The AAT qualification is made up of three main levels and an introductory ‘certificate’ level that builds upon each other and is widely considered a great starting point for those considering a career in Accountancy. For those beginning to look into the AAT qualification, one of the questions at the top of your mind is likely “just how hard are these exams?”

The AAT exams are moderately difficult but with the right commitment and attitude are passable for the majority of people. The base-level foundational exams are straightforward with very high pass rates, however, the exams do become more difficult as candidates progress through the qualification.

Whether you plan to study the AAT in order to move on to another qualification like the ACCA or if you just want to develop sufficient accounting skills to become an important member of an accounting function, the below post will demonstrate how hard the qualification is to complete and share details on the single hardest papers and possible career routes the AAT could lead on to.

How hard is the AAT qualification?

The AAT is the world’s leading body for accounting technicians with thousands of members across the world.

The qualification is structured into three core levels:

The foundation diploma in accounting is the initial level made up of four core units and one synoptic test testing all knowledge learned across the various modules.

The advanced diploma in accounting is the secondary level and is made up of a further four core units and another synoptic test that draws on the content in the core units.

The professional diploma in accounting is the final level and is made up of four compulsory exam papers and then a choice of a further two exams from five options which will depend on the candidate’s individual preferences.

Most candidates start at the initial foundation diploma level as the knowledge builds as you progress through the levels. However, if a candidate has previous accounting experience, they may choose to progress directly to the 2nd or final level.

For candidates who are looking to go back to the real basics. there is an option to do a ‘foundational certificate level’ prior to the initial ‘foundation diploma level’.

In terms of difficulty, the foundation diploma level papers are quite straightforward as can be seen from the below table with pass rates ranging from 74% to 92% in the most recent exam sitting.

LevelExam namePass rate
Foundation (L2)Bookkeeping Transactions (BTRN)89%
Foundation (L2)Bookkeeping Controls (BKCL)74%
Foundation (L2)Elements of Costing (ELCO)92%
Foundation (L2)Using Accounting Software (UACS)86%
Foundation (L2)Foundation Synoptic Assessment (FSYA)85%
Advanced Diploma (L3)Advanced Bookkeeping (AVBK)61%
Advanced Diploma (L3)Final Accounts Preparation (FAPR)77%
Advanced Diploma (L3)Management Accounting: Costing (MMAC)84%
Advanced Diploma (L3)Indirect Tax (IDRX)79%
Advanced Diploma (L3)Advanced Synoptic Assessment (AVSY)59%
Professional Diploma (L4)Management Accounting: Budgeting (MABU)76%
Professional Diploma (L4)Financial Statements of Limited Companies (FSLC)60%
Professional Diploma (L4)Management Accounting: Decision and Control (MDCL)53%
Professional Diploma (L4)Professional Synoptic Assessment (PDSY)55%
Professional Diploma (L4)Personal Tax (PLTX)66%
Professional Diploma (L4)Business Tax (BSTX)71%
Professional Diploma (L4)External Auditing (ETAU)64%
Professional Diploma (L4)Cash and Treasury Management (CTRM)57%
Professional Diploma (L4)Credit Management (CDMT)58%

The exams grow in difficulty at the advanced diploma stage with a greater range of pass rates falling as low as 61% in the Advanced Bookkeeping exam and just 59% in the synoptic assessment at the end of the level.

The six professional diploma level exams are much more challenging with pass rates ranging from 71% in the Business Tax exam to just 53% in the Management Accounting: Decision and Control exam.

This information should be carefully considered by candidates who get to choose two exams from five options as it may make sense to choose exams which you are most likely to pass i.e. the one with the highest pass rate. Having said that, each candidate’s strengths and preferences are unique so it may be better to choose the exams that cover the content you are most interested in.

What is the hardest exam in the AAT qualification curriculum?

Based purely on the pass rates in the most recent exam sitting, the most difficult AAT qualification exam is the Management Accounting: Decision and Control (MDCL) in the professional diploma level where only 53% of sitting candidates passed.

Naturally, each individual candidate will find different exams within the qualification the most difficult based on their individual skillset.

Based on the pass rates, the easiest exam within the AAT syllabus is the Elements of Costing (ELCO) paper with a 92% pass rate. This seems to correspond to the anecdotal experience of a number of the AAT qualified technicians I have spoken to.

How long does it take to pass the AAT qualification?

How long the AAT qualification takes highly depends on the individual student simply because most of the exams can be taken at any time i.e. the candidate does not have to wait until a particular date to take an exam.

According to the AAT website, the foundational diploma level will take most students around 6 months to complete.

The advanced diploma level will typically take between 9 and 12 months to complete the five requisite exams whilst the professional diploma level will typically take 12 months to complete the necessary exams.

If my maths hasn’t failed me, that’s a grand total of just under two and a half years to complete the whole qualification.

It should be noted that completing all levels within this time period would be a highly intensive period and it takes many candidates longer to complete the qualification.

It’s also worth noting that not all candidates do the foundational level having amassed accounting experience in a separate course or job role, so this could cut down the time taken needed to complete the exams.

Is the AAT qualification easier than the ACCA?

