In this article, I'm going to walk you through the best order in which to complete the ACCA exams. Or in other words, what's the optimal combination that I would recommend that you attempt in order to maximise your chances of passing.
As you can probably see, this article is on the long side - but it goes into every single detail, relaying all of my experience from being a student of ACCA and now a tutor.
For those of you who have not come across me before: my name is James Wright and on my ACCA channel I help students around the world to pass their upcoming ACCA exam.
As you can see from my channel's comments, I frequently encounter questions along the lines of:
"James, what should I do about this combination?"
"What about this professional paper?"
"What about these Applied Skills?"
What follows would be the ideal approach that I'd be implementing, if I was in your shoes again and had upcoming ACCA exams.
I'm going to go through all of the details available to you on the ACCA website (you can follow along by clicking this link, which will take you through to the ACCA format on this).
1. Pass rates & exam structure
So first off, what you need to be aware of is the natural pass rates and the breakdown of all the different levels.
First, we've got the applied knowledge exams, comprised of:
- Business and Technology (BT)
- Management Accounting (MA) exam
- Financial Accounting (FA) exam
The key numbers listed below are the pass rates for these exams. And as you can see, the further on you get into the ACCA journey, the lower the pass rates get.
This is why I've set up my YouTube channel, to help you pass all of your exams and navigate your way through as the exams become more challenging.
Now, after you’ve finished your Applied Knowledge exams (that's the first little chunk up there of the three) you're then going to move on to your Applied Skills exams.
You have a lot of variety on there, from the Law paper to Performance Management, Taxation, Financial Reporting, Audit Assurance and Financial Management.
And you can see that the Audit Assurance one and the Performance Management ones are generally the most difficult in terms of pass rates.
Then once you complete all of those, you're getting onto what is called the Strategic Professional exams, where you've got two compulsory papers - SBR and SBL - and four papers from which you have to pick and pass two.
This decision is really key, so we'll discuss this in more detail later on.
Among these four options, you've got Advanced Financial Management, Advanced Performance Management, Advanced Taxation and Advanced Audit Assurance.
Looking at those pass percentages above, it's natural to get a bit worried! But don't despair, this is why I do what I do! We'll talk about this more below.
Overall, you're going to be doing 13 exams in total, unless you've received any exemptions or done other qualifications that will qualify as a "pass" for one of the exams. But we'll also talk about that more as we go through this article.
Which ACCA Textbooks should you use?
Another question I get all the time is: "James, what would be your recommended textbooks here? What should I buy in order to pass my ACCA exams?"
Well, I've got you covered.
In the description box of the video version of this article, I have put links to all of the study texts, revision packs, and flick notes if you want to purchase an E-book or study revision tools for your upcoming ACCA papers.
These are what I used to use as a student, so I recommend them to all of my current students as well. Just click on the links and feel free to go and check them out. They will definitely help and are all up to date as well.
The Perfect Formula
So now I'm going to share with you what I believe to be the perfect formula, whatever your situation, to get you through those 13 exams.
For anyone who is new to ACCA, or who wants to get to know more about it, or perhaps you're straight out of university - you should know that there are four exam sittings every year. The first one is in March, the next one is in June, the next in September, and the one after that in December.
Of course, there's no one size fits all strategy when it comes to studying. I understand because I went to college with loads of ACCA students. I've done online tuition. I teach students face to face, I help them out now with free videos online. And everyone has different commitments and challenges.
In this article, I'm going to take that into account. If for instance, you work full time, like I had to do, you may have to negotiate different contracts about your study leave. I had to do evening classes, I also had to do a weekend class, and sometimes take a day off.
Other ACCA students have children to take care of. I also know other students that don't have a job at the moment but are currently looking for one - something which itself can take up a lot of time. So what I'm going to advise in this article is going to be based on the sort of allowable time that you've got. You'll continually see me say, ‘if you've got a lot of time’.
2. Applied Knowledge Exams
So let's start to walk and talk through this. I'm going to assume now that we're at the stage where we are starting from scratch.
You've just registered as a student, and you're thinking about doing your first exam. So first of all we’re going to be thinking of the Applied Knowledge exams - Business Technology, Management Accounting, and the Financial Accounting exam.
These all sort of fit into a nice little cluster at the start. The first thing to realise is that they’re all computer-based. One of the common reasons people fail these, unfortunately, is because of a lack of familiarity with the system.
