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Things I wish I’d known before starting my accountancy studies

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Accounts and Legal’s Max Whitely offers practical advice for accountancy students on how to balance studying with a full-time job and how to get the most out of your time in college.

11th Dec 2023
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Exams didn’t come easy to me, they never have. I always seemed to put in hours of revision but still struggled to get it to stick in time for the exam.

My name is Max Whiteley, I dragged myself through 15 AAT exams and 11 ICAEW exams, and I can now proudly call myself a chartered accountant.

But the journey wasn’t all smooth sailing, and don’t worry I’m not that annoying person in the class who moans about struggling but still gets 90% on the day. No, I was in the hurt locker for a good three years trying to get over the line.

There were a couple of fails during my chartered accounting exams and I was even diagnosed with dyslexia with one exam to go.

All of the struggles came with lessons and by the end of my exams, I was actually flying through them, passing all my finals first time.

So, I’ve been reflecting on how I got here, how I went from complete panic in exams to cool calm and collected (almost), and the techniques I used when the going got tough. And most importantly, how to enjoy the journey.

My Top Tips

1) Ditch the ego and get involved at college!

Starting college is like starting at the gym. It can make you feel self-conscious, you feel like you’re not getting anywhere and it’s easy to shy away in the corner trying not to make a scene.

But honestly, like the gym, everyone at college is there to work on themselves and as harsh as it sounds – no one cares about you. They’re far too busy worrying about themselves! So don’t stress. Ask that stupid question, don’t be afraid of failing, and get stuck in.

2) Make meaningful connections

You are going to be studying for the next three or four years, so make sure to connect with the people around you. Build support networks, build revision groups, and get that WhatsApp group set up right from the start!

When you’re in the trenches with revision this really makes a difference. Having a support network around you can make the long nights and tough revision sessions all worth it.

Turning to friends or family who might not be able to appreciate what you are going through sometimes isn’t enough.

I've made some great friends at college, I've done business with some of them since and more importantly, I still feel that the support network is there if I ever need it!

3)  Be held accountable!

I used to sit there for hours on end revising, making no progress, wasting weekend after weekend cancelling plans just to sit there and feel overwhelmed, resulting in a lack of any real concentration.

It was only towards my final exams that I started being held accountable. My manager at the time, David, suggested that I would deliver them a completed past exam paper every week and we'd go through it together.

Even my old flatmate got involved, I used to give him my phone and say don't give me this back until 10pm.

Accountability really changed the game for me and you’ll be so surprised who is willing to help, tutors, colleagues, friends and family or fellow studiers. Tell them you’re going to do something and ask them to keep you accountable. You’ll be amazed how much it helps!

4) Little by little

As well-known accountancy spokesmen the Gallagher brothers once said ‘Little by little’ is the way to go.

The syllabus is crazy, the time pressure is crazy and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

But breaking it into small chunks made sure I was being efficient with my revision, rather than spending hours staring out of the window.

For me, I never revised for more than 20 minutes at a time. I would start my revision months before the exam, remaining consistent with my little and often approach, I’d work my way to producing simplified notes written in my language, before moving on to past exam questions.

The struggle is real, and I guess that’s why the profession is held in such high regard. I’m glad I got through it. I’m glad the dreaded ''Results season'' is behind me. But stay strong if you’re currently going through it. The reward (and relief) of finishing is definitely worth the toil, and more than anything, it’ll put you in such good stead when it comes to your first role in the wonderful world of accountancy.

Replies (14)

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By Justin Bryant
11th Dec 2023 14:18

That debits and credits and their relationship to the accounts (double entry bookkeeping basically) ain't rocket science, but is a very simple concept indeed, and for reasonably intelligent people can be explained and understood in about 5 minutes, yet accountancy trainers try very hard to make it wholly impenetrable (to justify their jobs one assumes). Everything else beyond that (cash flow statements etc.) is just bells & whistles basically.

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Replying to Justin Bryant:
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By Amy Chin
11th Dec 2023 14:43

With respect, Justin, what a ridiculous comment, showing a complete absence of understanding of accountancy qualifications.

You're right that the concept of debits and credits can be - AND IS - taught in a day. But that is a minute (albeit crucial foundational) element of the overall qualification. The ACA for example begins with basic bookkeeping and accounts preparation, tied up in the first few days of exam one of fifteen, going on to encompass all manner of other important subjects - audit, tax, corporate reporting, financial management, business strategy, financial analysis....I could go on and on.

