The financial services job market is international and highly competitive. If you want to differentiate yourself from the competition, it may help to have a professional qualification. The most popular options are generally the ACA, the ACCA, CIMA and the CFA.
If you scour the internet, you’ll find endless debates about which is best. But I’m going to cut to the chase: it’s the ACA.
The gold standard
I have a vested interest in saying the ACA is best: I am equipped with one and it has shaped my career.
In the UK, at least,the ACA is allegedly the gold standard accountancy qualification. Due to the ACA’s reputation it is still the default qualification for a Big 4 training contract in the UK but is also popular with many smaller accountancy firms. A training contract is essential since in order to qualify you not only need to pass the exams but you also need to rack up 450 days of relevant technical work experience. I won’t bore you with the specific details. If you want to bore yourself, you can find out more here.
The exam nightmare
So just how hard are the ACA exams? No doubt you can find plenty of people who will crow about breezing through with first time passes but these are the exceptions. Unless you’ve studied accountancy at university, have a natural aptitude for exams or - heaven forbid, think accountancy is interesting, you will find the ACA highly challenging.
Despite my strong academic background I struggled with the toxic combination of very dry learning material, time pressured exams and the competing demands of my job as a big 4 auditor.
This mix results in a significant percentage of candidates having to re-sit the ACA exams. Many also give up entirely. In my starting cohort of 12 bright individuals only one third made it through with first time passes, 3 dropped out and the remaining 5 battled through with varying numbers of re-sits.
My own personal nightmare
Unfortunately I didn’t obtain first time passes and endured a gruelling three year cycle of audit slog and exam re-sits.
So while for some the ACA may be the start of a long and fulfilling career as an accountant I also know that for me and many of my peers, the unpleasant memories of all those exams convinced us get out of accountancy as soon as possible.
This, I have done successfully. On the back of my ACA, I have built my career in investment banking – not in front office investment banking as that typically requires first time passes, but in investment banking nonetheless.
However, if I could turn the clock back 7 years I wouldn’t do the ACA again. I can’t help but feeling that all the time and effort I devoted to studying could have been put to far better use developing my career.
And yet, given the current jobs market, my advice to any graduate offered a ACA training contract is to grab it with both hands. It won’t be fun, but if you’re persistent and ambitious it will be a stepping stone to a far more lucrative career and interesting career in financial services.