There is more than one route to qualifying as an accountant. A career in accountancy is really broad so choosing the right professional qualification is important to ensure that it’s aligned to the career path that you want to take.
In the UK, there are five recognised professional accountancy qualifications that you can gain to work as an accountant:
4) ACA (ICAEW)
You don’t need any particular A-Level grades or a university degree to start any of the five recognised accountancy qualifications. However, having an accountancy or finance-related degree will give you some exemptions from the early stage exams of your professional qualification, allowing you to complete the qualifications quicker.
To become an accountant, you need the qualifications and skills to be able to oversee all of a company’s financial activity, from day-to-day activities like transactions and payroll to advising on irregularities or increasing profits.
Having excellent maths and English skills provides a strong starting point for anyone who wants to train as an accountant, while the various professional qualifications enable anyone to study accounting, from school leavers to graduates.
We’ve compiled the following guide to help you identify the qualifications you need, based on your current level of education, to achieve your ambitions. Read on to find out the difference between AAT, CIMA and ACA.
If you don’t have a finance-related university degree or you’re looking to work straight from school or college, AAT is typically the entry level qualification that aspiring accountants study. Completing the full AAT course will also give you exemptions from the early stage exams of CIMA, ACCA and ACA qualifications.
There are three levels to an AAT qualification:
Level 2 – The foundation certificate level that covers the basics of accountancy, including double-entry bookkeeping, finance administration and how to use accounting software.
Level 3 – Covers some more complex accounting principles in bookkeeping and management accounting.
Level 4 – The final level of AAT covers drafting financial statements, budget management and assessing financial performance.
Once you’ve completed Level 4 and the practical work experience requirements, you can apply for your AAT membership.
The CIMA Qualification is better suited to those who want to pursue a management accounting career in the industry. The entry routes to study for a CIMA qualification are flexible; you could be a school or college leaver, AAT Qualified or a graduate in a finance or non-finance subject.
Those who are AAT Qualified will be exempt from the Certificate Level of CIMA, while university graduates who have a relevant finance degree can gain as many as 11 exam exemptions.
There are four levels to a CIMA qualification in total:
Certificate Level - This is for those who haven’t completed AAT or done a finance-related degree. It covers the fundamentals of business economics, management accounting, financial accounting and business ethics.
Operational Level - Three exams (managing finance in a digital world, management accounting and financial reporting) followed by the Operational Case Study, which tests your ability to apply your technical knowledge to specific activities.
Management Level - Three exams (managing performance, advanced management accounting and advanced financial reporting) followed by the Management Case Study.
Strategic Level - Three exams (strategic management, risk management and financial strategy) followed by the Strategic Case Study.
Once all exams are completed, you will need to get your practical experience signed off, which involves completing the assessment of practical experience requirements (PER), to become fully CIMA qualified.
ACA (ICAEW) is typically better suited to those who are looking to start their career in an Accountancy Practice, although some businesses in industry will also support the qualification.
The key benefit of an ACA qualification it that the entry routes are also very flexible; the course is open to college leavers, graduates from a finance or non-finance degree and those who have completed AAT.
There are three levels; certificate level, professional level and advanced level with 15 exams in total. The ACA qualification can take up to five years to complete, although typically it will be finished in three years. In addition to the exams, you will need to complete 450 days of practical work experience to become fully ACA qualified.
ACCA is a broad qualification that is suited to either practice or industry. The entry requirements are also flexible; you may have completed AAT or could be a graduate from a finance or non-finance degree. There are 14 exams in total, however, those with a finance degree can get up to nine exemptions.
The 14 exams are broken down in to three sections:
3 Fundamental Exams - covering accountancy in business, management accounting and financial accounting.
6 Skills Exams - covering tax, financial reporting, audit, financial management, performance management and corporate law.
Professional Exams – three are essential and then you’ll choose two further exams from four optional modules.
You can become ACCA qualified in a minimum of three years.
CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) is a niche accountancy qualification as it is the world’s only professional accountancy body that is exclusively dedicated to public sector financial management. CIPFA run an apprenticeship scheme for school levers, as well as offering a course that is suitable for graduates with a finance or non-finance degree.
There are three levels to CIPFA:
1) Professional certificate
2) Professional diploma
3) Strategic stage
There are so many different routes you can take to become a qualified accountant. Although the entry level requirements are flexible depending on the qualification choose and your level of education, employers tend to look for people who can demonstrate they have the following skills:
- Strong academic background, particularly in Maths and English
- Good general IT skills
- Strong Excel skills
- Excellent communication and interpersonal skills
- Commercial awareness
If you have any queries on taking the next step in your accountancy career, our Accountancy Practice & Finance teams will be happy to speak with you. Get in touch!
Alternatively, check out our jobs board to see the broad range of roles we recruit for in the accountancy and finance sectors or get some tips on how to write an accountancy CV.