Route to success

Welcome to a transcript of this podcast

Paul Kirkwood: Welcome to this ACCA podcast. I'm Paul Kirkwood, head of learner experience at ACCA, and today we're meeting with Zahra Naeem, a recent prize winner in the ACCA exams. Our focus today is how to plan your path through the ACCA qualification, but also how to get ahead and plan for exam success in your next ACCA exam. Hi, Zahra. Good to have you with us today.

Zara: Hey, thank you for having me.

Paul: Fantastic. Now, I know that you recently got the prize for the financial reporting exam, which is just incredible. Could you tell me a little bit about where you are in your exam journey? Do you have any Applied Skills exams still to take what you're planning to? What are you planning to do next?

Zara: I'm done with the Applied Skill levels exams, and I'm currently studying for my Strategic Professional exams. So I'm studying for SBR and advanced taxation. Hopefully I'll be appearing for them in June.

Paul: And thinking back, how did you start your journey with ACCA? Did you have any exemptions, for example?

Zara: So I started right after my A-levels. My first exam was Accounting and Business (now Business and Technology). I studied for all the fundamental level exams, I didn't have to do the foundation.

Paul: And then once you've done Business and Technology - which I think is a fantastic exam to start with, as there are lots of terms in there, which for someone new to accountanc gives them confidence to understand some of the language of business - you then have to do financial accounting and management accounting. How did you choose which one to take next?

Zara: I just picked one that just came to my mind. So I just went for Management Accounting and Law together. And I took Financial Accounting alongside Business and Technology. I didn't really put much thought to it. But I just went ahead with what I thought was right.

Paul: Okay. It certainly worked for you. So you've got through the first three Applied Knowledge level, you've got your law out of the way which, again, is the right thing to do, in my opinion. Thinking about your Applied Skills? Did you have a full journey mapped out? Or were you choosing which exam or exams to do next, you know, each time you passed your, your, your previous papers?

Zara: I used to think ahead, yes. I knew that once I was done with the first three exams, I wanted to go for performance management next. And then I wanted to move towards financial reporting and financial management. I thought about the exams I liked.

Paul: That’s important. So by choosing PM, you must have liked the management accounting topics that you covered earlier. Is that right?

Zara: Yeah, I was into management accounting. At first, during the beginning of my ACCA journey, I was more towards management accounting, but as I was studying, I developed an interest towards financial accounting.

Paul: Okay, so if I had to ask you now, and this is a tough question, I know. But if I had to ask you, which, which is your favourite subject that you studied at Applied Skills, what would you say?

Zara: It has to be financial accounting and financial reporting. Because I've always loved numbers, and the concepts behind the standards, whatever goes on behind, you know, creating a standard. I really like to get into the, the meaning of everything

Paul: I see. I specialised in audit, teaching audit, but I struggled with the exams in audit and I think that's probably why I liked teaching it. But I always loved financial accounting and financial reporting. It just seemed to fit together nicely. You know, the whole concept of double entering debits and credits, it's, it was something more than just basic maths. It’s lovely the way it fits together. And then you end up with the statement of financial position. And there's nothing more satisfying than getting to the end of the question and getting the numbers to add up. It's just wonderful, isn't it? Okay, that's really interesting. And I love the idea of choosing things which are of interest to you. But it's also it's really important just for all of our students to be aware that there is a journey and your preferences will change. One thing is you move through it. So you sounded like you did exams in pairs, typically. So did you do your exams every six months?

Zara: Usually, yes. In the first year, I used to do them in pairs. And so every, every June, and every December, I would appear for two exams. So that's how I planned my ACCA. Initially, I had planned to complete my ACC in about 2.5 to three years, but obviously, due to Covid last year, there was a change of plans. So it got a bit delayed.

Paul: That's interesting. A lot of students will tend to do one exam, each quarterly sitting and others will do two exams every six months. Again, it's I think, it's certainly a route that I would suggest students think about, because it does give you that little bit of extra time off, allows you to get your results and move forward with knowing exactly what you've got in the previous exams.

