The ACA Assurance exam tends to be one of the first exam’s candidates will sit alongside the more technical Accounting exam. In the most recent exam season, the pass rate for the Assurance exam was 91.3% which suggests that this is one of the easier exams within the curriculum. Candidates should take confidence from this without growing complacent as despite the high pass-rate there is a lot of material to cover within this module.
To pass the ICAEW ACA Assurance exam, candidates should focus on repetitively practising questions within the question bank. The key to success on this multiple-choice style exam is being disciplined with timings and making sure no longer than one and a half minutes is spent on any single question.
As a fully qualified ACA Accountant, I look back at Assurance as one of the easier ACA exams but a number of my intake had real trouble passing this module due to second-guessing themselves on questions with subjective answers. With this in mind, I have created the below guide which should help anyone studying for the Assurance exam to organise a revision and exam strategy and ultimately pass this certificate level exam.
Please note, some sections of the below guide have been duplicated from my guides on other exam modules where the advice is applicable across both exams.
How to pass the ACA Assurance exam
Unlike the Accounting exam, the Assurance exam is less technical and will rely less on a genuine understanding of the material.
As with any exam, passing will be down to a combination of pre-exam preparation and exam day performance.
Strong exam day performance will simply be a case of managing exam day nerves, being diligent with exam day practicalities such as timing and having the necessary equipment and being sufficiently well rested to be in a position to give your best performance.
Prior to sitting down to take the exam, students should have a clear exam strategy in mind focused on the 55% pass mark, the number of questions and the total time. More on this later.
Whilst active listening and genuine understanding of the course content will be important, the key to passing this exam will be repetitive, disciplined questioned practice. This is not a glamorous process and will likely involve becoming very familiar with the question bank.
To be very confident of passing – answer every question in the question bank at least twice and attempt a few full-length mock exams. This volume of practice and learning from mistakes will serve you very well when it comes to exam day.
Most students will take this exam alongside the tricky Accounting exam which I wrote a guide for here. How students split their time between studying for these two modules will be highly dependent on how confident they feel about the content within each.
My advice is to slightly prioritise Accounting which has a notably lower pass-rate and is far more technically challenging.
Remember, scoring 56% on both exams is a far superior outcome than scoring 95% on one and failing the other. If you think you’re a border-line pass level student, split your time accordingly to scrape by in both rather than overdoing preparation on one or the other.
ACA Assurance exam – key information
All of the key information regarding the ACA Assurance exam is summarised below:
|Exam length||1.5 hours|
|Pass-rate||91.3%||At the most recent sitting, 91.3% of candidates passed the exam first time.|
|Level||Certificate||The exams are in 3 levels; Certificate, Professional or Advanced. See the image below.|
|Structure||50 multiple choice questions||The questions will be multiple-choice, multiple-response or multi-part multiple choice in nature. More on this below.|
|Location||Any ICAEW-approved test centre|
|CPL||Yes||It is possible to get a ‘Credit for Prior Learning’ (exemption) for this exam.|
|Open book?||No||You can’t take notes into this exam. You can take an approved calculator & blank paper / a whiteboard depending on if taking the exam in-centre or at home.|
|Precursor to:||Audit & Assurance||This exam is a precursor to the Audit & Assurance module at the professional level. (See image below)|
How the exam is structured
The ACA Assurance exam is often one of the first exam’s candidates will sit and falls within the certificate level as shown below.
The exam is made up of 50 multiple-choice / multiple-response / multi-part multiple-choice style questions worth a total of 100% of the exam.
As the exam is 90 minutes long, this suggests you have 1 minute 48 seconds per question (90 minutes divided by 50 questions = 1.8 minutes = 1 minute 48 seconds).
To simplify, candidates should give themself 1.5 minutes per question. In total, this would take up 75 minutes (1 minute 30 * 50 questions) which would leave 15 minutes spare at the end of the exam to review answers or go back to any specific questions which were left unanswered.
This is an important point – if any single question is taking you longer than one and a half minutes to answer, move on! Most people who fail this exam will do so because they mess up their timings.
An advisable exam technique is to scan over a question and immediately assess whether you can answer it within 1 minute 30. If not, mark it and come back to the question at the end.
As with all certificate level exams, the pass mark is 55%. This means we only need to get 28 questions correct out of 50. Let’s get the 28 easiest one’s first and then go back to the more tricky ones after and pick up whatever marks we can. The last thing we want is to take 5+ minutes on one of the first few questions and feel time-pressured and stressed for the rest of the exam.
