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The ACA exams are massively easier to pass than the CFA exams and may be the ultimate safety net for your career

With the ACA safety net, you may never be unemployed but you may have to work in audit (Photo credit: Rob Gunby)

With the ACA safety net, you may never be unemployed but you may have to work in audit (Photo credit: Rob Gunby)

Last week, the ICAEW unveiled pass rates for its ACA exams. For anyone used to the 42% average pass rate for the CFA exams, ACA passes were abnormally high: 79% passed business reporting; 83% passed business change and 74% passed their case study.

By comparison, only 38% passed the CFA Level 1 this year.

Needless to say, the CFA and ACA qualifications are two very different species. Achieving the CFA Charter means passing three exams requiring a total of about 300 hours of independent study (assuming you pass), typically spread over a four year period.  While you take these CFA exams you may be doing a job that’s totally unrelated to financial services, although in order to achieve the full charter you’ll also need four years of qualifying work experience.

Meanwhile, if you want an ACA qualification you’ll have to pass 15 exams in total, have 450 days of technical work experience and complete professional development and ethics training modules. Unlike the CFA, you can’t just decide to embark upon all this of your own accord: you’ll need to find yourself an ACA training vacancy. Such vacancies typically go to university leavers, but are also offered to ‘mature students’ (who are willing to contemplate a big pay cut).

ACA careers are not the same as CFA careers. Whereas most CFAs end up in portfolio management or research, most ACAs find themselves in audit and insurance or working as a financial analyst. There’s also some overlap: both can be found in areas like risk and corporate finance, for example.

Advantages of the ACA vs. the CFA 

If you can achieve a ‘training vacancy,’ the ACA appears to offer some important advantages over its rival acronym.

Firstly, you’ll almost certainly come out with a qualification. With the CFA, there’s a less than 50% chance of this.

Secondly, our own research suggests you may be more employable. ACA is the most popular search term in our CV database. Each time we look, the ratio of jobs to candidates on eFinancialCareers is by far the highest for ACAs.

Disadvantages of the ACA vs. the CFA

The downside of the ACA is that you can’t study for it whilst in your current job: you’ll have to get an ACA training contract.

And as a full ACA, you will probably earn less than as a CFA Charterholder. Our analysis earlier this year suggested the average CFA job advertised on this site paid £88k. The average ACA job paid £66k.

An ACA may also condemn you to a life of audit. “The ACA will give you a guaranteed floor on your lifetime earnings, but will not ensure you a very sexy career,” says one financial services professional, who’s wondering retrospectively whether he should have achieved it in light of the current employment market.

Comments (3)

  1. Sounds like a bit of a biased argument stating that ACA exams are “massively easier” than CFA based solely on the pass rates.

    As mentioned later in the article, ACAis earned via training contract where candidates receive long hours of structured teaching, get time off to study and have their books and exam fees paid for.

    CFA is often undertaken by individuals who don’t receive any kind of support in their studies. No wonder the pass rates are poor.

    It’s fair enough to say it’s much easier to gain the ACA qualification due to support received in the process, but difficulty of the exams cannot be really commented on based on pass rates achieved through a very different study approach.

  2. Having completed the ACA and currently studying for CFA lev 2 i’d say there is little difference in the difficulty levels. Some of the ACA content is harder and a lot of calculations have to be done the old fashioned way rather than using the fancy CFA callculator which cuts a lot of corners. e.g. performing NPV models or IRRs.

    I did the CFA level 1 after most of ACA and found the ACA was a massive massive help. e.g. before picking up a book I got 50% in a mock and it took about 130 hours to get the extra 20% needed to pass.

    Both will ruin weekends and social lives for a good few months pre exam. The last thing I would every describe the ACA would be ‘easy’ and the volume of exams and content is much larger. The difficulty with the CFA is the pass rate but arguably you a competing against a lot more people who are not sitting in their native language and so that would almost certainly even the odds a little. Part of the reason I have chosen to do both is so that this argument cannot be leveraged against me, but add different ways of looking at things/new content. Do both then nobody can argue

    ACA & CFA traineed Reply
  3. I would have to agree. I passed my all my ACA exams at first sittings. I then failed both CFA level 2 and level 3.

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