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I can't pass CIMA – is it time to leave accounting?

Simon Gray answers an Any Answers question that has resonated with many accountants: “Can’t pass CIMA, now what?”

23rd Sep 2020
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Single person in an examination hall. Sitting at thinking in front of a white sheet of paper. Concept for failure, knowledge, learning, loneliness or the looser.
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An anonymous AccountingWEB user recently asked a question on Any Answers that resonated deeply with myself and many others within the accounting profession:

“I've been trying to pass the CIMA MCS for over a year and I just can't do it. I'm coming to terms with the fact that I just ain't that bright when it comes to academic stuff. I currently work as a management accountant/finance business partner for a medium sized finance startup in London. I have about 2.5 years accounting experience. 

As a result of recently failing the MCS for a second time, I've been looking at a career change. What are some common paths for people in my situation, or people who are looking to get out of accounting?”

The AccountingWEB community rallied around the struggling CIMA student. AccountingWEB resident FD Tom123 said: “If the exams were easy they would have no value.I did not pass all my cima exams first time, and already had an accountancy degree.”

He added, “Could you not take some exams in a different order? Get some easy wins?”

While FirstTab offered: “Please do not confuse passing exams with intelligence. All you need to do is practice, practice, practice past exam questions and recall in the exam hall or wherever you are sitting the exam.”

Meanwhile, other community members encouraged the anonymous user to explore other avenues. Graham Suggett, for example, suggested the member looked at HMRC’s graduate tax inspector scheme. “[It] will take you to c£55k within three years and following promotion - easier in London - you will be c£70k. The work/life balance is decent so, assuming you have an interest in the work you currently do, it would be worth looking at.”

This question hit home and took me back to studying for my ACA qualification. Having failed my first and second-year exams I started to question my academic suitability for the world of accountancy.

Should I stay or should I go?

When climbing a mountain and finding yourself halfway up, isn’t it better to struggle to the top than turn and retreat on your way to the summit? 

My view was yes. I persevered and finally got my professional accountancy qualification. By the end I knew I didn’t want to be an auditor and I knew I wanted to explore other career avenues. 

While I was uncertain as to what these other opportunities might be, I was certain whatever I went on to do in life that my finance qualification would form a solid foundation and serve as a springboard to something new.

What now?

Since gaining my qualification, I’ve not worked in finance in any capacity, but my qualification has helped me each and every day. The journey to qualification taught me much more than how to put together a profit and loss account, balance sheet and cashflow statement. 

It developed my analytical skills, attention to detail, ability to build relationships with people much more experienced than me and a general awareness of business and other sectors, including the legal profession.

There is no wrong or right answer

I fell into financial recruitment – and now, 20 years on, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has made a conscious decision to enter the recruitment industry. My first few years were great and financially lucrative, and 

I developed a new range of skills, including managing my own desk – almost a mini business – in the wider organisation. 

My unconscious decision to enter recruitment gave way to a very conscious decision to leave secure employment and start my own recruitment business in September 2008 – unbeknown to me at the time – two weeks before the financial crisis hit.

I stuck with it and pushed on and in time the business became a success. Resilience, mindset and a curiosity to ask questions of the status quo and an appetite to do things differently were the important ingredients to survive and thrive.

There is no wrong or right answer – there is, however, a course of action which may help the path become clear. Seeking the advice of others who have made pivotal decisions at important times is exploration I advocate. While their experiences will always be different to your own, a discussion might help you see the wood for the trees.

The only bad decision is no decision

External factors such as the financial crisis back in 2008, and the current pandemic, can always be a reason not to act. There are always opportunities – they just might not be as visible or easy to find. In my experience, with adequate research and contemplation, there is no such thing as a bad informed decision. The only bad decision is often not having the confidence to make one in the first place.

It’s always a delicate balance between not wanting to be seen to give up when things get tough and making a change because it’s what you want to do. There are two types of decisions and I’ve alluded to one already. A knee-jerk reaction in response to difficulty or challenge is never wise. 

This type of decision is subconscious and often we never question why we choose to act in a certain way. The better decision when it comes to your career and the big things in life is the one made by the conscious mind having gathered as much information as possible to make an informed decision. 

Finally, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Life is a journey, not a destination. The bumps in the road are just part of its rich tapestry. They are there to be embraced and learnt from. You won’t always make the best decision for you and your future, but never let that stop you making one.

Have you been in a similar situation? What would you advise our downtrodden accountant? Should they stay or should they go?

Replies (9)

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By AlistairHindmarsh
24th Sep 2020 11:49

Part of the reason is the use of the old-fashioned exam. Anyone with a degree knows there are two parts to your degree, one is being good at your subject, the other is learning how to pass the exam, there is often little correlation between the two.
The artificial way of suddenly not being allowed access to anything except memory and experience and being put under stress with ludicrously high time pressure in an alien environment is a reason these exams are falling out of favour. It's in no way representative of the way you will do your job and very biased to a particular mindset and rote way of working.
Allow me a couple of examples: I hated Maths at school for various reasons, I failed continously and didn't turn up for half the classes then was told I needed O level maths to go to University. Just before the exam I did every past paper I could find - got an A in the exam. Couldn't have told you what the questions even a hour after the exam.
A Colleague was telling me about a welding apprenticeship, the student made a terrible weld for an assessment. He was not failed, he was told to go and do it again, and again, and again until he got it right. The emphasis was not on passing an assessment but on the student being able to do the job properly and correctly.
I believe it's time we moved away from these old-fashioned ideas where you can spend 3 or 4 years learning and developing a skill only to have the whole thing rest on 3 or 6 hours worth of an artificial test. Continuous assessment has been shown to be better at judging ability. The emphasis should be on being able to do the job not on passing an exam which are two different things.

