How to get qualified in a big 4 firm – How hard is the ACA?

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Being a qualified accountant is essential for progression both within big 4 firms and from a general career perspective. This post sets out how to become qualified and answers the question; how hard is the ACA? 

In the UK, graduates complete the accounting exams alongside their (usually 3 year) graduate scheme. There are a few different qualifications which give ‘qualified’ status, however the ACA and ICAS are the most commonly completed qualifications.

It should also be noted that this post will be written from a UK perspective, as I’m aware that qualification does not work the same way in other countries.

A key difference that there is in the UK compared to other countries is that there is no prerequisite accounting qualification needed to complete the ACA. 




In total there are 15 different ACA exams which are required to pass. These 15 exams are split into a further 3 subsets, these are Certificate, Professional and Advanced levels. 

As you expected, the exams get progressively harder as you progress up the levels. 

There is no predefined order in which the exams must be taken, with the exception being the final Case Study exam which must be taken after all other exams have been completed. Depending on the firm you are at, you will either take two or three exams at any sitting. 

The pass mark for the Certificate and Professional level exams is 55%, whereas the Advanced level is 50%. This may seem quite low, however this reflects the difficulty of the exams. 


A huge benefit of being on a big 4 firms’ graduate scheme is that you will have access to college tuition. This tuition would otherwise be very expensive and it really does teach you how to pass each of the exams. The tuition provider that I was given was Kaplan, though I’ve heard there are a number of different providers out there.  

Initially the experience felt quite strange. It was almost like going back to school in that a group of my intake were sat in a classroom being taught by a teacher. 

As we entered college for the set of exams we were going to sit (usually around two months later), we would be given a huge volume of study material. This consisted of; 

  • ICAEW Study Manual
  • ICAEW Question Bank
  • Kaplan Workbook
  • IFRS Accounting Standards
  • Tax tables

Something I found early on from my time at college was the speed at which the content was taught and that it was expected to be understood. You have to remember that you are in a class of other very intelligent people who have all managed to get a place on a big 4 grad scheme – something we all know is very difficult. 

The teaching style was split between in-classroom teaching and self managed learning (SML). We were given weeks off work to allow us to complete this learning. It was always very tempting to slack during the SML days, especially when exams were a while away, however I would certainly advise being focused from the outset as the content quickly ramps up.  

At the firm I was at, we were given a week or two of college time early on in the process, which would then be followed by going back to audit work for a few weeks, and being expected to study in the evenings. Around a month before the exams we then had a further week of in classroom tuition. In this week it was expected that you knew most of the content as it was heavily focused on exam question practice. During this week we also took a mock exam. 

One week before the exams we had a full revision week, which again would be fully classroom based. This was very useful and for many people a lot of the content really clicked. Again, the work was heavily focused on exam practice and structuring answers in a way which would pass the exam. A further mock exam would be taken during this week, with your exam mark being given a quartile in relation to the rest of the class. 


In short, the ACA is difficult. However, the fact that most people that start the qualification end up passing shows that it is possible. 

From my perspective, the exams are very content heavy rather than being overly technical, meaning that if you put in an adequate number of hours during the months leading up to exams, you are very likely to pass. 

In addition, the exams tend to be very similar in structure which means that over the revision period you are able to learn how to formulate an answer in a way that scores most of the marks for each question. A hugely important tool for learning how to do this is the Question Bank (QB), which is a list of a large number of past exam questions. I typically tried to complete the entire QB prior to an exam sitting. 


In my opinion the hardest exam is Business Planning: Taxation (BPT). Much of the content is different from any other exam or work experience, as the exam questions tend to be open ended, such as “how would you advise x to do x?” This meant that it was often difficult to pinpoint exactly which part of the syllabus the question was looking at. 

I would also say that Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) was difficult at the time, as much of the content was new and was a real step up compared to the Certificate level exam. 


As you may have heard, the general rule in the big 4 is that failing any exam twice, or failing a professional level exam by more than 10% (a bad fail) meant you would be liable to be removed from the training contract

Though I have seen the rule be implemented as written, I have seen other instances whereby colleagues have been given another chance to resit exams – this is usually when someone that failed had a good reputation at work. 

Due to the above, I would highly recommend putting as much work as possible into the exams so that this does not apply. As mentioned previously, as long as sufficient work is given to each exam, you will be able to pass. There is a reason so many people qualify each year. 

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