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I know a number of young people – 4/5 years out of Uni now – who are either full qualified, or training to become a Chartered Accountant.
And as a position in finance is probably one of the most popular career paths for many pursuing FIRE (along with software development and engineering to name a few), I thought it’d be interesting to get their insight into what its like from the application process to work/life balance.
My friend – ‘M’ – has been qualified now for ~5 years, having studied something completely different at university.
He’s now an Auditor for a large governmental organisation.
This is his honest and open experience so far…
Skip to each section:
- What made you want to become a Chartered Accountant?
- How did you find out how to apply and what sort of person do you have to be?
- What does the interview process look like/ how long does it take?
- How is the work/life balance
- What does the exam structure look like?
- What does career progression look like as a CA?
- Is it all just spreadsheets and numbers?
- Do you have any advice for someone wanting to become a Chartered Accountant?
What made you want to become a Chartered Accountant?
A Chartered Accountant is someone who has obtained an ACA Qualification, which is impossible to obtain on your own, so you must work at an organisation that runs it.
I’ve always been interested in economics/ finance/ investing so it seemed a good fit for me.
It’s a solid career path with good job security and strong wages.
How did you find out how to apply and what sort of person do you have to be?
I found it on one of the many graduate scheme websites.
I’d say that many graduate schemes are interested more in your character than what you did at university, or which university you attended; they don’t even require a 2:1 in some cases anymore.
Your university course and grade does not translate into how good you will be at a job.
I would say that universities don’t tend to offer much support and push towards schemes. They’d rather graduates just find any job as that is what they get benchmarked on: any employment rather than fulfilling employment.
Graduate schemes typically offer good competitive wages and will challenge you but also give you a lot of freedom and trust from the off.
What does the interview process look like/ how long does it take?
Most ACA Graduate Schemes involve several initial logic and number tests, before a telephone interview and usually a day of further assessment.
Generally, these take 2-3 months from start to finish. Most schemes intake in September (with the intention people graduate over the summer then immediately start), but some start all year round.
The graduate scheme will typically be three years as you need to pass all 15 exams and have 450 qualifying days of work before being accepted into membership of ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountant in England and Wales).
Certificate Level is usually taken in the first few months. Typically, if you fail these exams you probably won’t pass the later, more difficult ones, so your organisations may not allow you to go any further with it.
How is the work/life balance
Typically, it is quite good but that is just because I work in the public sector – private sector work/life balance is typically very poor, with 70-hour weeks generally the norm all year round.
There are busy periods where I’ll work 50-60 hours but compared to most in the sector this isn’t too bad considering the salary on offer.
What does the exam structure look like?
- 15 sets of exams across three years.
- Six 2-Hour exams at Certificate Level.
- Six 2 and a half-hour exams at Professional Level.
- Three at Advanced Level (1x 4 hour and 2x 3 Hours).
Certificate Level exams are each equivalent to around an AS Level’s worth of Content, whilst Professional Level is more equivalent to an AS and A Levels amount of content. Advanced Level is close to a degree’s worth of knowledge for each exam.
You’ll typically sit two certificate level exams in one day, then three professional ones across two days, then three advanced ones back-to-back Monday to Wednesday. You can imagine the amount of revising you’ll need to do is considerable given the size of content!
These exams are easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life!
It did mean many months on end of not having a social life. Even people from the top, top universities and courses from around the world fail these exams, which is why graduate schemes are less interested in recruiting the ‘best of the best’ and more interested in you as a person.
Most of the exams only need 55 out of 100 marks, but still only around 70-75% of people will pass, and those that do typically will only just get into the 60s.
You will be tested on economics, business acumen, law, financial decisions, investment decisions to name a few. It does teach you a lot about the business world and help with financial and investment decision making.
What does career progression look like as a CA?
Once you qualify, you can essentially work out what career you want.
Some may stay where they are, but many will also go into Industry (e.g., Financial Accountant for a FTSE250 company), Investment Banking, Advisory services (Management Consultancy), with many routes leading to Director level progression if you stick at it.
The average salary is around £120k a year, but once qualified you’ll typically be on around the £60k benchmark.
Throughout your late 20s and 30s you’ll quite quickly progress into the six-figure range, but you’ll have significantly more responsibility and likely work more hours.
I would mention that, despite saying private sector being 70–80-hour weeks, the sky is the limit with pay.
Is it all just spreadsheets and numbers?
I would say it is in general, but many jobs use Excel workbooks nowadays so I don’t think this is particularly unusual.
Typically, workbooks in Excel are used as these allow you to use formula vs a Word document
A lot of the job is understanding what you’re looking at, especially in auditing as it involves reviewing other people’s work and disclosures. Its very investigative. You’ll be writing reports and need an eye for detail. An annual report could mean 100,000 words needs reviewing to ensure an organisation is reporting correctly.
Other interesting elements might be attending audit committees (slightly specific to auditing).
You’ll join a meeting with non-executive directors, the CEO/CFO, and the Chair of the board to present findings/ decide on future direction.
These will be very senior people, both for myself in government but if you were auditing a bank for example, it’d be the bank’s CEO, so you get good experience very quickly.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to become a Chartered Accountant?
It is a long and difficult path but is very rewarding when you have finally qualified.
The pay isn’t particularly very good until qualifying, and because you’ll typically be doing extra hours, especially when revising for exams (for advanced I didn’t have a weekend to myself from August until early/mid-November), it can be difficult to stay motivated, but at the end the pay is very good and career progression is excellent (typically twice the UK Average Salary by the time you are not even mid 20s).
As noted, you will work more hours than many jobs, but many jobs in the professional sector also work like this (doctors, lawyers, teachers etc.).
It is worth noting if you have any criminal record at all you’ll likely not be allowed to join, and any crime whilst being qualified will generally see a heavy penalty or being stripped of your membership (even a speeding ticket would likely result in an additional substantial fine from ICAEW).