There are loads of free resources on ACCA's website where you can practice tests and questions that replicate the exam system. That’s really handy to know and something you definitely should take advantage of.
With Business and Technology, it was previously called the Accountant in Business exam. It’s recently been updated. I'm writing this in March 2021, so in case you're looking through my other previous YouTube videos, don't worry - they're not going to be obsolete! The exam was just rebranded with a different name.
The reason why these three exams are so key is that they build on accountancy fundamentals.
Business technology, management accounting, financial accounting... I think back to when I was a student, wondering to myself, "Oh my word! All these concepts! How am I going to fit this into a business case scenario? And how would I apply that in the workplace if I'm not working?"
Well, this is why I really care that you understand and learn the fundamentals because they set the foundation on which all the subsequent exams are built.
You'll hear quite a lot of people saying, "Oh, yeah, I really just want to fly through these first exams". Well, if you do that, then you're going to come unstuck later when you come to the Applied Skills exams. So make sure you put everything into these exams.
Next, we have to consider time constraints: what if you've got lots of time? Or what if you've not got very much time?
Well, if you've got lots of time, I think you can actually start by studying for two exams at the same time. I recommend that you do the Business and Technology exam in conjunction with the Management Accounting exam.
That would then leave you (assuming that you pass) with Financial Accounting as the final exam in this phase. As we saw with the actual pass rates above, these exams are challenging, even at the Applied Knowledge level.
The reason why I suggest that the Financial Accounting should remain as your third option, and to do it by itself, is the Financial Accounting exam relates closely to the Financial Reporting exam and feeds into SBR as well.
So in other words, if you don't understand the core knowledge of the Financial Accounting exam (maybe you scrape a pass), it's really going to hinder you going into the next round of exams.
If on the other hand, you are busy now, maybe you've got children, working commitments, and you just want to do one at a time, well, then I'd recommend you start off with Business and Technology, then go on to Management Accounting, and then finish with Financial Accounting.
The other thing I want to highlight with the Applied Knowledge exams is that if you're going to university to study or you're going to an in-person tuition provider, you may need to do some research before doing so.
You may need to establish, for instance, whether they cover people with exemptions. And if you are new to studying, can you apply for the exemptions calculated via the ACCA website? This is one thing to check if you're going to enroll in a programme.
3. Applied Skills Exams
So we're coming on now to the Applied Skills level. We've completed those first three exams and passed them. What should we be starting with next?
Just to be crystal clear, the potential exams that you have now are:
- Law exam (LW)
- Performance Management (PM)
- Taxation (TX)
- Financial Reporting (FR)
- Audit Assurance (AA)
- Financial Management (FM).
Six potential choices.
What I would advise from my personal experience is to start with the Law exam.
Not just because it has quite a high pass rate, but because it doesn't really link into that many other areas in the syllabus.
So it's good to just get it done and set aside. If you have a decent amount of study time available, you could even get away with preparing for it in conjunction with another exam such as Financial Reporting.
The reason I say Financial Reporting is that you've just done Financial Accounting and many of the key core concepts of that will go into Financial Reporting, so it will be fresh in your mind.
Important advice for the Taxation exams
Now one important qualification here, and don't make the mistake that I see so many students making: you've got to consider the Taxation exam dates.
The reason for this is that for the UK Taxation exam, the rules and rates and standards change quite regularly. So you need to plan ahead a bit for when you intend to do the TX exam.
I’ve sat both the Taxation (TX) and the Advanced Taxation (ATX) exams, and you always need to be mindful that the rules can change for both.
For the first paper (TX) the new rules, the new rates, and the new standards come into effect from the June window.
So what that means is if you were to sit and fail in June, you're still going to have the opportunity to sit it in September or December or at worst even in March without the rules/standards/rates changing.
Lots of ACCA students have unfortunately fallen into the trap of preparing for their Taxation exams in March and in the event that they fail, they end up having to get up to date with the new standards, thresholds, percentages etc for the subsequent June exam! So use the sitting dates to your advantage.
If you can work your schedule so that you first sit the Taxation exam in June - or failing that in September - that could really help if you end up struggling at the first sitting, as you'll still have at least 2 more exam sittings to work with to improve your mark. That's a really key thing to keep in mind here.