The 50 questions will cover the concept, process and need for assurance, internal controls, gathering evidence on an assurance engagement and ethics.
What is the difference between multiple choice and multiple response questions?
Within the ACA Assurance exam, the questions will fall into three similar but different structures.
- Multiple-choice – candidates will be asked a question and have to select one answer out of a list of possible answers.
- Multiple-response – candidates will be asked a question and have to select a number of correct answers from the list.
- Multi-part multiple-choice – candidates will be asked a series of interrelated multiple-choice style questions wrapped up into one exam question.
Multiple-choice questions are fairly self-explanatory and are the easiest of the three question types laid out above. The difficulty with this exam is that the answers aren’t always black and white, often a number of the possible answers will be valid and the question will ask for the ‘best’ answer.
Multiple-response questions are slightly more difficult in that there is a bit more variability. In a multiple-choice question, a candidate has a 25% of getting the answer correct with a guess when there are four possible answers. For multiple-response questions, this percentage drops because there could be one, two, three or four correct answers so there are more possible permutations and therefore lower odds of correctly guessing the answer.
Multi-part multiple-choice questions are the most difficult of the three question types as they will involve correctly answering two separate parts of a question on a common topic. Following on from above, if a candidate were to guess both parts of the question this would be odds of 25% for part a and 25% for part b (1 out of 4 chance of getting the correct answer in each stage).
The odds of correctly guessing both parts is therefore lower. This does of course assume both parts have 4 possible answers to choose from and that the candidate is unable to eliminate any possibilities.
By their nature, multi-part questions will take longer to complete than the other two question types as there is more to read and more to think about. Candidates may consider skipping these questions on the first pass through and first taking care of the easier multiple-choice and multiple response style questions.
ACA Assurance exam – revision strategy
With the exception of self-taught students, most of your revision time will be determined by your tuition provider.
As alluded to above, the vast majority of revision time for this module should be spent drilling questions. Drill questions until your sick of them and then do another 30.
My technique for this was to open the question bank and work through each chapter in turn. At the end of each chapter, I would mark my answers and note my percentage score in an Excel document.
Once I had completed the entire question bank, I would review my scores and look for any topics I was scoring less than 60% on (giving myself a 5% buffer for lucky answers). On these topics, I would return to the course notes to refresh my understanding and answer the end of chapter questions.
Once this process was complete, I would start again but this time do each chapter to time. For example, if there was a chapter of 20 questions, I would give myself 30 minutes assuming 1.5 minutes per question as discussed above. This is great practice for exam conditions and will help to train candidates to answer questions accurately in a timely manner.
As you go through this process, many of the sections will begin to feel much more comfortable. For those with recurring issues, it’s critical that you are effective at learning from your mistakes. See the next chapter on the ‘notepad method’ for more.
Some students suggest that the tuition provider (BPP, Kaplan etc) question banks are not always representative of the types of questions actually asked by ICAEW. For this reason, candidates should include full-length timed mock exams as part of their preparation spread across the revision period. Over time, you should see your scores gradually tick up.
ICAEW note consistently weak performance on the internal controls section of the exam which makes up approximately 25% of the marks available. It makes sense for students to pay particular attention to this topic but a fairly solid understanding should be developed from the volume of question practice discussed above.
To maximise productivity whilst studying consider implementing the pomodoro technique (which is explained briefly in this Youtube video). This will help avoid burn-out when it comes to the long nights with the question bank.
I found joining a study group with a couple of other students immensely helpful. Not only does it help keep you accountable to study in line with your revision timetable, an effective study group can help cover each other’s weaknesses.
How to learn from your mistakes effectively
To make the most of your revision sessions, you need to be diligent in learning from your mistakes and making sure you don’t make the same errors repeatedly.
I’ve found using the ‘notepad method‘ particularly effective for this.
Here’s how it works – buy a nice new notepad and write ‘ACA Assurance exam – mistakes’ on the front cover. Any time you make an error in mock exams, the question bank or the end of chapter questions within the course notes, write a note in your notepad explaining what the error was, why you made it, what the correct answer should be and a reminder to yourself about how this error can be avoided in the future.
At the start of each revision session, read through this notepad of mistakes and you’ll gradually stop making the same errors as you become more conscious of them.
ACA Assurance exam – timing and strategy
As well as having a revision strategy, candidates should think about an exam strategy to maximize their chances of success. This strategy should be based on three core factors: answering easy questions first, being careful not to take too much time on any single question and ‘playing the game’ to get over 55%.