Zara: Plus you can pick a subject that's of your choice and pick one that you find difficult, and you can take those two side by side.

Paul: Yes – there are some exams that go well together – for example financial reporting, and audit and assurance are quite a nice combination, because your audit and financial reports effectively. So there's lots of ways you can structure it to work for you. So How did you choose SBR and ATX, as your next two exams.

Zara: I chose SBR, because I had just done my financial reporting. And I knew that there was a lot that was going to be carried forward into SBR. I had knowledge that was still fresh in my mind. And for ATX, I had read up about the syllabus, and I learned that it was quite extensive. So I wanted to pick something that was going to give me a bit of a tough time, That's why I chose both of these together.

Paul: I want to try and think of dig into the way you prepare for your exams. So you plan to take SBR and ATX in June. How do you plan your studies?

Zara: What I learned from my learning provider is, according to their course plans, and what I planned for myself is I plan two to three months in advance before the exam session. So I plan and what I'm currently doing these days for my June attempt is that I'm studying the text thoroughly and doing all the tests and understandings and all the bits. So getting a fair understanding about the subject and the topics. And then once there's like a month or two left, so then I move on to practising and then the last month is all practice for me. So that's how I that's how I strategise.

Paul: So you broke it into three distinct parts, you've got your learning phase, you've then almost got this transition phase itself. Then where you're finishing, you're learning and you're getting confidence by practising maybe bigger questions and getting ready. And then you've got your final month, which is absolutely dedicated to revision and exam standard question practice.

Zara: I've always had this approach since the beginning of my ACCA. And even before that, I used to never focus on the marks, I always used to keep my focus on learning. What I want is I want to learn everything that's in the book, not just to pass but to, you know, actually learn and use that knowledge where I can.

Paul: That's interesting. We all know that the pass mark is 50. And that's fine. But actually as an overall objective to learn the subject well will give you a much better grounding in the subject as a whole. And you'd be able to use it as well more readily in the real world in work in the future. Yes, absolutely. It also means as well, because I think sometimes people miss the or don't see as much as they should, the way that the qualification builds. And the concepts you do in management accounting, will be used when you start APM. And it's the same with double entry. You know, the knowledge you learn in financial accounting will set you up for success in the later exams.

Good. Now, I know that a lot of students do struggle with exams. If a student suffers a setback in their ACCA exams, what advice would you give?

Zara: What I suggest to my friends, when they come to me for such advice is that you shouldn't be panicking, because that's rule number one. And the second thing you should do is you should go up to ACCA website and study the technical articles. Because those are worded so simply, and they're so brief, and they literally teach you everything that you want to know about the subject, or the topic that you're finding difficulty. And so that's something I do. And that's something I suggest to my fellow students as well, when they're struggling with either audit or financial reporting. So just go to the technical articles, and they're very helpful.

Paul: That's, that's really useful. And, you know, I'm so glad to hear that you find all those study resources useful as well. You know, and I call that, you know, especially if there's specific topics, you know, you're right, a lot of the articles the articles are written in a way designed to help students understand, and they are they're generally written in an easy to understand language.

Zara: Yeah, it's absolutely it's like someone's telling you a story. And it's, it's very easy to grasp whatever concepts being taught.

Paul: I was going to ask you about when you do exam standard questions, but we've been through that. And now we talked about the importance of doing exam questions, I am presuming the closer you get to the exam, the more you keep the time, in terms of the time you've got compared to the mark allocation.

Zara: Yeah, I start practising online on the workspace provided by ACC, so that I know how I'm going to be in the actual the exam. So I timed my exams and I start to practice within the time limit, and I try to finish before the time is up.