Some of the other exams have new syllabus changes as well - namely Performance Management, Audit Assurance, Financial Reporting and Financial Management.
These changes come into effect from September. However, these aren't as drastic as the changes that tend to occur in the Taxation syllabus, but we still have to be aware of them.
Keep an eye on the ACCA website: Go into the syllabus areas, and it will show you what is new for your paper at this particular time. Again, for these other exams, the September paper will be the first one that contains any new standards or updates that have been introduced.
This is also a good place to mention: If you're coming out of university with a Business and Finance degree or Accountancy and Finance degree, this is the level at which your exemptions might kick in.
So find out which ones are covered by the university that you have to pay for the exemptions, and which subjects that perhaps you didn't pick it as an option and so will have to do. This is where university students or graduates will tend to dovetail into the system.
Applied Skills ACCA exam order
Another obvious but nonetheless important consideration in terms of deciding the order in which to take your exams: what do you personally find tough!?
For most students, Audit Assurance is generally considered to be the toughest paper, especially at this level. For the Applied Skills exams, along with Performance Management, this is the subject that I get the most queries about. (You'll find plenty of videos on these on my channel.
So after reading this, feel free to check those out!) So let's review the recommended order til now: we suggested starting with the Law paper first, and then moving on to Financial Reporting.
I would then be advising you to say to yourself: ‘Well, which exam do I feel most comfortable with out of all the others?"
Or alternatively, "which area do I actually work or have experience in?" For example, maybe you do some financial management or performance management in your line of work, or maybe even audit!
And always bear in mind while making this decision where that tax paper is going to fit into that flow. Resits at this level are quite common given the low pass rates, so contingency planning is strongly recommended.
I know students that have failed three, four, maybe even five times. So considering the areas that you're relatively comfortable in can make for a less messy planning and scheduling process.
Personally, I didn't work in the audit sector. And I knew how hard it was, so I wanted to do it by itself. I planned carefully when to fit in the Tax paper, and made sure to leave the Audit Assurance paper til last.
Another key thing to note here (a point we'll return to with the Strategic Professional exams), is that there are no time limits on passing all of the Applied exams.
So don't stress about the amount of time it takes you to do this cycle of exams. Frankly, the only major time-sensitive decision aside from your own personal time constraints is the placement of the Taxation exam in your schedule. It's all about your own preferences.
You could for example do Performance Management and Financial Management together if you're studying full-time. They are difficult exams to get through, requiring loads of question practice, but the ball is in your court.
I've given you all the details about when the Tax paper rules change, when I would advise trying to do it (June or September), but making sure you've got the Law paper and the Financial Reporting exam done and dusted beforehand, then weighing up which one you feel most comfortable with - recognising that Performance Management and Audit Assurance are going to be pretty tricky.
4. Strategic Professional Exams
So that covers all of the Applied exams. Now we come to the Strategic Professional exams.
We start with the "essentials", those exams that you have to take - namely the Strategic Business Reporting (SBR) and the Strategic Business Leader (SBL) exams.
These are a mixture of what used to be known as the P1 (Governance, Risk and Ethics), P2 (Corporate Reporting) and P3 (Business Analysis) exams, with SBR covering the content of P2 and SBL being a mixture of P1 and P3.
Now, a key piece of advice here: When you come to the Strategic Professional essentials, you’ve got to go and complete your Ethics and Professional Skills Module (EPSM) before you sit these two exams.
Because, as ACCA itself has discovered based on research (and as it explicitly states on its website), "students who complete EPSM are up to 25% more likely to pass the Strategic Business Leader (SBL) exam".
The reason is that you're going to have to apply ethics and ethical principles in these exams. And in any event, you need to complete that module evenutally in order to pass your ACCA exams and to become qualified overall.
So you are best off doing it at this point before you sit your Strategic Professional essentials.
I'd also note here that you make sure you've done and passed all of the Applied Skills exams before you actually study for the Strategic Professional ones.
In other words, make sure you've done all those Performance Management, Financial Management, Audit Assurance exams before you come on to SBR and SBL.
I know some students that are doing, say, Performance Management and SBL or SBR at the same time. And they just haven’t completed the core competencies, they're still learning stuff, but it's actually being applied in a more technical manner in the SBL or SBR exams.
