How to Self-Study for an ACCA Exam

In this article we’re going to walk you through how best to prepare for that upcoming ACCA exam when you're self-studying. There are certain key things you should do and others you should definitely avoid if you’re going to successfully go this route...

In this article we’re going to walk you through how to prepare for that ACCA exam when you're self-studying. You’re not attending a college or university class. You may even be self-funding. In a nutshell, you’re going it alone! Well, it certainly can be done (it’s what I did, and I’m now ACCA qualified). But there are certain key things you should do and others you should definitely avoid if you’re going to successfully go this route. So let’s get into it!

Let’s say you've registered for an exam that’s two or three months away. You may well have already purchased your material by this point. It could be online tutorials. Or it could be the actual study text with the accompanying workbook. In my own case, the latter was my preferred approach. I actually purchased the study text itself. I ordered it from Amazon, and then I also purchased the exam kit/workbook. There are a number of different publishers and providers of ACCA textbooks (e.g. Kaplan, BPP), and there are pros and cons for each. In any case, that’s more of a personal preference, and so I will leave that decision to you as an independent learner. But let’s proceed under the assumption that you’ve purchased your study materials (whether it’s texbooks, or online courses, or both) and you're ready to get started.

1. Pay attention to those introductions!

Now you're wondering: where and how do I start? If you’re like me, then this content is completely new to you! You haven't seen it before and you're just wondering how to get started. So a key thing for you to do before you get started with a humongous textbook or a long, online course is: make sure you read or watch any introductory text or classes! Pay attention to the introductions!


Because in the context of ACCA, course and text introductions can contain vital information. I know I used to skip through directly to the first topic in an effort to save time. However, it is very important to pay attention to introductions because they often explain the context of the module, what has changed, what has been tested before, and the skills you should expect to learn from the module content.

Introductions also typically explain the ACCA exam format, which is very important because you might not want to expend the same amount of time and energy on every topic. Not every topic will necessarily be examined to the same extent. So it's good to understand what you can expect in the exam. What are the questions that come up? What are the key, core parts of the syllabus? So that at least when you get to those topics, you know how to apportion your time, whether you will likely need to go over a particular topic two or three times. And for topics that are probably not going to be tested as much, you can perhaps afford to go through them just once just for you to get a feel and to attain that general understanding. But you will know in advance where the majority of your efforts should be focused, allowing you to more effectively plan out your study time.

2. Set Objectives

Which brings me on to my next key piece of advice: before you get started, you should set some explicit objectives for yourself. What exactly do you want to get out of this?

Do you want to read through the study text/sit through the online course and then go through the exam kit/practice questions at least once? Do you have sufficient time to go through it twice? Do you want to just get the pass, without concerning yourself too much with high grades? Or do you want to aim for 80% or 90%? So depending on what these objectives are, then you'll be able to plan your study schedule more effectively and put in the right amount of effort in the right places, at the right time.

3. Set Down a Study Plan

I know some of you are probably working while studying, just like me. And of course it can be very tough! So before you get started, you need to have that study plan written or recorded somewhere. You are the only one who will know your capacity, your bandwidth; only you know how much time you have before your exam. So being clear about your objectives and creating an explicit plan will be vital because it's purely self-driven. Procrastination is something we all have to deal with; setting out a plan and checking every day if you’re sticking with it helps to keep you honest, and can be a good motivator. You don’t want to end up “lying to yourself” after putting effort into carefully plotting out a schedule!

Now of course, I recognise that nothing ever goes exactly according to plan! Life is complex and difficult to predict, even just for one person! So don’t be afraid to reassess and recalibrate your plan every couple of weeks. After the first few days or weeks, you will have a much better idea of how much effort you need to put in, how good or how bad things are going, and you can then make the right adjustments.

When you're devising your study plan, a key factor is to be as honest with yourself as you can. When you are plotting out the duration of your study sessions, ask yourself: are you going to be able to concentrate for that long? Do you typically find yourself losing concentration after 30 or 45 minutes? If you can't usually concentrate for a long period of time (due to fatigue from work or other activities before your studies), then there's no point putting in a study session of two hours straight!

