How to Audit (Part 15): Exams

Date:11 DALSE (Days After the Last Sodding Exam).

I feel strange. After finishing all the ICAEW exams I do not feel ecstatically happy, but oddly disorientated. My skin is not used to so much sunlight. I am re-learning how to cope with free time. One day, I may be able to have some fun again, but such drastic change does not happen quickly.

Qualification requires taking 15 exams over a three-year training contract. They have been long, tiring and emotionally crippling. I am in a strong shock of complete relief. Three years is a long time to aim towards a single goal. You dare not think about life after qualification because the route is so fraught. 15 exams is 15 chances to fail and get fired. The consequence is work in a different spreadsheet-less profession.

So I have reached my intended destination without thinking about how I would feel. It is like hopping on a random plane at Heathrow and arriving quite bemused at Baghdad/Manchester*. Eventually, I will feel satisfied and proud. Qualification is a fantastic achievement. The following is an overview of the last three years

The 15 exams are split over 3 stages, as demonstrated by this ICAEW chart (link):


1) Knowledge Stage

The Knowledge Stage is 6 multiple-choice papers that give a background understanding. The accounting and audit papers are taken as soon as you start the training contract. The accounting paper is terrifying. Understanding double entry is like riding a bike – at some point it becomes easy and natural. You hope that point is before the end of the exam.

The other exams are more straightforward. The material is not hard and the syllabus is manageable in size. This means that it is learnt to exhaustion for no reason. There are (literally) no prizes for first place.

The oddest part of the Knowledge Stage is the ICAEW’s insistence that students use an awful calculator for the exams. The buttons have the responsiveness of a slough. An abacus would be more useful.

Accountants are traditional in nature by


2) Application Stage

The 6 Application Stage papers make the knowledge stage look as easy as taking a Facebook break. They are taken about 9 into the training contract.  You are introduced to the accountant’s bible – the IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards).

These are 3.5 hour written papers. 55% is the pass mark. 1.5 minutes per mark becomes a golden rule because most failures are down to bad time-keeping.

Wobbly tables are a threat but the invigilators will provide free cardboard. You must use a ICAEW mandated pen (black ball-point), however, you can use any calculator/abacus (hurrah!).

The material is harder and learning the whole syllabus is close to unfeasible. The tax paper is especially horrid. As before there is no point revising everything to death, but there are prizes for first place – link.

3) Advanced Stage

The Advance Stage consists of the two Technical Integration (TI) papers and the Case Study. Helpfully, the pass mark is reduced to 50%.

The TI papers combines the knowledge in the application stage plus harder technical material. The tax material is especially horrid. The TI papers supersede all other exams ever taken for difficulty and time pressure. The learning of the whole syllabus is measured tortoise lifespans. Again, revising everything is impossible, however, it feels necessary in order to pass.

The TI papers (and the Case Study) are open book, so you can take anything and everything into the exam hall. To do so requires a trolley case. Unfortunately, the time required to look through it during the exam will probably result in failing.

At 4 hours, the Case Study is the longest paper. However, it is more straightforward than TI. The aim is to write a report about a company. The report uses information publish by the ICAEW before the exam and some new material during the exam. There is no technical material to learn. A few days of preparation is sufficient.  The hardest aspect is demonstrating the required report writing skills during the exam. Preparing the material to death actually increases the chance of failing.


The Journey

I won’t miss the exams, but I did enjoy college and I will miss that. The class of 2011 has journeyed through much hardship. It has cost much: in pens and paper; in evenings and weekends; and in stress and cholesterol. But for the cost, I do believe that the journey was very worthwhile.

This whole article assumes that I have passed before knowing the results. They come out in the Financial Times on 02 September 2011. There is a good chance to be an arrogant and vainglorious idiot.

*Apologies to the people of Baghdad for the Mancunian association.

How to Audit (Part 9): Audit is Like High School Because…

Work at a Big-4 auditor is a lot different from my perceptions before I joined. It’s not a boring 9-to-5 tie-wearing job. Every week has been different from the last. In fact, audit is a lot more like high school than anything else.

1. Exams

Never before has a generation been examined so much: Key Stage exams, GCSEs, A Levels, university and now the ICAEW exams. If I stack my accumulated textbooks and notes, it would reach one 232,830,406th of the way to the moon, i.e. 5’5”.

