams and usually less practice (depending on your academic background/work experience) is required to pass these exams. These exams are:
- Audit and Assurance (AA) – although I work in external audit, at the time of the exam I had little to no audit experience. I therefore think it is fair to class this exam as “lighter” and I am not biased on this one
- Business Strategy and Technology (BST)
I do say these are “lighter” exams but do not confuse this with being easy. These exams still require work to pass. However, unlike the other ACA exams I do not think you need to practice the majority of ICAEW Question Bank questions to pass. The reason I wanted to mention these first is because I think these exams are great additions to other exams as they require less focus. As an exam combination, I would definitely separate the two and add these to other exam sittings. When you get fed up of one exam you can focus on one of these and hopefully tick these off at the same time.
The next two exams I will discuss is Financial Management (FM) and Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR). For FAR, the motto I lived by is “a consolidation a day keeps the resit away”. I took the same approach with FM and practiced a financial risk management question a day. These exams are both content heavy and are quite structured. Given I would suggest a question a day for each of these, I would advise separating these two as well.
The final two Professional Level exams I have not yet discussed are the tax exams. Tax Compliance (TC) is very computational whereas BPT is less focused on calculations and instead is from more of an advice perspective. In a way, TC is a pre-requisite for BPT as you need to have a good understanding of the calculations. That being said, I did meet one girl who sat and passed BPT first and then completed TC after. This really is not the norm and I do not think I would recommend this either as you will need to learn the TC content to some extent for BPT.
I rarely hear of students sitting these two exams together but I do think it really would have some strong benefits. In all honesty, I do not think I have actually ever heard of this. Separating these two tax examples out will most likely benefit your learning in the long-run and aid memory. If you are not too keen on tax, sitting these together could be a good option. If you are set on sitting three exams at a time, separating out those outlined above would mean these tax exams have to be separated too. Perhaps this is why I have never heard of it!
Tip: If you did really want to get all tax exams out the way, you could sit Certificate Principles of Tax (PTx) shortly before TC and BPT. PTx is the pre-requisite for TC so this could be helpful.
Advanced Level Exams Pre-Requisites
The Advanced Level exams do of course have pre-requisites from the earlier exams mentioned above. For CR, these are FAR and AA. Depending on your job role, it may help sitting FAR sooner rather than later to strengthen your accounting knowledge and building on it throughout the ACA. However, sitting it later at a closer date to Advanced CR could help. Again, it is your call. This is also the case for Professional Level AA especially if you do not work in audit. I would actually recommend AA to be one of your last Professional Level exams in this instance.
The pre-requisites for Strategic Business Management (SBM) are FM and BST. The BST side should be fine with more of a gap between the exam itself and SBM. FM would help being closer but it is not too difficult to recap as not all content usually comes up in SBM. The ACA Case Study requirement 1 is similar to BST performance analysis questions but again, this is something that can be picked up fairly quickly.
Note: these exams can only be sat in July or November. It is a very big wait from November to July!
Order to Sit ACA Advanced Level Exams
I do actually think the order of the Advanced Level exams is very important. This is because CR actually forms 15-20% of the SBM exam! The content that comes up is completely random and there is LOT of content to choose from for CR. The most common areas I found that would come up in SBM are hedging (IFRS 9) and leases (IFRS 16) but it is not limited to this. For this reason, I think it does help sitting CR first as SBM will therefore involve recapping CR rather than trying to learn it all from scratch.
With that being said, I think the best option is actually sitting both CR and SBM together. This is what I did in July 2020 (postponed to August) and I do think I really benefited from the overlap and sitting together. Although the exam questions are extremely long and draining to practice, if you do have enough time, I would strongly recommend considering this option.
Finally, this brings me on to the ACA Case Study exam which does have to be last. You could sit this with your final other Advanced Level exam if you split CR and SBM, with both CR and SBM or on it’s own. I took the latter option but again it was not my choice. However, I do think I preferred this as all three together I personally think would have been overwhelming although it is still doable. Ensure to weigh up whether your job, commitments, etc would give you enough time to prepare to sit all three. 4-hour mock Case studies on top of CR and SBM is a lot. You may also have the Project Report too.
When considering the order of ACA Advanced Level exams or more so how many you sit together, I would recommend thinking about the bigger picture. Are you in a rush to pass your exams to become ACA qualified? You should be aware that in order to become ACA qualified, you do need to come to the end of your training contract. More details can be found here. I exam qualified in November 2020 but had to wait until September 2021 to qualify. This means it would have been fine to have sat the Case study the following July but it did give me leeway if I needed to resit.
ACA Exams – Best Order Summary
Hopefully this blog was helpful if you are in the position where you can plan your own exam schedule. These are of course my own opinions and insights into the exams and it is by no means the correct way to approach the exams. The exams can be sat in any order for a reason. No matter which order you decide and how many together, do ensure you have enough time to prepare for these exams. Good luck!