In Part 1 of this series, I summarised the CA(SA) qualification journey, you can read that here. Here, I’ll discuss some reasons why students struggle so much, and why the pass rates I mentioned in Part 1 are so low. This can help others understand some of the challenges students face and may also help students understand why they’re battling (and whether it’s normal!)
A lot of the CTA student struggles are mental stresses. A lot of the challenges are about their mindset, habits, mental spaces, because these things affect every thing they do. Getting good mental prep is really important. This is why I believe that the Study Coaching I do is so important. When you look at a lot of the challenges they face, you can see that advice like ‘work harder’ or ‘study longer’ isn’t actually going to do the trick!
There's no sense of achievement along the way
The only things that matters is qualifying Chartered Accountant. It’s a really long qualification, so small victories along the way don’t matter much. Passing their first year, BCompt degree, CTA; these are small victories that you may be proud of, but any accounting student has probably already moved on to worrying about the next exam.
Feeling this lack of achievement for so long (For me it was 11 years), is really tough. How do you keep committed to something that is so far away?
Most CTA students are used to performing way better than they currently are
(This needs to be read in combination with the point about perfectionism and mindset)
Most accounting students got onto this route because they did well at school, (mostly in Maths, Science and Accounting subjects). They were good students, and performed well. It’s often a natural move from school to Accounting. (And often one that’s recommended by teachers and others who advise that Accounting is a great profession to get into, and obviously, you WANT to be a Chartered Accountant, if you’re going to do accounting!)
Then, somewhere between school and CTA, their marks started dropping. They work harder and harder, and are somehow getting less and less results. It’s desperately frustrating, and for students who are used to achieving and performing well, it’s also soul-destroying. They’re used to having everyone think of them as ‘smart’ because of their academic performance, and they can’t explain why they’re not ‘smart’ anymore.
Often, they close off. They’re not used to asking for help. They can create a highly stressed, self-critical, desperately anxious mental space that’s even less effective for studying. It’s gut-wrenching to know that you’re slowly disappointing everyone around you, even though you’re doing the best you can.
They're perfectionists, with a Fixed Mindset
I tell students that there’s a “You” and a “CTA You”, and these are NOT the same people! CTA requires them to study and perform in ways that are completely counter-intuitive for them. It runs contrary to their very nature. It might sound a little strange, but this is highly traumatic, and changing your study approach, mindset and habits this late in your life and studies is no joke. Especially not when this is the year that counts the MOST!
Generally, CTA students are highly detailed, strive to achieve, has a good memory, focus on ‘getting it right’, doing the job well, being thorough, taking the time to get it ‘just’ right, they’re intensely aware of disappointing others, desperate to avoid failure, and aren’t used to bad performance.
Then you throw them into CTA. Everything about who they are now counts against them. The rules have changed, and no one told them. They have NO time to go through the work in the detail, thoroughness, dedication that they feel they need to. They fail a LOT, are constantly feeling like they’re disappointing everyone. And all of a sudden, the memory they’ve always relied on, doesn’t help them at all.
The ‘basic’ message here, is that everything that made them so good at their academics earlier on (and will make them good professionals one day), is now against them. The things that they believe are strengths now count against them. And no one warns them, or tells them how it all changes and what to do about it.
I spend a good deal of time in my Study Coaching on this particular issue and how it practically affects them. I help them change their study habits and approaches to fit what CTA requires, as opposed to what their perfectionism trait dictates.
(Watch the video, or read the article to get more info on Mindsets and perfectionism.)
The pass rates are really low, and they know this
UNISA has a 5% – 9% graduation rate; CTA has a 12% pass rate. Students know this. It haunts them constantly. They know students who’ve tried and failed. They’ve heard the horror stories, they know what’s waiting for them around the corner. It’s like the dreaded dentist visit; necessary, but terrifying. This creates self-doubt, fear, anxiety and stress, even before they’ve started the next level of studies. There are so many others who’ve failed, what if they’re no different? How do they make sure they’re successful? What should they change? What advice do they listen to? Who do they trust?
It’s tough to have a positive mindset when you live with these fears every day.
The subjects all require different skills
Some subjects require formulaic thinking; some are numbers-based; some are communication-based; some need out-the-box problem solving (remember those horrible word-problems in Maths?!); some require theory learning and memory.
Very, very few students are strong in ALL of these skills. So, accounting students struggle with some subjects more than others… and they need to pass everything, all the way to CTA level and beyond. They can’t ‘drop’ their weak subjects along the way.
It’s also something that most accounting students don’t know. No one tells them that there’s an underlying skill requirement that’s different for each subject. They focus on the work, the detail, work so hard and feel frustrated that they just can’t get it right. Knowing that it’s the skill set that’s the challenge, NOT the technical content makes it a lot easier to solve.
The volume and complexity of work is intense
Students have to know a LOT of theory, laws, formulae, complicated knowledge; processes and how to apply all of this to different situations. There’s a huge amount of work and thinking.
Getting through the theory for everything, and then preparing for exams, is pretty tough. Most students don’t get through the syllabus for their subjects, especially if they’re part-time students.
It’s extremely tough to balance time. It’s a constant juggling act to decide which topic to study, which to leave, which to focus on, whether they know it well enough or not (Answer: NEVER!).
They feel stupid. ALL. THE. TIME.
For a perfectionist, feeling stupid is NOT a joke. For students who used to believe and feel they were smart, whose families think of them as smart, this is traumatising.