The AAT qualification is easier than the ACCA. The difficulty and volume of the content of the AAT exams are notably lower than the ACCA exams. Additionally, it will take most students 3+ years to complete the ACCA whilst the AAT can be completed in less as explained above.

The pass rates on the ACCA (which I wrote about in detail in my post on the ACCA exam difficulty) are much lower than in the AAT qualification, with pass rates in the 30%-50% range common across many of the exams.

The AAT is a great qualification and will give candidates the necessary skills to succeed in the accounting profession. However, it doesn’t have the prestige of the ACCA qualification which will allow successful candidates to move into the best accounting roles available in the marketplace.

What does the AAT qualification stand for?

The AAT qualification stands for the “Association of Accounting Technicians“.

Unlike the ACA, ACCA and CIMA qualifications, becoming AAT qualified does not make you a ‘chartered Accountant’ but rather an ‘Accounting technician’, which is a subtle but important distinction.

For this reason, AAT is often seen as a stepping stone toward a career in Accountancy rather than an end-game. Having said that, many unchartered Accountants use the AAT simply to boost their understanding and knowledge.

Should I do the AAT qualification before I do the ACCA?

Many looking to forge a career in Accountancy consider doing the AAT qualification before becoming a fully chartered Accountant by doing the ACCA. The logic behind this is to develop a solid foundation in accounting before taking on the more challenging ACCA exam syllabus.

Clearly, this is a personal decision, but my instinct is this is not a good use of time. To do both the AAT and ACCA will take approximately 6 years in the very best case scenario and often much longer. Doing all 16 AAT exams and a further 13 for ACCA sounds like an overwhelming prospect.

Additionally, there are the finances to consider, particularly if you self-fund both qualifications.

It could be argued that doing the AAT enables candidates to earn exemptions from certain ACCA exams. However, this is typically only three of the base level, more easy ACCA exams in any case so doesn’t seem particularly worth the added time and money.

AAT

Which is the hardest level in the AAT qualification?

The AAT qualification is made up of three core levels – the foundation diploma in accounting, the advanced diploma in accounting and the professional diploma in accounting.

The foundation diploma level consists of four core units and a synoptic exam whereby all exams are computer-based with a 70% pass mark.

The advanced diploma level consists of a further five exams; four core units and a synoptic exam. Similar to the foundation level, all exams are computer-based with a 70% pass mark. However, the synoptic exam at this level is only available to take at certain times.

The professional diploma level consists of 4 compulsory and a further two exams from a choice of five. This level moves away from calculations and requires candidates to explain the techniques being applied. All exams at this level are computer-based and results will only be available after approximately.

As you might expect, the levels do get harder as you progress through the qualification with the professional diploma level being the hardest level. This is reinforced by the pass rates which are substantially lower at this level than the others.

What job roles can an AAT Accountant do?

By completing the AAT accounting qualification, candidates will have developed the skills and knowledge to be a valuable member of any Accounting team. To be more specific, the AAT website suggests that those who achieve the AAT qualification could find themselves in the below-listed roles:

  1. Accounts payable / expenses supervisor
  2. Fixed asset accountant
  3. Payments manager
  4. Fund Accountant
  5. Tax supervisor
  6. Payroll Manager
  7. VAT Accountant
  8. Commercial Analyst
  9. Financial Accountant
  10. Credit controller

What qualifications do you need to study AAT?

In contrast to some other Accounting qualifications, you do not need advanced qualifications or relevant work experience to begin the AAT qualification.

Unlike other qualifications, having A-levels is not necessary to begin studying for the AAT. However, having basic numeric and literacy skills as demonstrated by having at least 5 GCSEs is usually required for the AAT to accept students.

As mentioned above, the AAT can be seen as an excellent springboard or starting point for a career in Accounting and can lead to other qualifications in time.

AAT

What salary can you earn after becoming AAT qualified?

The salary an AAT technician can command will depend on which level of the qualification they have reached. Clearly, someone who has passed every level will have a wider and more advanced skill set than a candidate who has just passed the foundational level.

Per the AAT website, “80% of members who have completed an AAT accounting qualification agree it has increased their earning potential” and this appears to be backed up by the results of the 2021 AAT Salary survey

The survey results split qualified students into the following categories:

Students = currently studying toward an AAAT qualification

MAAT = Member of the Association of Accounting Technicians.

FMAAT = Fellow Member of the Association of Accounting Technicians. (member for 5+ years)

As of 2021, FMAATs earned an average salary of £40,000 per annum, whilst MAATs earned an average of £30,000 per annum.

Students studying for the foundational or advanced diploma earned £21,000 per annum on average whilst those studying towards the professional diploma (final level) were earning £23,400.


As always, please remember I am an Accountant, but not your Accountant. In this post (and all of my others) I share information and oftentimes give anecdotes about what has worked well for me. However, I do not know your personal financial situation and so do not offer individual financial advice. If you are unsure of a particular financial subject, please hire a qualified financial advisor to guide you.

This article has been written by Luke Girling, ACA – a qualified Accountant and personal finance enthusiast in the UK. Please visit my About page for more information. To verify my ACA credentials – please search for my name at the ICAEW member finder. To get in touch with questions or ideas for future posts, please comment below or contact me here.