So make sure you've got all the Applied Skills exams under your belt... box ticked. Then do your Ethics and Professional Skills Module... box ticked. Because the key thing here is to keep your momentum and "flow" going as much as possible, and this is the optimal chronology to do so.
One additional piece of advice, and I have to be frank here. If you have just scraped through your Applied Skills exams - and what I mean by that is maybe you got between 50 and 55% - then coming into your SBL and SBR exams, you're going to have to go through those core texts really, really thoroughly.
Because they go into significant detail, pulling on knowledge from many different areas. We'll come back to that in a moment.
A breakdown of SBL and SBR
Now, let's do a little breakdown of SBL and SBR. For SBL, what areas feed into the actual SBL exam that is going to benefit you? Because in case you haven't yet looked into it, the SBL is a case study style exam, proper real-world stuff, and you're going to have to demonstrate and apply a lot of knowledge.
And that knowledge derives from several of the Applied Skill level exams - namely Performance Management, Audit Assurance, Financial Reporting.
So if you're lacking in any of those areas, as I said, if you've just scraped through, it's really going to show up in your SBL knowledge demonstration and application.
With SBR on the other hand, this is related more to Financial Accounting and Financial Reporting. If you're coming out of university or a different educational provider, maybe you've got some exemptions, and so you have to be aware that this is likely to be a big step up.
These are serious, intense exams, at a higher standard than the Applied exams. So you're likely going to have to go through those core texts with a fine-tooth comb, doing reems of practice questions and putting the time in.
The other thing worth mentioning here, and I've heard this from a few ACCA students, is to check with your employer which of the SBL or SBR exams they want you to sit first.
I've heard of a few occasions where they've been quite specific about which one they want done first because it might actually relate to an employee’s role more. So just be aware, it may be worth checking on that.
So check with your employer, and once again bear in mind that syllabus changes also occur for this pair of exams. June is usually the last exam before any changes are introduced. So think about that when you're actually booking and sitting these exams.
But as I mentioned before, it's usually not as many changes as occur in the Taxation exams. In fact, with SBR, they often remove some elements, and then update a few other bits and pieces.
SBR is more about the actual up-to-date standards that are being applied in the real world. And you could be tested on technical articles here. So again, keep a close eye on syllabus announcements and updates on the ACCA website. It gives you a nice breakdown.
Strategic Professional ACCA exam order
Now, coming onto the key question of which order to do these exams in. This is where you need to be aware of the optional papers that we’re going to be moving on to next.
Which of those do you want to start with next - Advanced Financial Management, Advanced Performance Management, Advanced Taxation, or Advanced Audit Assurance?
The reason I'm posing this question is that SBR nicely and naturally flows into the Advanced Audit Assurance exam.
So if you're sitting there and saying to me, "James, I think I'm going to be doing Advanced Audit Assurance. I work in an Audit practice and find that stuff comes relatively easily to me", well, I might be advising you then to do the SBL exam first, and then go on to SBR. This will then set you up nicely to move into Advanced Audit Assurance.
On the other hand, if you finished your Applied Skills level with the Financial Reporting exam, you might want to start with the SBR exam as that draws a lot on Financial Reporting.
You then need to ask yourself: "Am I going to be doing the Advanced Audit Assurance paper as my first optional exam?" If you are, I'd say go ahead and do SBR, then the Advanced Audit Assurance, and then after that do SBL.
If you're not going to be doing Advanced Audit Assurance first, and you’ve just finished Financial Reporting at the Applied Skills level, then go ahead and do SBR followed by SBL, and later work out which of the optional exams you want to start with.
The Seven-Year Rule
The key thing to note at this point, is you need to also consider what is called the seven-year rule. As I mentioned before, in the case of the Applied exams above there is no time limit. But you do need to consider the seven-year rule.
What this means is, say for example you pass the ACCA SBL exam in December 2020. Well then you would have until December 2027 to complete all of the Strategic Professional exams. Unfortunately, if you don't complete it by then, it would be lost and you'd have to resit your SBL exam.
Now I know what you're probably thinking: "Oh, seven years, that's loads of time to pass my exams!" Well, the problem is that life can throw you several "curve balls". You may end up changing locations unexpectedly for work or personal reasons.
There may arise some unforeseen family issues. You may have children, you may get married, or need time off work to recover from an injury or an illness.