Paul: I mean, that that's so important. And this is something that, you know, speaking as an ex-tutor, you know, when I was in a classroom and I could see people in front of me, you know, I could start and I could stop and I could tell people to put their pens down or stop typing or however it was. And I felt I was in control. And the more I did that, especially in the revision stages of the courses I used to run, I think that helped people with their timing, and it stopped people, you almost train yourself to complete things within the time limit. And if you run out of time, well, you're going to have to move on, especially if you've got someone like me telling you to stop. You don't have me in the exam room, we don't have your tutor in the exam room. But you've got yourself and you can train yourself that that's the time you've got. And that's all the time you've got. Do you also deal with your answers carefully? After you've done a practice question?

Zara: Yes, I try to mark myself every time I attempt a question. And I get help from my tutors, my learning provider. And I asked them to mark my questions for me and tell me where I'm where I'm falling short. So that's very important. Before you know you're going into the exam room itself, you need to first know where you're weak.

Paul: Yeah, a wise tutor once told me that feedback is the breakfast of champions. And I love that so much. And, and you're right, there's different ways you can get it, you can get it through one mark in your own work. And if you've put yourself through the pain of practising a question for 35 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour, 90 minutes, then I think you should do yourself justice and spend proper time marking and debriefing, seeing where you went wrong, seeing how you can improve. And then if you are with a learning provider, use the tutors. Getting feedback from a tutor would be fantastic.

Zara: Yeah, absolutely. And personally for like audit, what I did was I used to practice the past exam papers that were available on the ACCA website. And then I used to match my answers with the mark scheme and the exam answers that were given on the ACCA website. So that really helped me, you know, figure out where I need to practice more or where I'm short of knowledge.

Paul: I get absolutely where we are aligned. Yeah, that's really fantastic to hear. So, so a couple of final questions. We've mentioned practice questions, but again, do you do mock exams? You know, just in that final exam preparation?

Zara: Yeah, I try to attempt at least five to six mock exams before, before I actually go in for the exam itself. And I tried to do these at least three days before the final exam. So I'm not panicking in the last two, three days.

Paul: Yeah, I mean, from my perspective, you know, thinking pragmatically, in terms of the pressures that a lot of students have in, you know, I think it's crucial to get one, ideally, two mock exams done in the run up to the exam. But undoubtedly the more you can do, the better prepared you will be, you know, so I think that's really interesting to hear you say that. Okay, now, we might just be repeating things here, and I'm very happy for you to repeat just some of the thoughts you've given. But, thinking back to what we've covered today, and anything else, what three bits of advice would you give to a friend who asks you ‘how do I make sure that I'm ready for exam success at the next exam sitting?’

Zara: I would suggest that you be consistent, and you also practice a lot, because practice matters more than I believe, if not more than equal, equally, as you know, gathering all the knowledge does. And even if you're facing failure, you shouldn't give up. It's all right, you have the next attempt.

Paul: These are challenging exams, and a lot of people struggle more than once on their journey. But I often say you know, keep your eyes on the final prize, think about why you started this journey, you know, fail, you know, we could come up with some lovely lines, no failure is a stepping stone on the route to success, which it is, I suppose the key thing you mentioned consistency there. The idea of, you know, once you've got that a plan that works, you know, you've got a consistent plan, you know, works, you've got it, you've got it nailed down at the moment. But if you did have a problem, be able to reflect and think about what went wrong and make tweaks to your plan to get better next time. So I like that idea of consistency but being flexible if you if you need to. I do worry that maybe sometimes people spend too much time reading and learning and not leaving enough time for their revision and practice. But it's a balance, isn't it? You've got to have some knowledge to get yourself going with the practice. That's all the difficult questions out of the way!

But finally, we always ask everybody on the podcast series, just one more question to get to know you a little bit more. So what is your favourite place Zara?

Zara: Anywhere that's peaceful, and anywhere where I can find good people!

Paul: Quite an open answer, and a really nice answer. So that's fantastic. Sara, thank you so much for joining me today. Your insights have been wonderful. I wish you every success with the rest of your ACCA journey and your future career. Thank you.