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Combining skills for a successful exam result

Studying and revising are important to attaining the ACA qualification but must be accompanied by developing your skills in the workplace

The ACA qualification has always required a combination of knowledge, skills and experience. These three elements do not sit apart in isolation. You might be forgiven for assuming that the exams are all about demonstrating your technical knowledge. Indeed, many of the exams you have previously encountered in your academic life will have required only technical knowledge to achieve a pass. The game changes when you reach professional education.

Skills in the exams

When revising for your exams your attention will be drawn to the learning outcomes set out in the syllabus. However, skills are also assessed throughout the ACA qualification. For example, the ability to assess options and identify priorities is an important skill. The Certificate Level exams present specific options and you’re asked to select the appropriate response. At Professional Level, options are presented in simple scenarios, progressing in complexity in the Advanced Level modules of Corporate Reporting and Strategic Business Management. By the time you reach Case Study, you are expected to balance your judgement regarding priorities and risk in an unstructured scenario with little guidance.

Don’t only refer to the syllabus and technical knowledge grids when you are preparing for an exam; make sure you read the skills development grids, available for all Professional and Advanced Level modules. Each module tests different skills within the following four categories:

  • assimilating and using information;
  • structuring problems and solutions;
  • applying judgement;
  • conclusions, recommendations and communication.

For example, the skills development grid for the Business Strategy module not only sets out the skills tested under the category of applying judgement; it provides examples of how you will be expected to demonstrate these skills in the exam. You could be asked to:

  • evaluate the impact of a business proposal on an entity;
  • assess the reliability, accuracy and limitations of any analysis performed;
  • be able to produce arguments integrating numerical and linguistic arguments;
  • prioritise the issues facing an entity;
  • identify links and relationships between different issues affecting an entity and use these to establish priorities;
  • evaluate options for an organisation, taking into account its stakeholders, objectives, priorities, available resources and ethical obligations;
  • provide reasons for the rejection of alternatives.

The link to the workplace

The skills assessed by the exams cannot be learned in the classroom alone; they must be practised in the workplace during your training agreement. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle – you can’t do it by simply knowing that you need to sit on the seat and push the pedals. You must practice balancing to ensure you stay upright, setting off at the right speed to ensure momentum, and turning corners at the right angle to ensure you don’t fall off. It’s the same with the ACA skills – you can’t just read about them – you have to practice them to develop your competence.

The professional development ladders provide a framework for you to ensure that you get experience in all of the areas you need to during your training agreement. Aside from being a requirement for ICAEW membership, the ladders also give guidance as to when you are ready to sit the final Case Study exam. There are seven ladders, categorised as follows:

  • communication;
  • team working;
  • decision-making;
  • consideration;
  • adding value;
  • problem solving;
  • technical competence.

For example, the communication ladder (below) sets out the ultimate goal as being able to communicate effectively at all levels, using oral, written and presentational skills. It then sets out eight steps, all of which must be achieved to meet this goal.

Steps one, two, four and six all link to ethics and professional scepticism (E). You should have practised the skills at levels six, seven and eight before attempting the Case Study (CS).

The key message is: don’t focus on attaining technical knowledge at the expense of developing your skills through workplace experience. All of these elements are vital to your development as a professional and your qualification as an ICAEW Chartered Accountant, and you have access to a wealth of resources to help you. 


  How were you able to... Guidance on specific examples
… negotiate successfully? Negotiating with peers, seniors and clients, clearly
and fairly, in order to influence outcomes beneficially
for the organisation.
… use available resources to present information formally
to a group?
Presenting formally and in an appropriate style, in order
to persuade an internal or external audience.
… question the views of more senior members of
the organisation?
Using the power of logical argument may involve
handling adverse or unwelcome decisions.
5 … demonstrate good report writing skills?
Communicating in pure, formal and logical written form.
… use persuasion to change another’s point of view,
while demonstrating an understanding of their views?
Appreciating both sides, being forceful and persuasive,
rather than passive. Empathising with colleagues and
customers. Managing adversarial situations.
3 … share information and knowledge that helped
others succeed?
Informal mentoring, coaching. Oral presentation skills.
… show an appreciation of both sides of an argument?
Keeping an open mind. Demonstrating listening skills.
Handling difficult situations. Showing diplomacy
and compromise.
… appreciate the point at which assistance is required?
Knowing when help is required and where to find it.
Seeking opportunities for learning.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 edition of VITAL.