The exams are horrific but going to college is a refreshing change from work. It harks back to a simpler time in our lives: classrooms of 30; a teacher at the front; registers; morning, lunch and afternoon breaks; homework; and (best of all) finishing early. Also, we get paid for attending, and I get bullied less.

2.  Pencil Case

Despite being adults, we still need to carry a pencil and calculator. You don’t notice that it is odd until you produce a calculator when the dinner bill arrives.

Not at the dinner table. Photo by Nick J. Adams


3. Bully the 1st Years

New trainees start not knowing which way to hold a pen and thinking that “casting” is a way to listen to a briefly popular 90s indie band from Liverpool. Although, they are impeccably dressed.

In order to teach them the ways of accounting for a part disposal of a foreign subsidiary using the fair value method of non-controlling interest under International Financial Reporting Standards as adopted by South Sudan**, they must endure endless hours of photocopy and confusion.

Please note that this blog does not condone bullying. The 1st years are valuable, but the first year is always a hard learning experience.

Audit combines a genuinely open work atmosphere (reference to the last blog post about partners serving tea) with a clear hierarchy. Mistaking someone’s grade is a mild faux pas. A while ago I was mistaken for an intern and got asked to do some printing! The distinction is important because each year’s experience is worth a lot. Knowing someone’s grade gives an easy guide to the level of work that he/she can do.

4. Day Trips

Auditors lead a very active social life and the firm subsidises social events throughout the year. Except, your legal guardians won’t be phoned if you get lost on a night out. The post-social drop in productivity is balanced by department bonding.

5. Cliques

The value of professional firms is in its employees. How else can a audit report, which is just a some paragraphs stating that the financial statements are true an fair, be worth so much? Good relationships are vital for working effectively. Some interesting cliques do develop:

  • Infernos – a club in London for the young professional who wants to relive their university partying days. Unfortunately it costs a lot more and you will run into other auditors.
  • Geeks – these previous social outcasts become sought after for their intimate knowledge of auditing standards and Excel.
  • Asian Kids – Recently, audit firms have recruited from Mainland China. The group is large enough for me to apply a meaningless label to them.
  • Wantaways – Those who decided that audit was not for them and are just waiting to pass their exams and leave. Every auditor will go through this phase after a few hard weekends of work.
  • Audit Lovers – A rare breed indeed.
  • Jocks – A good deal of auditors play sports and go to the gym. Intra-department matches are popular, except the opposition may wear pink tutus.

Real-life auditors don’t necessarily fit into these categories. The audit lovers do still go to Infernos and the Asian kids aren’t always geeks.


Audit is like high school, except for the work, which means the high school analogy isn’t appropriate. I have responsibilities and deadlines. If I stop working then I won’t be able to live in London. However, that is true of any job. Audit has its faults but you cannot say that it is not varied.

**For those who are interested, the answer to the problem in part three is a combination of IAS 27 and IAS 21. The South Sudanese accounting standards have not been written yet.

Hot July Nights and Karaoke

A busy and varied month.

My sister graduated, which coincided with a return trip to Nottingham. It was surreal walking past students house that friends used to live in. Now there are faded stories about the time we lit a bonfire in the garden and burnt things. (OK, that was just the once on the corner of Faraday Road / Derby Road).

Always good to see the guys, despite our increasingly busy schedules. It’s the last summer before everyone starts their adult jobs. Yes, the six-year medical degrees have ended, but not before the drunken press up with a 75kg Indian standing on your back contest. Sam beat Graham 4-0.

Where I audit and fix printers.

Angel (North London)
Most sane people are finished with exams after university. I even had a sadistic enjoyment from setting my English students tests. But I decided that I needed three years of professional exams in my life. It’s a constant and unyielding pressure. I’ve spent three weeks at college in Angel. I just found out that I passed the mock exams from last week. I don’t feel any satisfaction – it’s just relief.

Why do I do it? Obscenely ridiculous post-qualification salary.

Actually, the my real motivation for work is the chance to sing karaoke on a regular basis. I’ve sung Take That’s “Back for Good” three times in July. Happy times.

2009_07_02 BBC Drinks 37 

Now I’m off to Canada for two weeks holiday. They say that Karaoke is banned there. Unhappy times.