Study Smart, Not Hard: Ten Tips for Accountancy Students

aat comment

Ace your way through revision, work-life balance, study techniques and CPD with these proven tips. Learn how to revise effectively and make the most of the AAT resources available, from branch meetings to short courses and online articles and study tips.

1. Revise to your strengths

“How we learn shapes our memory, so students should think about what type of learner they are before revising,” says John Draper, a chartered accountant and AAT Lecturer at University Centre Leeds. “For visual learners, turning notes into a mindmap is a good way to commit key topics to memory. Those who prefer to listen can record their notes and play them back; whereas reviewing flashcards or practising old papers will help those who learn through doing.”

Robbie Bryant, Head of Education and Development at Open Study College, an online learning platform which offers AAT accounting and bookkeeping qualifications, suggests the Pomodoro Technique, a time-management method that can help you break down your study sessions into manageable intervals. 

Here’s how it works:

  • Choose a task that you want to focus on, such as revising a specific topic or writing an essay. 
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes. 
  • Work on the task without any distractions until the timer goes off. 
  • Take a 5-minute break. 
  • Repeat the cycle four times, and then take a longer break of 20-30 minutes. 

2. Get organised

Staying organised limits distraction – keeping reference materials together will prevent you from having to interrupt study sessions. John Draper recommends transferring hand-written notes to a three-ring binder or separating digital documents into folders categorised by topic. “Use whatever system works for you, the point is to simplify the act of revising.”

3. Focus on a new topic each day

“It’s better to immerse yourself in one area per study session,” says John Draper. “Use the 1247 method to quicken your understanding of difficult areas: spend one hour revising a topic on the first day, repeat the day after for 30 minutes, then again on the fourth and seventh days for 5-15 minutes. It requires less time as you go on because your brain will have already comprehended the topic.”

Robbie Bryant says other revision techniques which can be effective are:

spaced repetition – a technique that involves reviewing material at increasingly longer intervals

mnemonics – memory aids that use associations or patterns to help you remember information

active recall, which allows you to move information from your short-term memory into your long-term memory by using flashcards or writing down everything you know about a subject, a technique known as “blurting”

4. Create a regular timetable that works for you

It’s the quality, not the quantity of the revision that is important. “‘A little bit a day helps the knowledge to stay, but the timing should work for you,’” says John Draper. “Research shows that sleeping after learning can help retain information for up to a week later, which is great for those with work or parental commitments who want to slot in a revision session before bed.”

Kerrie Given, Senior Manager at Prime Accountants Group in Solihull, says she found studying in smaller, focused chunks rather than marathon sessions led to better retention and understanding.

“Recognising the importance of energy management, I incorporated short breaks into my study routine,” she says. “These breaks not only recharged my focus but also helped combat the notorious foe of productivity – procrastination.”

5. Practice papers and timings

While revising your course material is an excellent way to absorb the information ready for the exam itself, prepping yourself to be able to respond under test conditions is just as important, says Glenn Collins, Head of Technical and Strategic Engagement at ACCA.

“Be sure that you can articulate yourself and your knowledge in the way the examiner expects to see, and that you can comfortably work within the timings of an exam to get everything down on the paper,” he says. “Set exam conditions at home – silence and a timer – so you can get a good idea of how the exam itself will feel.”

6. Get creative

John Draper says that when it comes to AAT exam preparation, creative approaches work just as well as cramming. “Placing post-it notes where you can see them every day, like on the bathroom mirror, will help you to memorise key information (while brushing your teeth, for example). Funny acronyms, such as DEADCLIC (which stands for Debits, Assets, Expenses, Drawings, Credits, Liabilities, Income and Capital), can help you remember debits, credits and other accounting techniques. Recite the acronyms as you travel to work or college.”

Robbie Bryant says mind mapping is another visual technique that can help you organise your thoughts and ideas in a non-linear way. 

“This technique can help you understand more complex topics more deeply, make connections between different concepts, and remember information more effectively,” he says. “It can also help you be more creative and flexible in your thinking.”

7. Be confident with finance and business language

Whether you’re brand new to the world of finance, accountancy and business or a seasoned pro topping up your skills, the language we use in this profession is not typically things you find in the day to day conversation, says Glenn Collins at ACCA.

“Make sure you’re confident in understanding, explaining, and applying the terminology you’ll be talking about when sitting your exam,” he says. This is especially true if you’re keen to specialise, as sometimes terms can be applied differently depending on how the sector or industry uses them.

8. Use feedback and collaboration

Studying can be a solo experience, even when you are in a wider cohort, but it’s important to reach out to your peers and tutors to get feedback on your work, says Glenn Collins. Find out where you’re strongest and weakest in your knowledge.

“You can share your strengths with others and draw on tutor feedback and peer study groups to build up those areas where you are perhaps a bit weaker,” he says. “Use feedback to your advantage and work closely with those around you to both give and receive. Try not to see it in a negative way. Feedback on where you can improve is invaluable, and something you’ll receive all throughout your career, so learning how to act on it and action it during your exams is an excellent starting point.”

9. Be realistic and prepared

Everyone learns and studies differently, so it’s important to approach things exactly the way that works for you, says Glenn Collins.

“Some people thrive under pressure and last minute cramming. Others prefer a steady timetable of revision and exam practice. Find the method that works for you and stick to it. If you are already working or have other commitments, be realistic about what you can accomplish in your free time without burning yourself out. Take breaks, make sure you’re well rested before the exam, and keep calm during the examination.”

10. Make space for downtime

John Draper also cautions that maintaining a good work/life balance is crucial in the lead up to exams.

“You won’t retain information if you’re hungry, tired or stressed,” he says. “Make sure you’re eating well and taking regular breaks. Exercise can improve your mood and revitalise you after a study session – allowing yourself space to switch off from revising will give your brain a chance to absorb the knowledge.”

And finally….

Julie Phillipson, co-author of Survive & Thrive: A Graduate’s Guide to Life After University suggests creating flash cards you can carry in your pocket and use on the train, or bus.

“Shorter bursts of revision will force you to concentrate, so use breaks in your journey to your benefit,” she says. “If you know you’ve only got 15 minutes before you need to get off the train, it’s amazing how well you can focus. You can replicate this at home by trying the Pomodoro technique.”

Help from AAT

Don’t forget that you can use AAT study tips, articles and online courses to help you expand your knowledge of the module you are studying. Going to an AAT branch meeting can help you deepen your understanding of a technical subject and contribute to your continuing professional development (CPD). Chatting to colleagues and fellow students about a topic that you are struggling with can also be help, and remember your tutor is always on hand to give you advice.

Further reading:

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

Related articles