We caught up with LearnSignal’s Head of ACCA, Alan Lynch, and asked him for his words of wisdom about the qualification. What follows is a reality check for students taking – or thinking about taking – the ACCA, as Alan answers the questions: how difficult is the ACCA really? And why do students fail?
Read on to find out what you’re doing to hold yourself back, and what you can do to change it.
So, let’s get started. Alan, hey!
Let’s start with your background, first of all. What’s your story?
Well, I qualified as an ACCA member back in 2001 after my undergraduate degree in finance. I was sponsored by AIB – Allied Irish Banks – for the ACCA, spent a couple of years there, then worked in a Dutch bank, then a Canadian bank – you’ll see the trend emerging…
I’ve spent 17 years in financial services overall, 8 of those as CFO. I’ve also sat on the Board – all those high-level business-y sorts of things.
I’ve also been involved in the set up of an online bank in Ireland. Then after a while I found I wanted something different, so started teaching an MBA programme in Dublin. I did that for a couple of years, then decided I wanted to move full-time into financial education – and here I am.
It sounds like “the numbers” have been a relatively small part of your career. Do you think some people would find that surprising?
The thing about the ACCA is it really sets you up for whatever path you want to take. You have the accounting side, sure, which is really about the maths and the numbers. And some people love that. But that was never my focus.
I was always drawn to the finance side, because that’s all about new businesses, interpreting people, strategy. It’s future-looking.
From the start of my career – even my undergraduate degree – that was the part I found interesting, because I’ve never been a big “numbers person”. Business made sense to me. I knew I wanted to be making big, important, quick decisions. I wanted to know how businesses operate and how to analyse them, to help them be more successful. That’s what finance is about.
That’s where the ACCA led me. It really is an excellent foundation. I have absolutely no doubt it’s the hardest qualification, but that’s why it prepares you most for the future. So you can play that pivotal role in business.
Let’s talk about that. Why is the ACCA so difficult?
There’s two things at play there. One, the course content is itself difficult. It is. The pass rates prove that, every year. In fact, I really respect the ACCA for sticking to their guns and not changing the content.
Exactly. The ACCA are doing everything possible to improve pass rates but without compromising the content. And that means, when you’ve passed the ACCA, everyone – every employer – knows you’re at a certain high standard.
The knock-on effect is that the ACCA is the most respected, most desirable qualification to have – precisely because it’s tough.
Especially in comparison to college exams. I often think it’s harder for students to come out of college with exemptions because the jump from undergraduate to ACCA is huge and they’re often not prepared.
You mentioned two reasons. What’s the second reason the ACCA is difficult?
That’s really linked to the first. Because the content is hard, it means the strategy around your exams is so, so important. There’s just so much to cover, and so much you can be tested on, in every possible way.
There’s no noticeable trend, no logic – you can’t cheat, trick or luck your way into a pass. You have to genuinely know your stuff, and your exam technique has to be spot on.
Because that’s the reality of the workplace the ACCA is preparing you for, right? There’s a first time for every situation; real-life situations don’t walk straight out of your textbook. In the real-world, you need to apply your knowledge to new scenarios or you won’t do a good job.
So you’re saying that the ACCA is split into two parts – the ACCA content, and how you approach the ACCA content?
The content, the syllabus is difficult. But how you approach the content – how you study; your exam technique; all of those things – is in your control.
The ACCA certainly isn’t impossible. Sure, the content is challenging and you’ll find some bits harder than others. But every single person sitting down and taking the ACCA has the potential to pass: I have no qualms about saying that.
It’s your responsibility and everyone can do it – if they do the right things. And that’s the common denominator in the ACCA: the people who don’t pass aren’t doing the right things.
It’s not about being intelligent enough or naturally gifted. It is about taking responsibility over how you approach the content; taking control over the things you can control. Like leaving enough time to study. Like reading all the materials – which are extensive – that the ACCA provide to help your exam technique. Like practising questions.
If you don’t approach the ACCA content in the right way, that’s a major reason you’ll fail. And it’s nobody else’s fault.