As for accountancy trainers, I was one for ten years, and can assure you that the goal is to make the material as "penetrable" as possible to help the students get through.

Our profession would be in a whole world of trouble were your belittling comment even remotely true.

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Replying to Amy Chin:
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By Justin Bryant
11th Dec 2023 15:05

Well, it's true (in my case at least). I had to teach myself in the end (that was before YouTube). I even had a eureka moment when it all suddenly made sense and I only then realised just how badly it had been taught! I know others who agree with me.

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Replying to Justin Bryant:
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By Postingcomments
11th Dec 2023 16:19

Yet I still haven't met a solicitor who understands the basics of how accounts work. Or even numbers. You really have to spoon feed that kind of stuff to the commercial/corporate solicitors.

I'm sure you're the exception, of course!

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Replying to Postingcomments:
paddle steamer
By DJKL
11th Dec 2023 16:33

My dad, a solicitor, could and did complete accounts, appreciate this was just sole traders/partnerships (limiteds were all audited) and this was back in the 50s to the 80s, but Scottish solicitors did an accounting course as part of their LLB .

He was also a dab hand at knocking out accounts of charge and discharge (A dying art now) and could produce IT comps/tax calcs before computers did all the work. (Firm had a decent size trust department with five accounting staff employed, he for a lot of years was the cashroom partner)

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Replying to DJKL:
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By Postingcomments
11th Dec 2023 18:17

One press of the DJKL juke box button and 2 war stories came out. We are getting good value tonight!

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By Justin Bryant
12th Dec 2023 08:36

Generally you're right. Last week one of my client's solicitors thought an assignment to a 100% parent company of a loan asset owed from a sister subsidiary should be done as a distribution in specie with all the P&L consequences that entails (when it's a pure B/S txn). What a dummy!

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Replying to Justin Bryant:
paddle steamer
By DJKL
11th Dec 2023 16:21

I too was self taught- whilst Aberdeen Uni ran a course in debits and credits (not subject to exam, just to help us) I was not taking the usual courses as had studied Economics at Edinburgh, so no gimmee, I had to take Statistics as an extra course but it timetable clashed with the book keeping course.

I think I was slower than Justin, I think it all really clicked by circa week 7 or 8, by then I was at the point that I could pretty much write a journal for any transaction though rather annoyingly did not get full marks for the incomplete records question in the end of term exam question as I stuck the bank balance in as a Debit balance rather than an overdrawn Credit balance- idiot.

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Replying to Justin Bryant:
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By Amy Chin
11th Dec 2023 16:36

Again, there appears to be some confusion in your comments - and others - between basic debits and credits and the subject of the article, which is a full ACA qualification leading to chartered status. Congratulations for teaching yourself basic double entry, though. Most would struggle, hence the big 4 rarely allow students to take an exemption from Accounting (the first ACA paper where double entry is covered).

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Replying to Amy Chin:
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By Justin Bryant
11th Dec 2023 16:47

Noted, but I was merely answering "Things I wish I’d known before starting my accountancy studies". No more, no less. (Possibly like DJKL it would have saved me a lot of aggro knowing in advance that double entry bookkeeping was best self-taught - in my case at least.)

Self-teaching is a very good way to learn generally. I retaught myself the other day why feathers and heavy steel balls fall to earth at the same speed in the absence of air resistance. That is also a very simple concept (Newton's laws of gravitation and motion) badly taught in school (and BBC science programmes - that are far too dumbed down).

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Replying to Justin Bryant:
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By DJKL
12th Dec 2023 15:31

Just to screw with your brain, try understanding more than 4 dimensions of space and time, seems to be one of those things that just needs to be taken as existing (if it does) rather than being understood but can certainly induce a headache.

The way to get your physics understanding back is to have kids struggling with physics, by the time I had coached my son through the standard grade I think I could have passed it myself (Got both of them tutors for Higher Maths and Physics- there are limits)

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Replying to Justin Bryant:
Tom Herbert
By Tom Herbert
11th Dec 2023 16:05

Looks like someone wasn't added to the college WhatsApp group... :-I

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By Justin Bryant
11th Dec 2023 17:11
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By Postingcomments
11th Dec 2023 16:13

Is it really 15 exams to become an AAT? What a rip off. Also, how on earth do they manage that?

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