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By SJH-ADVDIPMA
24th Sep 2020 12:13

If you cant pass the exams, and youre putting in enough time and effort, im afraid you do not have the requisite mental capacity to become a chartered management accountant. Perhaps try for chartered accountant instead.

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By pekoz1
24th Sep 2020 12:23

Im sure its always been the case but I suspect the accountancy profession is losing a lot of good and even experienced people due to their inability to pass exams. Which seems like a stupid statement to make. But in my personal opinion exams should be a test of a firm understanding of a subject area....not necessarily an exercise in memorising formulas that are rarely used.

I have a partner studying ACCA in later life who is very experienced but in exactly the same boat and struggling with Financial Reporting and Financial Management as her formula retention abilities are not what they were. Unfortunately after youve picked off the exams that you can do certain exams cant be circumvented and have to be passed before you move onto the next level.

Unfortunately for those struggling to pass the exams currently I would advise them to persevere as job vacancies requirements seemed to have gone up several notches during Covid-19.

But maybe look at using a different method of learning or even just a different instructor.

Not sure if Im allowed to say this here but maybe have a look at Mappit Accountancy on youtube or their own website to see if any of the ACCA or CIMA courses they do would help. No I dont work for them and Im sure there are many other good providers out there as well. Ive just persuaded my partner to approach her FR and FM exams from a different angle. Time will tell whether it works or whether the helicopter will have to winch her off from halfway up the mountain....

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By timfdean
24th Sep 2020 13:00

This really resonates with me. I got to that point with CIMA. It was tough and at times I felt exactly the same way. All I can say is you do learn from your mistakes, if you put in the time and dedication you will get there. Don't give up! If you want it you will get it and you absolutely can be a chartered management accountant. It opens so many doors and you'll be so proud of yourself when you make it.

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wolfy
By rob winder
24th Sep 2020 14:02

Do CIMA still produce their own study packs?

I used these at stage 3 & 4, in the 90s, as my employer wouldn't give me day release and there were no night classes in the North East then. I don't consider myself particularly bright leaving school with one O level, but I past every exam first time. I would start studying a few month before the exam. I would then take a week off before the exams and practice previous exam questions, 8 hours a day. Admittedly I scraped through each level with an aggregate score of around 205 but 25 years on who gives a toss.

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By Meltonmark
24th Sep 2020 15:33

Notice the photo uses a male to show failure. Howz that for misandrism!

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By rememberscarborough
24th Sep 2020 15:51

Coming from a family of teachers exams were a way of life but I always hated them. I got a poor degree (probably due to depression) and took best part of five years to pass ACCA whilst working full time. Later I met my wife who started from the bottom in an accountants and, without any qualifications, now earns more than me. My eldest also doesn't have wonderful qualifications but also started at the bottom in the banking industry and is doing very well for herself.

What life has taught me is that qualifications aren't the be all and end all and there are many ways to succeed in this industry without having a few letters after your name.

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Replying to rememberscarborough:
wolfy
By rob winder
24th Sep 2020 16:14

Agreed it is possible to get on without qualifications, however having the qualification opens a lot more doors than not having it. When studying I thought qualifying would in someway elevate me upon opening my results letter. In many ways its a bit like turning 21, you think you will wake up and feel like a different person. In reality it was an anti-climax realising that you are the same person that you were the day before. To a large extent a lot off what you learn to qualify is rubbish, I've forgotten more than I remember. Without the qualification though, I know I wouldn't have had the opportunities available to me without it.

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By GamekeeperTurnedPoacher
25th Sep 2020 13:15

DON'T DESPAIR and don't necessarily leave the profession without much serious consideration.
I moved 200 miles to take a job with the then Inland Revenue and after a few years passed the inspector's exam. A few weeks later my notice of transfer to London arrived. No thanks! I joined the profession at that stage working in the tax department of a then "Big 8" practice. I had wide experience but like all but one of the staff in that department no formal qualification. After a few years it became clear that I would not (would not be allowed to) make progress. It took some time but eventually I left to go into business with a chartered accountant friend. There were several changes in that business and then I discovered that as a founder member my face no longer fitted. I took all my clients and set up on my own. The BEST business decision that I ever made.
I know that your position is somewhat different. When are two situations ever the same? I am aware that a lack of letters after one's name can be a hindrance but it is not the end of the world. In semi-retirement, I like to think that I am living proof. My wife and I sold our practice but I continue to work part time. Willingly have I been prevailed upon by friends and acquaintances not to close my ledger nor to put down my quill. Eight years after the sale I am still accepting clients but now I have the luxury of being choosy. Joy!
DON'T DESPAIR! Take your time. Think it through. Good luck!

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