Let’s talk about time management, because making time to study is the biggest issue for many students. How did you find it, when you were studying?
Don’t get me wrong: it was hard. Back in 2001, you couldn’t pick and choose exams either – there were five exams, and you took two together then three together. No choice.
That seems such a luxury today, that students can take one exam in one sitting, and avoid papers on topics they hate!
So I was working full-time, and studying at night. I had very little study leave, so I had to use my own holidays and free-time to study. I had college three nights a week, after work, and I’d have classes every other weekend. Then I had to study as well.
So I mean, you’re in work all day. Finishing at 5.30, travelling to college to start at 6.30, finishing at 9.30, then making it home ready to start all over again.
It is hard. I don’t want people who’re thinking about the ACCA to misunderstand that. It takes sacrifice. Sometimes you just want to sleep, or hang out with your mates, or whatever it is. And often, you can’t.
But it’s not forever. I mean, I passed all my exams in a year. And the career I’ve enjoyed so far has been fantastic, thanks to the ACCA.
But you do have to step up. You can’t coast through these exams and come out successfully the other side. You don’t want to be spending ten years on this, and then maybe even failing anyway.
If students aren’t ready for this level of commitment, they’re maybe not ready for the ACCA.
What did you think of the traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ route to study?
That’s the thing. The ACCA is always going to be difficult but to my mind, traditional classroom study like I did makes things more difficult than they need to be.
You’re then tied to a specific learning venue and time, usually after work. It’s a slog. And they’re very intense, and unnecessarily slow because the lecturer has to cater for everyone there. You can’t go at your own pace.
When I took my MBA, back in 2008, I did distance learning instead and preferred that approach. But even then, it was imperfect.
The technology wasn’t the same in 2008. You got shipped this vast amount of notes and books right at the start, and got an entirely self-study assignment that you had to work out from the content. Then eventually you travelled to Manchester – that’s where I took my MBA, at Manchester University – to spend three days with a tutor, then sat your final exam.
I found that self-study approach better than classroom learning, but it definitely wasn’t efficient. There was a huge amount of material, in these huge textbooks. Not ideal.
Do you feel that held you back?
Well, I got a Distinction on my MBA, which is a fantastic result – but I think it was more in spite of the learning environment than because of it.
I mean, I found a group to study with, and we all worked together and took one topic each, so we could break down that vast amount of notes into manageable pieces and then teach each other.
That approach made the material manageable, which is really important. Otherwise there’s just too much to do.
The ACCA really helped me, because it had taught me how to learn efficiently for these big exams. That idea of efficiency is really important.
That’s why I believe so strongly in what we’re doing with LearnSignal. I wish LearnSignal had been about when I’d been sitting my ACCA. We really are helping people to learn more efficiently, to approach their exams in the right way, so they’re no more difficult than they need to be.
Group studying obviously worked well for you. Do you think that’s something all students should do?
Look, the ACCA can be a very lonely experience. And that makes it more stressful, and overall more difficult, so you’re less likely to do the right things – and then less likely to pass. So you can benefit massively from making it not lonely.
But that doesn’t have to mean studying in a group, so much as finding a community of students. People who understand what you’re going through, who can give you that morale boost when you need it. And if you can all help each other, and answer each other’s questions, then more the better.
Learn efficiently; find a community; take responsibility – what other tips can you share for ACCA students?
This idea of taking responsibility – I don’t think we’ve emphasised that enough. I’ve taught so many students, and you meet people every year who obviously believe, “I’ll do it my way, I’ll be OK, I won’t do anything for the first week or two, or even month or two”. And then they fail.
You have to shift your attitude, if that’s you. Take responsibility for your own learning, make this work for you. Put your results first. ACCA isn’t an educational qualification; it’s a professional qualification and you have to be professional.
I do emergency exam preparation for students in Dublin – not only ACCA and finance, but every subject because at that point it’s not about the subject. It’s really about your approach. Why aren’t you prepared? What could you do differently? Getting past your own excuses and seizing the bull by the horns is how you pass.