Working out how long to spend on each question and being disciplined in sticking to these timings is the single most important thing to do in this exam to increase your chances of success.
As a reminder, there are 90 minutes available to answer 50 questions. This works out at just over one and a half minutes per multiple-choice question. Skip any question that looks like it will take longer than this and pick up the easy marks first.
On your first pass through of the exam, answer any questions that look like they are comfortably manageable within one and a half minutes and skip any difficult or multi-part questions for now. Once you have got to the end of the exam, maybe you have answered 30 out of 50 questions confidently which may already be enough to pass.
Assuming you stuck to the one and a half minute per question rule, you will have 45 minutes remaining to answer the outstanding 20 questions. This leaves you with 2 minutes, 15 seconds per question which allows for a little extra breathing room. On the second sweep of the exam, do the same thing again. Leave any very difficult questions and answer the moderately difficult ones previously left.
Have a go or at least an educated guess at the very difficult questions left at the end.
The goal here should be to pass the exam by getting a score above 55% not getting a score in the 90s. Passing is what’s important, what will help you qualify and what your employer ultimately cares about. All talk of achieving a high average score across the ACA is nonsense. If others want to go after a vanity metric, let them. Your focus should just be on passing each exam on the first attempt.
Utilising your audit experience during the ACA Assurance exam
Many of the candidates sitting the ACA Assurance exam will be auditors working for a professional services firm. If this is the case for you, don’t be afraid to draw on your real-life experience in this exam and the other audit focused exams across the curriculum.
As mentioned above, the answers to certain questions within the Assurance exam can be slightly subjective. For example, in this year’s question bank on page 23 you will see the question “Which three of the following would be the best sources of information about a company’s systems?”
This is tricky because all five of the given options are sources of information about the company’s systems and at first glance, all five appear to be good sources of information.
With practice, making these subtle distinctions will become easier but it can be helpful to draw on real-life audit experience. Returning to the above example question, an auditor could think to themself which of these five options do we actually do during an audit. If one of the options resembles something that an audit team would rarely do such as ‘consult the company’s website’ for the above question, you can eliminate this option.
How to tackle concepts you keep getting wrong
As with any exam, a certain proportion of the content will be challenging. It may even feel at times like you can’t understand a particular item no matter how much you read the course notes and practice questions.
If you find yourself in this situation and are beginning to get overwhelmed, here are my suggestions:
- Consider ignoring it. This will only work if it’s not a central concept. This may sound counter-intuitive but if for example, you are really struggling on ‘engagement letters’ and just can’t seem to get your head around it, it may not be the worst idea to forget it. Remember, you only need 55% to pass the exam and this minor topic is unlikely to make up more than one or two questions. Does it not, therefore, make sense to avoid spending hours trying to understand this concept when that time could be spent on more useful revision?
- If the topic can’t be ignored – ask either your tutor or a classmate who does understand it for help. In my experience, both tutors and classmates are more than willing to explain a concept and sometimes a new perspective can help you understand something that was previously incomprehensible.
- Consider google-ing the topic. A lot of very specific auditing questions are explained online on blogs, forums or within Youtube videos which may help unlock your understanding.
Common difficult concepts in the ACA Assurance exam
Unlike the Accounting exam, there isn’t anything specific within the Assurance exam that is particularly technical. In my experience, different students struggle with different topics within this module.
As mentioned above, the ICAEW has identified the ‘internal controls’ portion of the exam as the section students most often struggle with so it’s well worth making sure you’re comfortable with this content in the course notes given it is worth 25% of the total marks available.
Professional ethics is worth 20% and whilst this tends to be fairly straightforward, some students don’t give it the attention it requires as it feels like an add-on topic rather than the core content of the module. My advice is to revise ethics thoroughly here for two main reasons.
a) It is worth 20% of the exam and with practice, the questions are quite predictable and therefore easy. If you can get these 10 questions correct (20% * 50 total questions), you only need to correctly answer 18 out of the remaining 40 to reach the magic 28 correct answers needed to pass the exam.
b) Ethics appears in every single module of the ACA curriculum. By taking it seriously at this stage, you give yourself a headstart on all future exams where you can pick up the nice, easy ethics marks.
Tips for exam day
Please note the below tips are duplicated from my post on ‘How to pass the ICAEW ACA Accounting exam‘ – if you’ve already read that post, you may still read the below as a reminder. These tips do work if embraced.