The textbooks are huge, the degree and CTA sounds impressive, but there’s so much that accounting students don’t know, so much they’re struggling with. They’ve probably never felt so stupid in their lives. I remember feeling like such a con-artist when people asked me what I studied. They were really impressed, and assumed I had to be smart to be studying this… but I felt like I knew nothing. I couldn’t get through the work, was always behind schedule, and couldn’t pass the practice questions. (You can read my ‘stupid’ story here).
Most accounting students I know feel that they’re MORE stupid than any other student. They spend a LOT of time comparing themselves to others, to try assess whether they’re normal or especially stupid, what their chances of passing are.
No one sends them a memo about how changes in the profession will affect them
The Accounting profession is changing. They need to keep up with industry and societal expectations of quality, knowledge and competence.
If society expects more from the profession, then the profession expects more from their members, and that means that the student’s exams change. It makes perfect sense. BUT, who’s telling the CTA student how, or if, these changes will affect their exams?
Most of them find the changes in the exams, while they’re writing it. They don’t get a ‘heads up’ about what will change and how to deal with it.
It requires a LOT of time
UNISA CTA information states that they need about 30 hours a week of studying. That’s about 4 hours a day, 7 days a week. (This doesn’t take into account areas that accounting students struggle with. Most students need a lot more than that to get comfortable with their work!). Those study hours on top of a job, travel time, other responsibilities and life’s obligations, means that they are always juggling their days and weeks to try keep on top of everything. There’s very little room for error, and this creates even more stress.
There never seems to be enough time in the day and week to get through everything. They NEVER feel ready for an exam. With the exception of a handful of students I’ve lectured (and that numbers into the thousands!), they feel unprepared, haven’t finished the syllabus, theory or questions. A lot of undergraduate students defer exams (ie: write them the next semester, because they’re ‘not ready’ yet. I STRONGLY discourage this).
No matter how much they’ve studied, they are still terrified that they haven’t done enough. The high failure rate doesn’t help this. There are so many things that can go wrong… forgetting theory, not understanding concepts properly, bad exam technique, exam stress, running out of time in the exam. It can feel like a hopeless situation.
It's a lot harder if they're studying on their own
For distance students (eg: UNISA BCompt or CTA), If they have a lecturer explaining topics to them, the learning process can save time.
- Full-time classes are great, because someone’s explaining the work to you, so you learn it faster. They still have a lot of work to do after class though. They have to spend time practicing questions and making sure they can apply the work.
- Part time classes help… but to get all that work across in less time means there’s an information overload! If they’ve been working all day, it’s a really, really long day for them. I studied this way, and I’ve lectured part time students for years too… it is HARD! I’ve seen the exhaustion, caffeine intake, tears of frustration (near-hysteria as exams get closer!), trying to keep their eyes open late at night… I really admire the determination and strength this takes
If they’re studying alone, they take a LOT longer to work through everything
- It can take a long time to understand complicated topics by reading textbooks and study guides. They don’t always explain things in the way that the student will understand, where else do they get help from?
Second language struggles
I think these challenges are often underestimated for a lot of accounting students.
The levels of communication required by this qualification are very high. There is a huge amount of complex terminology specific to this industry, that can’t be directly translated. So, students who have English as a second language need to be really comfortable with ‘normal’ English, but also need to work harder to understand the subject-specific terminology. Translating this understanding when they think in one language and have to answer an exam in another, not only takes time, but is really tough. (Of course, if they’re studying on their own… that’s going to make things even harder!)
They need to make sacrifices with family time
There’s no way an accounting student can attend birthdays, weddings, family and social events without feeling guilty that they’re not studying. They can’t afford to take the time off from their studies either. In CTA especially, students are generally behind schedule from the day they start… that doesn’t change through the year. Obviously, they also feel that they’re missing out on life, and feel guilty about, the important events in their family and friend’s lives.
There are a lot of tongue-in-cheek jokes about friends and family who will write them off along the qualification path; it’s really hard for people not studying this to fully grasp how much they’re putting in, how all-encompassing it is, and just how much time and energy this demands… all day… every day.
It is extremely hard to build and maintain relationships through all of this. They’re tired, grumpy, scared, worried they’ll let the people they care about down by failing, they’re overloaded with information, and that clock is ticking
They sacrifice work and salary opportunities
They could leave the CA(SA) qualification path before finishing, and probably get a better job, and better salaries… but that’s a short term win. If they finish the qualification, their career prospects and salaries will be a lot higher, and that’s worth working towards!
I’ve been in this situation; I stayed in a bookkeeping job for five years during my degree because it was better for my studies and I knew that I’d be leaving to do articles after I passed CTA. I could’ve earned more money and had the opportunity to work my way up the corporate ladder somewhere else, but then I wouldn’t be able to drop back to the lower article clerk salary when the time came. I’ve also known accounting students who took the higher-paying jobs, and could never go back to articles, because their life costs had increased and they couldn’t afford the salary cut. It’s possible… but tricky
Paying for studies is hard. It gets more expensive every year. University fees, textbooks, classes, etc… and if they have to repeat subjects, well, the costs add up quickly!
It’s understandable to seriously consider leaving the CA(SA) route. Families often quote these costs and failures as a good reason to ‘try something else’. It’s a very difficult choice to make.
This isn’t a complete list, and don’t apply to everyone, but they may help you understand some of why CA students feel so stressed.
If you’re an accounting student yourself, it may also help you understand the stresses of your journey, and why you may feel overwhelmed at times It will all be worthwhile in the end, but it doesn’t mean it’s not really, really hard.