What Accountancy qualifications should I choose?

So you’ve decided that accountancy is the career for you – great choice! But where do you begin when considering what accountancy qualifications to choose?

You know that qualifications are important, but which are the most important? They’ll all require significant commitment, both money and time, so you want to make the right decision. Questions arise such as; do I dive straight into CIMA? Is it better to do the AAT first? Or, should I go to University first? There’s also the Level 7 Accountancy Apprenticeship which we’ve written about in a previous blog if you want to go a completely different direction. It’s all a bit of a minefield!

To provide some guidance, we interviewed several senior finance professionals to see what they thought.

Do you have any advice for someone who is struggling to choose between a finance degree, AAT, or ACCA / CIMA / ACA? Also, do you have an opinion on what route is best to become a qualified Accountant and where to start?
ACA Financial Controller:

I took the route of a finance degree (with a placement year in an accounting firm) and then secured an ACA training position in a local accounting practice. This worked very well for me as after university I was more mature and focused to start ACA. I would recommend doing either a finance degree or AAT before starting a chartered qualification as it is more of a natural stepping stone. ACA and ACCA are very similar qualifications, but ACCA is slightly more flexible in terms of the exams you can take and periods you can study over. CIMA is more management accounting focused.”

FCA Finance Manager:

There are many routes into accountancy and some are more associated with certain occupations, for example ACA for practice or CIMA for industry. I wouldn’t get too hung up on these associations, as the qualifications are all recognised and well respected. Choose the one that suits your study style. I went straight into the ACA from just a few night classes in bookkeeping many years earlier and this worked well for me. For others, the AAT can be a very good introduction to one of the other qualifications, as well as being a good qualification in its own right.”

ACMA Head of Finance:

I went down the route of AAT followed by CIMA. The AAT gave me a good grounding of bookkeeping principles and a taster of working in the sector. It was a commitment studying AAT alongside work, but more manageable and affordable then going straight into my CIMA at the time. For me it was the right decision to do the AAT before CIMA. I feel I was more confident and committed when I started CIMA because of the exams and experience I’d already gained. I knew it was for me! A degree would offer a similar thing but is more expensive. However, that is weighed up against the fact that your degrees may offer more exemptions than the AAT. Think budget, how do you best learn, are you 100% certain?”

ACMA Finance Manager:

“I’ve worked with many people over the years who have varying backgrounds – from leaving school at 16 and finding an apprenticeship, to having a finance degree and training at a ‘big’ firm. All have achieved their career goals or aspirations. In relation to ACCA/CIMA/ACA I would advise thinking carefully about what sort of finance role you see yourself in – would you want to take a more ‘traditional’ accountant role or do you see yourself working in a more corporate environment? Also, think about where you envisage yourself working – what sorts of industries are around and what qualifications would they prefer? I started out in the more industrial North of England and CIMA was a far more popular choice due to the amount of manufacturing industries in the area.”

How hard is it to balance work and studying towards a qualification? How did you do it successfully?
ACA Financial Controller:

“It is definitely a challenge to work full-time and study but it is only for a set period of time. It is worth the hard work and dedication to strengthen your skills as an accountant and allow endless opportunities for your future career. To pass my exams required discipline – inevitably using free time (before work/lunch breaks/after work/weekends) to study, even if that means missing out on social events. The key for me was to break the work down into manageable portions, setting myself topics to cover each day so I was confident going into exams. Training in practice also meant I was fully consolidating my learning with practical experience, which also helped me grasp some of the more complex study material. It greatly helped working with people who had gone through the exams themselves, you need a good support network at work and at home!”

FCA Finance Manager:

“Studying as well as working full time is a big commitment. However, the work complements your studies, making textbook examples into real-life scenarios. It also gives you access to colleagues who are going through or have been through the same process. You should make the most of this valuable knowledge resource and support structure. Work hard but remember to allow yourself time off to relax too. When I took the ACA exams, there were fewer exams covering larger sections of the syllabus. I took the first six exams, two at a time at exam sittings six months apart. I then allowed myself a six-month break after this intense period to reflect on what I had learned, take some time out and recharge my batteries.”

ACCA Finalist Management Accountant:

“It was hard for me as I also commuted hours every day. I worked in a practice where the work had to come first so being successful was down to your own drive to remember what you were doing and why you wanted it. Always having an end goal in mind helped. ‘When I qualify I am going to treat myself to a Michael Kors watch because I know how much I’ve learnt it’ was always mine!”

ACMA Head of Finance:

“It’s very hard. It took me several years to get there and there were several times that I wanted to give up. I wouldn’t even bother starting unless you are fully committed from the start. It will take A LOT of time and effort and so make sure you’re 100% certain that you’re up for the challenge!”

We hope the above viewpoints from these finance professionals who’ve ‘been there and done that’ will provide some helpful reading. If you’d like to discuss the topic further or send your questions to our network, then please get in touch.


Georgina Trudgill is a Director in the Accountancy Division at Harvey John.

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