Bounce back from failure

Jul 01, 2016
Failing an exam can be deflating but you can turn things around, writes Graham Harrison.

Like most people, I took the day off for my FAE results. They’re officially issued at around 9am but are usually available earlier, so I checked mine at 7am on my phone.

After seeing my results, I was disappointed and frustrated. To put a lot of effort in over the study leave period and to fail both Core and Elective was incredibly disheartening. Having passed the CAP2 exams on my first attempt, I thought I would pass at least one of the FAE papers.

After getting my results, I started to get texts and calls from friends and colleagues. They were obviously thrilled that they had passed but, if I’m honest, it just made me feel worse. I decided not to head out to the celebrations that evening – I just wanted to relax at home and get over the result.

Negative thoughts

After failing both exams, there were a lot of thoughts running through my mind. I questioned my own ability and how colleagues would perceive me. I was worried that people in work would think I was stupid, less able to perform or that they would somehow treat me differently now that I had failed.

I was working in a Big 4 firm at the time and this was at the back of my mind for quite some time. I was convinced that there was going to be something said on my first day back at work, so I was quite anxious.

Nothing was mentioned until a couple of days later though, when one of the partners took me to one side to see how I was getting on. She said that failure was a terrible feeling, and told me to get back into my work and she was confident that I’d do better next time.

Everything returned to normal after that chat, but I definitely questioned my career choice. Working for a Big 4 firm requires a lot of hard work, and what was the point when I ultimately failed the exams? The primary reason for doing a training contract is to get experience and pass the exams. I previously worked in a bank for 12 months and wondered if I made the right choice in pursuing the ACA qualification.

It took time to pick myself up after the results as I had to get over the initial disappointment before I could look at things logically.

Failing the exams didn’t take away from the experience I gained from my training contract and all I had to do now was focus on passing the exams.

A new study strategy

The following year, I was determined to get off to a better start. I began with preparation for the AAFRP because I didn’t pay much attention to it in the previous year. I was in the height of the busy season and work was very demanding. I made sure I was more prepared by leaving work on time to study in the evenings. I also prepared for the exam in plenty of time – not just the week before.

This strategy paid off and I went from getting a ‘NC’ in my first attempt to a ‘C’ in the second sitting. This was a huge boost for my confidence because after failing the AAFRP, Core and Elective, I seriously questioned whether I was able to produce the answers the examiners were looking for.

Going in to the final exams the first time around, I spent most of my study leave studying theory, which was similar to how I studied for college exams and the CAP 2 exams. By the time the FAE exam arrived, I had only gone over five past papers. This approach clearly didn’t work. The  second time around I focused on completing as many mock questions as possible – especially in  Financial Reporting, as I got a red in this paper the previous year. I found Derry Cotter’s book, Problem Solving and the FAE 2nd Edition, particularly helpful. The questions are organised by topic, so I could focus on the areas where I felt I was weak.

When it came to the actual exam, I again approached it differently for my second attempt. In my first sitting, I spent almost half of the exam planning my answer. This isn’t to say that planning your answer isn’t important, but in retrospect it was an excessive amount of time and left me very little time to write my final answer. In my second sitting, I really focused on keeping planning to 30 minutes. This meant I had more time to allocate to each indicator.

Having gone through so many mock questions and solutions, I understood the type of answer the examiner was looking for. It’s important to link the indicators rather than answer them separately. This approach worked for me, and I ended up with all green indicators and a ‘decile one’ result in Core.

The game changers

Looking back, I simply needed to focus on doing as many questions and solutions as possible. A lot of my friends practised questions in exam conditions and although this approach didn’t work for me, I did go through each question and jot down a skeleton answer. I then checked the solutions to see what detail the examiner was looking for, and what kind of structure the answer was in. This helped me focus my answer in the final exam. And here’s a tip – all examiners seem to love seeing solutions in a table!

Stay positive

At the end of the day, failing an exam – or even a few – is definitely not the end of the world. Nobody will think you are any less intelligent or not capable of doing your job because you failed. The FAE exams are tricky and you most likely have the knowledge to get by – you just need to understand what the examiner is looking for. This is where I fell down, so don’t make the same mistake as I did. It could save you a lot of heartache.

Graham Harrison ACA is a statutory analyst working in the pharmaceuticals industry. He qualified in 2016 after completing his training contract with EY.