I often use the metaphor of a boxer preparing for a fight for how candidates should prepare for the ACA exams. Both the pre-fight preparation and the fight-day itself are equally important. If you don’t prepare properly, you won’t be successful. Similarly, if you prepare well, but perform poorly on the day, you won’t be successful.
With this in mind, I’ve laid out a few tips to help optimise your exam day performance that worked consistently for me during my exam days.
Needless to say, being well prepared is crucial. It doesn’t matter how well you sleep the night before the exam or how dialled in your pre-exam ritual is if you don’t know the content. There is nothing that will help calm exam nerves to the extent that being over-prepared will.
As well as being well prepared on the exam content, it also pays off to be well prepared practically speaking. Things go wrong in exams so it pays off to have contingencies planned. If you’re doing your exam from home as many are at the moment, have a backup plan if your wifi cuts out e.g. a mobile phone hotspot connection. Take an earlier train into the exam centre in case there are signal failures (which there seem to be most days).
As Assurance is usually taken on the same day as Accounting, fatigue can be a factor. For example, Accounting may run from 9.00 am to 10.30 am and Assurance may be from 12.00 pm – 13.30.pm. I don’t know why ICAEW and tuition providers do it like this as it seems fairly obvious to me that candidates would perform better if they didn’t have two exams in a single day.
Regardless, let’s focus on what we can control. Relax in the time between exams, give your eyes a break from reading and screens and mentally prepare yourself for another exam.
My next tip may sound a bit like something your Grandmother would say but with age comes wisdom. Get a good night’s sleep for the week leading up to the exam. One good sleep does not make up for poor sleep every other night. Get your 7-8 hours per night. Believe me, this will have a bigger impact than another hour of revision late at night. The research is very clear that good sleep is crucial for memory retention which is a big part of all of the ACA exams, particularly the multiple-choice focused certificate level.
Next up is the all-important exam routine. Obviously, this will vary by whether you’re taking exams in person or at home online. Regardless, develop a routine, stick to it for each exam and it will serve you well. Here are the highlights from mine:
- 8 hours sleep each night for the week leading up to the exam.
- The night before the exam – I write down timings going backwards from the start time of the exam. E.g. 9.00 am start the exam, 8.00 am arrive at the exam centre, 7.15 am leave the house, 6.30 am wake up. Assume your commute will be delayed and plan accordingly. Don’t let your hard work go to waste by poor time management.
- Arrive at the exam centre at least an hour before the exam is due to start. This may mean an early start and going to sleep earlier than you normally would but it’s only 15 times you’ll need to do this across the whole qualification.
- Sign in and know exactly where you’ll be sitting the exam.
- Find a quiet place and relax until 10 minutes before the exam starts. Flick over your notes if helpful, but nothing too strenuous.
- Take your seat & speak up if any obvious issues with technology or exam materials.
This was my routine but we all work differently and something less regimented may be better suited to some individuals. If you’re the type of person who’s often late, make a plan to ensure you’re not late for the exam. Nothing will make you lose faith in yourself faster than messing up an exam you have prepared hard for because you lack time management skills.
Finally, a quick point on when is the right time to stop revising. My advice is to stop revising a few hours before you sleep on the night before the exam and relax for a few hours. Trying to cram material late on the night before the exam will probably not help and almost certainly make it more difficult to sleep.
Should you take your ACA exam exemption?
Some students will be exempt from certain exams due to the credit for prior learning (CPL) system. For students who have studied accounting at university or have done similar qualifications in the past, certain ICAEW ACA modules will be a duplication of content. Rather than repeating an exam already passed, students can apply for a credit for prior learning and become exempt from the exam.
More information on ACA exam exemptions can be found here.
Whether students apply for and take exam exemptions is up to them but it’s worth noting the below advantage and disadvantage of doing so.
The big advantage is clear – students can save themselves significant study time and exam stress by taking an exemption and use that saved time for other exams they are not exempt from taking.
However, the disadvantage is that the ACA qualification is structured in tiers as discussed above. For example, students will take ‘Assurance’ at the certificate level, ‘Audit & Assurance’ at the professional level and ‘Corporate Reporting’ at the advanced level with the knowledge and skills being built upon and compounded throughout.
This means if a student were to take an exemption from the Assurance exam for example – when it comes to taking the difficult Financial Accounting and Reporting exam, the underlying content will not be fresh in mind which may become a difficult obstacle to overcome.
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.