Unfinished business
 
       
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Almost all ACCA students start their studies with the best of intentions – but it’s often events outside their control which can really test longer-term commitment. Many students often register with ACCA just at a time when their lives are at their busiest. They’ve embarked on a challenging career, perhaps where promotion demands long hours and hard work, or are thinking about getting married, starting a family, or using their hard-earned salary to travel or pursue new interests. With so many other demands, it’s not surprising that study time can come under threat.
 
And there are other reasons to take a break, as discovered by Professional Scheme student Andrew Mason, now a senior business analyst at EMAP Australia: ‘I stopped studying when I moved into a finance systems role, thinking that I wouldn’t need an ACCA qualification to progress. At the time, my employer didn’t offer great support so I stopped for what turned out to be seven years.’
 
Carmen Waldron Whitfield, a senior accounting assistant and Professional Scheme student working at BG Trinidad and Tobago, had a similar experience: ‘I stopped because I wasn’t sure I wanted to work in accountancy, and so I became demotivated. I took a five-year break, but as my career progressed I realised I couldn’t stagnate educationally, so I decided to start again.’
 
For Elaine Kappel Ovre, a Professional Scheme student and accountant at Ruthven Jack and Associates in Trinidad, a study break of 10 years included a complete career change: ‘I started my career in accountancy and audit and enrolled with ACCA as part of my job. However, a change of employer, combined with stressful events in my personal life, finally made me leave the profession. I retrained to become a secondary school teacher, and taught IT and mathematics for five years.’
 
Flexible response
ACCA is well aware that some students find it difficult to sustain the commitment required to pass its exams and so has developed a deliberately flexible exam process. And it’s this flexibility that students should exploit if they are finding study hard. ‘Although a study break may not be ideal, we know that many students need to postpone their studies, and for a wide variety of reasons,’ explains ACCA’s director of education Aude Leonetti. ‘In response to this, we allow a generous time limit of 10 years from registration for students to complete their exams – which should enable students to finish their studies, regardless of family, financial, or workplace constraints – and without becoming too remote from the exam process,’ she adds.
 
‘We understand that achieving membership is tough,’ says Richard Hubbard, head of marketing at ACCA. ‘And this is one of the reasons why the achievement is respected and valued around the world. To help manage this challenge, we’ve put work/life balance in students’ hands so they can control both how they study and the pace of their progress. Students who are finding it hard to cope should talk to their employers, tuition providers, and even their families to make sure they get the most from their support network. Every year I have the pleasure of meeting prize-winning students and the first thing they do is thank those people who supported them through their studies – so obviously this support is very important.’
 
Hubbard also points out that changes in the new ACCA Qualification have made the process even more flexible: ‘An obvious example is that there will no longer be a core paper rule – in the new qualification, students are not required to study, attempt, and pass any papers together, including Essentials papers in the Professional level. This change was called for by students and employers in the new qualification consultation exercise, and means that students can focus on one paper at a time if they prefer to study that way. There will also be an increase in the use of computer-based exams, allowing students to make progress outside the twice-yearly exam schedule.’
 
Taking it steady is another approach. ‘As students progress though the exam system they build on the foundations of earlier papers,’ explains Leonetti, adding ‘for this reason it is sometimes better to persist and progress steadily so that you can make best use of this earlier knowledge. The best advice is to try and take your ACCA exams while undertaking your practical experience requirements so that what is learnt through study can then be applied in the workplace. This reinforces learning and should help students as they progress to higher levels as they can see how their knowledge can be applied in a practical environment.’
 
Starting again
So why did our students dust off their books and start again? For Mason it was the realisation that qualifying with ACCA could make a real difference to his future career. ‘Over the years it became more and more apparent that even in a finance systems environment, a professional accounting qualification was a prerequisite for career progress, especially to more senior roles,’ he cautions. ‘I had also become less interested in IT and wanted to return to mainstream accounting and business analysis, where a qualification was certainly required.’
 