Or any combination of the above. And before you know it, seven years have flown by!
So it's just to make you aware: don't take it for granted and unnecessarily postpone or procrastinate, because you never know what might happen!
5. Summing Up
So to review, and give you my own take based on personal experience: I would probably want to start with the SBL exam because it draws on several aspects of the different Applied exams, then I'd be going straight on to SBR and pulling out my Financial Reporting and Financial Accounting notes.
But again, it all depends on whether you intend to start the optional exams with Advanced Audit Assurance, which was one of the exams that I did.
So, if you can do SBL, then do SBR, and then move on to Advanced Audit Assurance, you're in a good rhythm. The ball is really in your court, it all depends on your preferences.
But it is worth emphasising, that the other optional exams aside from AAA don't have much overlap with the preceding SBL and SBR exams.
There are some minor elements of overlap, but really that link between SBR and Advanced Audit Assurance is the strongest one.
Now let's focus more closely on the remaining Strategic Professional options. Remember, you've got to pick two out of four. There are lots of considerations to bear in mind.
The first thing to think about is: what sector do you currently or intend to work in? What are the skills that you are most likely to want or need to be implementing?
The other thing to consider is your experiences with the Applied Skills papers, because we’re relating this to Advance Financial Management, Advanced Performance Management, Advanced Taxation, and Advanced Audit Assurance.
From the original papers - Financial Management, Performance Management, Taxation and Audit Assurance - which of those did you score the highest marks in?
And which one(s) did you actually enjoy as well, because these "Advanced" versions are very tricky papers. You will know this when you pick up the textbooks because they are considerably bigger!
So enjoyment can really help you get through the studying process and maintain your motivation
As a general rule of thumb, I always recommend to students that from the Strategic Professional level onwards, you take it one exam at a time, simply because these exams are so dense.
There has been a really, really low pass rate across these exams. So I occasionally tutor students on a one-to-one basis, usually on the strategic papers. And they do take up a lot of your time, a lot of your energy. So you’ve got to bear that in mind.
So these are the best decision criteria for the optional exams, as well as "where are you working and/or where do you intend to work?" But just one more consideration.
And again, this is something drawn specifically from my own extensive personal experience.
From a real-world perspective - and I've worked in various areas, various roles, tutoring now as well, and have attended several CPD (Continuous Professional Development) events with people coming up to me and asking me about accountancy all the time - I would say the Advanced Taxation paper is the one that has benefited me the most in the real world.
I've been to those CPD events where they've gone through inheritance tax in great detail, capital gains tax, corporation tax changes and, oh my word!
If I hadn’t done the Advanced Taxation paper, I'd be really struggling right now to keep on top of all that stuff because I just wouldn’t have that core knowledge to ground myself.
I'll also say this: Advanced Taxation was the trickiest exam I've ever done!
However, it was also one of the most rewarding exams when I passed. If you want to hear more about that, I've done a video on how I passed it, from failing first time to coming back and passing it later. So check it out. It should also benefit you.
Again, just to reiterate, we mentioned updates to the syllabus in the context of Taxation (TX). The same goes for Advanced Taxation (ATX). You’ve got to be really careful about when they update in terms of planning and scheduling.
As with TX, the first sitting of any new syllabus changes will be in June. So think tactically. On the other hand, with Advanced Financial Management, Advanced Performance Management and Advanced Audit Assurance, any changes to those papers take effect from September. Again, there are often minor changes and little updates, but not as drastic as in the Taxation papers.
And remember, the seven-year rule applies to these optional papers! As we reiterated, if you pass one and then seven years pass and you haven't completed the ACCA qualification, then your progress will be voided and you'll need to start again.
In the end, what it really comes down to is the choices that make sense to you based on your own personal circumstances and constraints, in combination with the objective factors outlined in this article. I would recommend also speaking to ACCA colleagues and fellow students about their experiences.
Have a look at the free resources on ACCA's website, as these are often excellent sources of insight. What I always say to my students is that we've now got the main outlines of a plan. Now you've got to go work that plan into a reality.
You've got plenty of useful resources linked below. So feel free to go and check them out. They're going to really help you to pass these exams and I really hope the advice herein is beneficial to you as well. The final thing I'll say is, the very best of luck on your ACCA journey, whatever stage you find yourself at!