• Name: Lisa Chen
  • Job Title: Trainee Accountant
  • Location: London
  • University: Bath
  • Degree: MMATH Mathematics
  • Areas of Specialism: Audit and Assurance

When I first thought about applying for an ACA contract, the Inside Careers guide was a great starting point with plenty of information to support my job applications. I would never have imagined that now, 12 exams down and an ICAEW Prizegiving Awards Ceremony later, I’d have the opportunity to write about my experience so far as an ACA trainee.

Why did you choose a job in this profession?

At university, I was always very interested in the application of mathematics to real life scenarios and so a career involving numbers, and in particular problem solving, was what I always had in mind. Although I never studied anything remotely related to accountancy, I had a huge interest in business and finance. The ACA training contract was therefore perfect, as it allowed me to gain practical experience working with businesses and study for a professional qualification at the same time.

What was the application process like? Any advice?

The application process is facilitated by SWAT UK who handle the recruitment of small-medium sized accountancy firms. After the initial online application form, I was invited to their London office for an assessment day. The assessment day was made up of a maths test, English comprehension task, and a writing exercise in the morning. Having passed all three parts, I was given an interview in the afternoon with one of the members of the recruitment team. Following the success of my assessment day I was contacted by Alliotts for an interview. My first interview was a competency-based interview with an Audit Manager followed by an interview with the Staff Partner. My advice for applicants is time management for the morning assessments, as you are given all of them at the same time and it is up to you how you organise the time between them. Also, during the SWAT interview you will be asked to choose three firms you are interested in applying to with reasons for each. I would highly recommend doing research on all the firms to help with your choice by looking at their websites, social media handles, and attending the SWAT UK Graduate Careers Fair where you have the opportunity to meet individuals from each firm – and potentially future colleagues!

What are your main duties?

Training in a medium-sized firm, I have been exposed to a variety of clients from different sectors, including manufacturing, property, and hospitality. The majority of my assignments are either preparation of accounts or audits of companies and solicitors. Depending on the size, these assignments vary from a few days’ work to a maximum of two weeks, which means I get to work on many clients in a year. I have also experienced working in the tax department and with the outsourcing team. The benefit of choosing a medium-sized firm is that you generally are able to have some input into the assignments you receive as part of your training, which is particularly important if you would like to specialise. An example of this is my interest in tax which I picked up on during my studies, which translated into a brief placement in the tax department where I applied what I learned into practice.

Is it a 9-5 job?

This will vary from firm to firm and at my firm it gets emphasised to you quite early on that your focus should be on passing the exams, and so on most days you do get to leave on time. Obviously during audits you have to tailor your working hours to match that of the client’s and there will be occasions where overtime is needed in order to meet strict deadlines. Other than that the culture at the firm is great and the work/life balance is really prioritised.

What skills are useful in this profession?

Although good numerical skills are needed in this profession, you definitely do not need to have studied a particular subject to succeed. The role of the accountant is changing rapidly due to technological updates and it has become more of a business adviser rather than a number cruncher. It is an increasingly client-facing role and therefore it is essential to have good interpersonal skills, such as good verbal communication and listening, particularly on audits where you will be in contact with clients on a regular basis.

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to get into the industry?

Think carefully about what you hope to get out of your training contract, because ultimately you will be investing at least three years into it. The big firms will offer work on large, listed clients whereas smaller firms are mainly owner-managed businesses. Ask yourself, do you want mainly audit experience or would you like to get exposure in other areas of accountancy such as preparing accounts? SWAT UK have a set structure for their trainees to follow, but everyone has their own style and pattern of study. It is therefore worth researching, for example, what the planned study method is (distance learning vs. classroom tuition) and which ACA modules the firm would like you to study (given that there is now a choice of papers at Professional Stage).

What would you like to achieve in the future?

My immediate aim is obviously passing the rest of my exams and getting the coveted ACA initials after my name. The experience I gained working in tax and the material covered in the exams has opened my mind to the world of tax so I plan to study the CTA next. As the ICAEW qualification opens doors to a range of roles in the finance industry, I am keeping my options open right now. Regardless, I aspire to be a leader of the field in my future role and I hope to make a real positive difference, whether this is to clients in public practice, or to shareholders in industry.

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