Annette McKenzie, a Professional Scheme student from Jamaica and assistant manager – accounting, stopped studying after getting married; although always intending to start again, her ‘short break’ turned into a 10-year gap, during which time she continued to work in accountancy. The crunch came when she realised she’d reached the end of her career path. ‘I applied for a position in my department – I had the knowledge required, and had even understudied the previous occupant of the post,’ she explains, ‘I was probably the best person for the job but I didn’t even get an interview because I had not completed my ACCA exams. It was then I decided – after much encouragement from friends, colleagues and even my boss – to start my studies again.’
 
For Kappel Ovre, an unexpected opportunity to use her accounting skills rekindled her interest: ‘A friend who was a management accountant asked me to take over part of a transformation project while she was away on business for three months. I had to set up the chart of accounts, using an off-the-shelf package, and then train the accounting staff to use it. I quickly found out that I could be of use in many other areas, and as a result I have been working there ever since, looking at issues such as the filing system, business processes, data and document flows, and so on. I soon realised the benefit of continuing my ACCA studies, and with the encouragement of my friends and family I started again.’
 
Challenging
If you are seriously thinking of taking a break, also remember that you may find study even more challenging second time around – as Mason discovered: ‘It was incredibly hard to get back into study at first, and I also felt awkward surrounded by younger students. I believe that for every year you take a break it gets harder to return. I think it’s much easier to study for a qualification such as ACCA straight after university or college, because you’re still in “exam mode”.’
 
McKenzie agrees: ‘During my 10 years away I formed habits – both good and bad – that were very difficult to break, and which made my adjustment to committed study all the harder. You have to stay positive about your studies every day and remind yourself of your goals. In addition, family and friends can become unknowing distractions, so share your study schedule with them so they know when not to disturb you.’
 
Whitfield didn’t find the studying as challenging as finding the time to do it: ‘I now have two young children and a demanding job – it’s been very hard to find spare time within an already busy schedule, and then to use that time for study when all I want to do is relax. My advice is to draw up a detailed study schedule – this gives you a realistic view of what you have to do and the time you have available. It also drives home the fact that what was free time before is now reserved for study.’
 
Things were slightly easier for Kappel Ovre: ‘As a former teacher, I had to practise what I preached, so returning to study wasn’t so hard. I also have the example of my husband – a classical guitarist. Every day he practises uninterrupted for an hour, no matter what is going on around him. I’ve taken a leaf out of his book, and also strongly believe that a little study every day is better than rushing everything at the end.’
 
Mason also has some good advice: ‘Try to be in an environment where others are studying, for example by working for an employer that can support you in your studies, both financially and by giving you time. Set up a dedicated study area at home so you can walk in and immediately pick up where you left off. Promise yourself rewards for each stage passed, and keep focused on the long-term goals.’
 
ACCA’s Leonetti has some practical advice on how begin studying again: ‘Look at recent papers underpinning those you are about to study for. You may identify knowledge gaps you need to fill, especially in the fields of tax, audit, or financial reporting, where legislation moves swiftly. You might also find it useful to undertake an update course before you start to study, or buy a recent textbook so you can update yourself – then, hopefully, the new level paper will not prove too daunting.’
 
It’s also a good idea to keep up your ACCA registration, even if you suspend your studies. Maintaining formal contact with ACCA underlines your commitment to return to study as soon as you can, and allows you to keep up to date with what’s happening in the profession. Regular reading of student accountant, and visits to the ACCA website, will certainly help ease the transition back into study when the time comes.
 
Serious thought
Both ACCA and student returners advise anyone thinking of stopping their studies to seriously reconsider. ‘Think about the time and money you’ve invested so far,’ advises Leonetti, ‘and also consider how likely you are to return to study once you’ve stopped.’ Hubbard adds: ‘Employers may be more tolerant of study breaks, but there’s no doubt they can affect career progress. It’s important, therefore, to make sure the reason for the break is valid, and that any time away from study has been used constructively.’
 
McKenzie advises students to take stock of where they are and what they want to achieve. Only by doing this, she says, will students get a true picture of both their current situation and their future ambitions – and then perhaps think twice about their decision. ‘Examine the reasons why you want to stop,’ she advises, ‘because if these reasons will still be there when you start again then you’ll simply face the same problems. Then consider why you started studying in the first place – and if your goals haven’t changed, then by stopping studying you will just delay your chances of achieving them. But if you really must take a break, decide when you want to start again and actively work towards keeping this commitment.’

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