Rather, break it down into bite size sessions. Have maybe a 40 minutes study session, then do something else for 15 minutes (go for a walk, watch a video). This is like a little reward for having concentrated fully for that 40 minutes! Then return to your studies for another 40 minute burst of concentration, knowing again that you have a nice reward waiting for you at the end. This is known as the “pomodoro technique”, and has been proven to be very effective at preventing procrastination. Also, when planning your studies, it's good to narrow down to what you want to have covered by a certain time. You could have the objective of “I want to read and understand fully these three topics by the end of this week”. For you to achieve that, you might need ten study sessions based on your own pace and time constraints. Again, the first days will reveal to you your actual study pace and bandwidth, so after those initial sessions, it’s a good idea to revisit your initial plan and evaluate – making any necessary adjustments.

4. Establish Your Preferred Study "Methods"

So set realistic goals. Create a practical schedule, break it down and actually block off time slots in your calendar or diary, and know that this time I'm going to be dedicated to learning the fundamentals of this topic or that topic. Then the next session, you might go through all the real-world examples for that topic. The third session may then be dedicated to some question practice.

You will discover as you go your own preferred study methods, your own time capacity, what seems to work and what doesn’t. Also, your course provider or textbook will often recommend certain tried and tested study approaches to improve your retention. You'll see in the Kaplan textbook, for example, that they recommend a specific study method. They suggest an approach they call the SQ3Rs. So that's: Survey, Question, Read, Recall and Review. So what does this mean in practice? Before you start a topic, you want to read through and see what are the objectives of this topic? What exactly am I going to cover in this topic? Then the next thing you do is read or look through the topic. As you're reading (or watching/listening), every so often ask yourself: “What was this part about? What are they trying to say here? Does it make sense? How would I explain this to someone?”

If I’m having difficulty getting my head around a particular topic, I might even go to Google to try and understand it further. This is why questioning yourself after each section, and challenging yourself to explain it in your own words, is so useful. It can reveal that you didn’t really understand what you just read or listened to.

Then there’s “recall”. This is usually done through the example/practice questions that are often interspersed throughout a study text or online course. You might decide to group all of these together and attempt them after you've read an entire chapter. But for me it works better to practice such questions as you go. So if I finished reading or watching a subsection, I’ll stop and do the sample question and check the answer. It certainly worked better for me. Of course you might discover that another approach works even better for you. The key is to observe what seems to work best in your own case. But certainly, that study method tends to work.

And then finally, there’s “review”. This occurs after you have completely worked through a topic or chapter. Review can take various forms. You could review by going through past paper questions on that topic. That's one example of reviewing what you've gone through. Another approach is to identify each section/subject within the chapter or topic, close the book, and then explain each in your own words. After each explanation, re-open the book and review that section/subject, checking to see if you have gotten anything wrong, or missed something. In my own case, I prefer to finish the whole syllabus before I try past paper questions, because I find sometimes the questions incorporate bits of information from different topics.

5. Engage in Effective Notetaking!

Lastly, I want to discuss notetaking. Personally, I literally cannot read and study without taking notes! But what exactly is the optimal approach to notetaking?

It's not simply a direct transcription of what you are reading! That is far too passive, and can create the illusion that you’re actively learning. It's best to write notes while you're recalling. So as part of my recall, I'll read a certain sub-section. Then I'll literally close the book and put it somewhere else. I’ll then write notes in my own words based on what I've read.

That's my way of checking. Have I really understood what I was reading? So if I get stuck, it's fine. I'll open the book and read again. But that's a good telltale sign for me of whether I'm understanding something or not. I’ll then rewrite the notes if the first batch wasn’t accurate or complete. You then have your final set of notes for that section or topic!

I find it notetaking very useful, especially when you're going through past paper questions and you want to quickly recall what that topic was about. You don't want to have to go through another 20 pages of text on that topic! It's just a quick reminder of what that topic was about, especially when it's just a few days before your exam. You don't want to be overwhelmed with too much information.

So taking notes helps with revision and also helps you internalise and understand what you're reading or listening through as you proceed.

The above are some of the best tips I can give you from my own ACCA self-studying experience. Of course, when you start studying, you'll discover a few more tips as you go along simply through trial and error! And your study will naturally become more refined and optimised with time. The key is to ensure that you plan effectively and realistically, and review and recalibrate your plan if you find that it is simply not working for you.

You can follow Belinda on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram for more great ACCA study tips and insights!

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