And learn your lessons. Everyone can have a bad day, but if you fail twice you’re not learning from your mistakes. And it’s costing you time and money. I mean, do a simple cost/benefit analysis on the benefits of passing first time. Not just the exam fees – think about the missing career progression, the missed salary raise.
The longer you don’t pass, the more it’s costing you. So step up, is what I say to students. Everyone is capable of passing, as long as you have the right attitude.
You mentioned exam technique earlier. Let’s talk about the students who have the right attitude, and study the content, but let themselves down because their exam technique is bad.
Yes, exam technique is a big challenge for many students. But I would also say, there’s so much material out there to help that there’s no excuse now. The ACCA even publish the examiner’s reports. That’s insane; they’re literally telling you exactly what the examiners want to see and why – but students every year don’t read them.
So use the materials that are out there. If you’re a LearnSignal member, we focus on exam technique a huge amount so you can walk through questions and get 24/7 tutor support if you’re stuck. And our students can sit a mock exam and we’ll mark it and annotate exactly where you went wrong.
But wherever you’re studying, you need to understand how important exam technique is. And exam technique doesn’t start on the day of the exam. It starts the day you decide to take the ACCA.
Every minute you’re studying, you should be asking: ‘will this help me in the exam?’ And if not, stop, and spend time on something that will. That’s the efficiency thing; not wasting time reading material that’s irrelevant. Students waste so much time studying the wrong things, just putting in the hours blindly.
Then in the exam, it’s about being calm. Not being rushed. Spending time planning your answers before you even open that answer booklet.
The students who do best on the new Strategic Business Leader exam will probably spend 40-minutes planning their answers before they start writing – that’s brave, but it’s what you have to do.
And it comes from knowing you don’t need to write endless pages and pages; you have to apply your knowledge in a planned, structured way.
That’s what sets the best students apart.
How much they write?
Yes, and how structured their answers are. It’s a funny thing, but every year the smallest exam scripts – the ones with least pages written (but attempting all questions) – tend to get the highest marks.
The biggest problem students have is writing too much. You almost talk yourself into a problem. And you’re not showing applied knowledge. The examiner already knows what a model is; they don’t need you to define it.
It’s like, if your boss asked you a question. You’d give a brief answer – one or two ideas. The examiners are looking for that shorter, applied answer.
You’re better off writing half a page of considered, reasoned work – because the ACCA is fundamentally about preparing you for the workplace. And in the workplace, it’s not like “tell me everything you know about leasing”. No. It’s like, tell me how you’d solve this current problem using your applied knowledge of leasing.
Students forget that, and just recite the textbook. If that’s not what you’d do at work, then it’s not what you should do here.
I say to students, imagine a rugby penalty. When the player puts that ball down, he doesn’t just kick the ball and hope. He thinks about every step before taking that kick. What angle. How hard. He probably looks at the posts, imagines the ball going through. The point is, it’s about process.
You won’t pass the ACCA if you kick it and hope.
You talked about structure. How important is that?
Students need to put themselves into the position of the marker. These markers have marked thousands of papers; they know what a good script looks like. Instantly. If it’s nicely laid-out, well-spaced, easy-to-read, with numbered points – they’re going to quickly believe your paper will be good.
Obviously they’ll give you every opportunity to gain marks, even if your answer is poorly laid out, but it’s about starting on the right foot.
And that comes back to planning your answers. Mapping out what you want to say; what the most relevant points within your knowledge are. Relating your answers directly back to the scenario.
Thanks Alan; great advice. Anything final you’d add?
We’ve talked a lot about how difficult that ACCA is, but I want to emphasise the positives.
The ACCA sets you up for whatever you want to do, because it gives you such insight into how a company works. Once you know how to keep a company in business, you can go anywhere. That’s why the CFO is generally the obvious successor to the CEO, because they understand the business.
That discipline, that skill, that understanding – you can apply it anywhere. It massively helps your career – and you can have a second or third career too – like I have.
The ACCA gives you what you need to move into business, teaching, training, industry – wherever you want to be. It’s an incredible qualification – so step up, and treat it with the respect it deserves. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
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