How to Audit (Part 17): Results Day

Friday 2nd September was Case Study results day for the trainee class of 2008. The ICAEW takes around 6 weeks to mark a written paper. The results are released on a Friday at 5pm. A variety of ways are used: letter, email, text message and their website.

Text Message Waiting

The Friday afternoon wait for results strains the nerves. Most trainees will try to find an isolated hole to hide in. We were stood in a circle outside a bar in Canary Wharf. Others were enjoying a drink. We clutched our phones waiting for that message.

There are 5 unforgivable auditor pranks. Hopefully, you won’t experience the worse – having “ICAEW” replace a phone contact and being sent a deceitful text. As general guidance, do not send nervous trainees any text messages between 4:51pm and 5pm.

The ACA exams aren’t the most important exams in our lives. We wouldn’t have been to take the exams without good GCSEs, A Levels and a 2:1 university degree. The consequences of failure aren’t so dire. Once the Advance Stage (last three exams) is reached, there is no time bar and unlimited attempts (link).

However, this particular text does have greater significance and meaning. Three years of grinding stress could be over. There is the prospect of life without the threat of exam bird poop over you. The great unattainable becomes certain. Qualification.

Failure means retakes, but a retake doesn’t mean failure. Many successful partners have failed an ICAEW exam. However, the disappointment is crushing and good heart is needed to go through the same process again. Having unlimited attempts is of no comfort. More than three attempts results in begging for an attempt-limit as an act of mercy.

At 5pm, the texts came through. Gasps. Cheers. Hugs. Another check. Handshakes. A text message audit to make sure. Calls to family. A smile.

Website Hunting

After your own position is secure comes the scramble to find out if friends have made it to the same happy place. The exam results are published publically on the ICAEW website. Inevitably, it crashes at 5pm. Fortunately, we live in the age of Facebook. The newsfeed is a crash-proof and reliable information source.

Recruitment consultants do love these lists

The website is eventually checked because it is an important source of gossip about who failed and what they failed. Confusingly, the results are published in two lists: a Pass List and a Credit List. The pass list is for those who have passed all three Advance Stage exams. The Credit List shows the exams that have been passed for those who have not passed all three. You hope to be on the Pass List, or at least on the Credit List. Being on neither is definitely bad. You may experience shock/elation depending on the permutations of number of sittings and number of exams taken.

Who says accountancy isn’t straightforward?

The After-Party

Qualification should be the perfect reason to party and acts of exuberant celebration, such as swimming in the Trafalgar Square fountains. However, results day is often an anti-climax. Relief, rather than joy, is the dominant emotion. The fear of failure means that nothing large is organised. The mood is dampened by friends who didn’t pass.

The day after qualification feels little different from the days before. There is a quiet satisfaction from the amazing achievement of passing all 15 exams. This grows over time and brings a joy that lasts longer than a boozy night out.

I passed.

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 10): Leaving

In the 960 days since I’ve started audit I’ve seen many trainee and qualified auditors leave for non-audit paths. Sadly, high turnover is the norm in Big-4 audit firms. While they are missed by their colleagues, the audit machine is large and robust enough to survive.

It is more surprising when a trainee leaves given that they are locked into three year contracts. It is worthwhile to explore why trainees leave early.

In the beginning

We all start off with good intentions when we first join and no-one ever plans to leave. There’s enough effort just to get started. The graduates have stellar academic and extra-curricular records, well motivated, possess excellent communication and team working skills, and managed to beat 20 other similar graduates to get the job.

Fantastic opportunities lie ahead when you start. The ACA is an excellent qualification. You’ll work with great people. The experience you gain would proudly decorate your CV. It’s tough, but you’ll grow a lot professionally and personally.

Why leave?

In life, nothing worthwhile gets achieved without some pressure and trial. It takes three hard years to qualify as a chartered accountant: 15 exams and 450 days of work experience. It’s an impressive achievement because it is hard. But for some, the effort isn’t worth it and leaving is the right thing to do.

I believe people leave for four interconnected reasons:
1)    Stress
2)    Health
3)    Exams
4)    NFM – not for me

Not the easy way out by peminumkopi


1) Stress

The hours are long: 40 to 50 hours a week during busy season. This does not including time spent commuting, eating and thinking up accounting jokes. Audit is stressful. People think it is just about the numbers. However, soft skills count for more than calculator abilities. A lot depends on the effectiveness, efficiency and helpfulness of the client. So teamwork and interpersonal skills are vital. You’re under pressure to deliver results and meet deadlines. Untypical problems do come up, which needs creativity to find a solution.

Experience matters a great deal for coping with stress. Auditing is done as a team, and seniors will be there to help. Whenever I’ve needed it, help has been available. People do understand that trainees start off with no audit knowledge and take that into consideration.

2) Exams

You will be fired if you fail the (retake) exams. This is how most trainees prematurely leave a Big 4 firm. It greatly adds to the stress of the job. Fortunately, the work calendar is designed so that you the main revision periods are during the quieter times at work. Managers are sympathetic if you have exams and will endeavour to minimise working overtime. However, there will be times were you have to work long hours and revise in the evenings and weekends.

Telling you to pass the exams first time is an obvious and unhelpful piece of advice. But failing means: paying for retakes, using up holiday time for revision courses and destroying your weekends prior to the retake.

How not to treat the trainees by bottled_void

3) Health

Audit comes with a health warning.  The typical audit room is cramp and furnished with high tables and unadjustable chairs. This is not good for your back. Fortunately, trainees are only out at the client for about a third of the year. The rest of the time will be spent in college stressing about exams.

However, the long hours spent sitting down and eating sandwich lunches do take their toll. Regular exercise is essential to your health and sanity.

4) NFM – not for me

To some extent, the first three problems can be overcome. However, audit does not suit everyone. Of course, we all get depressed / annoyed / angrier than a banker without a bonus from time-to-time, but for some that feeling never escapes. Their reasons go much deeper than the ones I have outlined. Perhaps the hours intolerably encroach onto family life. The commutes are too long. The firm is too large and impersonal. Maybe the work isn’t simulating enough.


Some trainees will love the work and feel no pressure, others will find it intolerable. Most of us fall in the middle, the pressures are they but we’ve found ways to cope and still manage to have some fun.

I don’t want to attach any stigma to those who leave early. Everyone faces the same pressures. I would say that it’s important to consider how you will cope and if you will be happy before starting any job. However, it is impossible to know that until you have joined and discovered this for yourself. After all, no wisdom was ever gained from a blog post.


I actually wrote this blog post at the beginning of my audit career but I refrained from publishing it might have given the impression that I was going to leave early. However, with one exam to go before qualification, leaving is unthinkable. In a poll of some peers, no-one would choose to leave even if they won the lottery.

I did write this blog post for my friend, Graham. He faced a lot of these work pressures that I have talked about. And, a year ago, passed away after a long period of mental illness. He was 24.

In his memory, we (Graham’s friends and family) are raising money for Mind, a leading mental health charity by running in the Bupa 10k race. Please, hit the link below and donate generously: