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How to gain the highest marks in the world: Katherine Ellis’ story of studying ACA

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Katherine Ellis

We recently caught up with Katherine Ellis after she won the ICAEW Annual International Orders of Merit award with first place and the Plender prize.

At the end of 2022, Katherine completed her full ACA qualification with Kaplan. She’s now looking forward to completing her full training by September 2023, and the bright career ahead of her. However, alongside an exciting future, Katherine found out that she won first place and the Plender prize for the Professional level in December 2022 with ICAEW.

Winning this award means that Katherine received the highest grade for the professional level. In a nutshell, she got the highest marks in the whole world. Impressive, right?

We spoke to Katherine to gain insight into her experience when studying ACA with Kaplan, and to explore any tips or advice that she would give to aspiring learners and accountants.

This is what she said…

Starting a new career in accountancy

I was good at maths in school, but I didn’t want to do just maths. So, I went on to study economics at university. During that time, I had a couple of accounting modules, so after graduating I looked into jobs in accounting and applied for an Audit role at PwC. I believe that if you have your ACA qualifications, then you have so many different options. It’s a way of opening a lot of doors.

Challenges while studying during the pandemic

I started my job role during COVID in September 2020. While training, the first year was fully online classrooms, and then from the second year, it was a mix of classroom and online. We started to go back into the classroom more as my studies went on and restrictions eased.

Speech marks

“When people ask how I’ve done so well, it’s just by keeping consistent.”

Initially, when we were starting during COVID, that was quite tough. I think that studying online is very different to being in a classroom with a tutor. But I’m quite good at self-learning, so in the end, I quite enjoyed online learning.

The most challenging part was the volume of content. There’s so much to take in, and covering it all to a sufficient level so that you can confidently answer a question on anything in the syllabus is probably the hardest thing.

Studying ACA (ICAEW) with Kaplan

I think I'd be lying if I said it’s not tough. You have to balance it with your workload. But honestly, when people ask how I’ve done so well, it’s just by keeping consistent. I think a lot of people go wrong when they try to do their work while letting their studies slide, or focus only on their studies and forget about their workload.

So, it can get stressful and many people struggle to balance both. I studied two modules at a time for each sitting and would always focus on not letting it all take over.

Kaplan materials and support

I think that the question bank is honestly like your Bible. A lot of the questions are quite repetitive, or at least the structure or themes of them are. So, if you’ve done the question bank enough times, you’ll pick up an idea of the styles of questions that will be in the exam, so you can then make a plan of attack. So, the question bank is invaluable because it briefs you on what’s coming.

I liked how my Talent Coach would frequently check in to make sure that everything was going well and that you were not too stressed. It was always a good touch point to see where I was with things, and if I had any concerns then it was nice to know that there were people there to reach out to. Sometimes I think it’s easy to think that you’re a little cog in a very big system, so it’s nice to know that you can ask for support if you have any problems.

David Richards was always an excellent tutor. He would always make sure that everyone understood what was discussed. I had a lot of great tutors over time, but David did stand out.

Differences between university and ACA studies

There were topics that I had some level of initial knowledge on. However, at university, we mainly covered just the basics of accounting. So I did have some prior knowledge during a few modules, but many topics were completely new to me, like tax or law.

The ICAEW was very different compared to my time at university. I was never in a position at university where I would be completing questions back to back, so it was a different style. But I did do a similar amount of studying to what I did at university, and the difficulty level was very similar, so I didn’t find the transition too difficult. I do think that if I came from an unrelated subject to accountancy then it would be much harder.

The highest marks in the world

I won two papers in 2021, and now I’ve won for the whole professional level. There were a few prizes in my workplace too during my studies. But, honestly, with this one, it was just a huge shock.

I did well in school and university, and I think I’ve always been quite good in exams, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary. I’m good at learning content and applying it in an exam setting, and being quite good at maths helped me pick up some of the content quite quickly. In my mock exams, I was getting good grades, so I went into the exams thinking that I’d pass, but you would think that there are people out there getting 100% in exams, and that would never be me.

I wasn’t expecting to do this well, and I would have been more than happy with a passing mark. So, I couldn’t believe it, I was genuinely beyond shocked.

Advice for future learners

I was always someone who would come into class after at least trying to have an idea of what was coming for me. If there are any pre-module resources, I’ll always look over that stuff before starting the teaching.

I’m also not someone who leaves it until the last minute. I would keep everything ticking over, whereas I think a lot of people might have a break between the class and the exam as they think it’s far away, but that can allow it to take over.

I’d also say that if you’re studying ACA, you need to attempt the full question bank at least once because that means that you’ve seen everything that can come your way. It depends on what you’re aiming for, but if you’re anything like me then you need to try and do all the extra bits of studying and use all of the materials.

Katherine’s future in accounting

I've just been offered a new job role within PwC, so I’ll be moving from auditing to doing financial due diligence. My training has put me very well placed for the interview process. For example, if you’ve been studying for almost three years, they will expect you to have a level of knowledge to answer any technical questions.

So, I was able to go into the interview confident that I could answer questions because, at Kaplan, they make sure you know your stuff, which is really valuable. I also think that if you’re going for a job role with strong exam marks, while being able to confidently talk about the knowledge, then you’re going to appear as a much stronger candidate.

Speech marks

“At Kaplan, they make sure you know your stuff.”

The training is going to help me because financial due diligence is something that we covered in our syllabus in quite a few exams. So, when applying for the job, it was beneficial that I knew exactly what I was applying for.

In terms of soft skills, I do also value that I am now able to process a lot of information and then apply it effectively. This will help me understand what I’m doing in my new job role so I won’t feel like I’ve been thrown into the deep end.

Is there anything that you'd like to add?

One thing that I would emphasise is that if you put the time and effort into it, then you will be able to do it. It’s genuinely just a case of practice. I think the reason that I did so well is that I spent a lot of time on my studies. I might have put in more hours than the average learner but the key is to just keep practising.

Speech marks

“If you put the time and effort into it, then you will be able to do it.”

Also, try to make the most of your time. If you attempt a mock exam, treat it like the real one. If you’re in a classroom course, you might be in a room with all of your friends or colleagues that are in the same position. So, use that dedicated time to understand the content together. You have a lot to learn from your peers, alongside the tutor.

Speech marks

"Katherine Ellis achieved the highest average mark of students completing the Professional Level exams in 2022 without failing any examinations, and was awarded the Plender prize."

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