Why do Chartered Accounting students struggle so much?

In Part 1 of this series, I summarised the CA(SA) qualification journey, you can read that here. Here, I’ll discuss some reasons why students struggle so much, and why the pass rates I mentioned in Part 1 are so low. This can help others understand some of the challenges students face and may also help students understand why they’re battling (and whether it’s normal!)

A lot of the CTA student struggles are mental stresses. A lot of the challenges are about their mindset, habits, mental spaces, because these things affect every thing they do. Getting good mental prep is really important. This is why I believe that the Study Coaching I do is so important. When you look at a lot of the challenges they face, you can see that advice like ‘work harder’ or ‘study longer’ isn’t actually going to do the trick!

There’s no sense of achievement along the way

The only things that matters is qualifying Chartered Accountant. It’s a really long qualification, so small victories along the way don’t matter much. Passing their first year, BCompt degree, CTA; these are small victories that you may be proud of, but any accounting student has probably already moved on to worrying about the next exam.

Feeling this lack of achievement for so long (For me it was 11 years), is really tough. How do you keep committed to something that is so far away?

Most CTA students are used to performing way better than they currently are

(This needs to be read in combination with the point about perfectionism and mindset)

Most accounting students got onto this route because they did well at school, (mostly in Maths, Science and Accounting subjects). They were good students, and performed well. It’s often a natural move from school to Accounting. (And often one that’s recommended by teachers and others who advise that Accounting is a great profession to get into, and obviously, you WANT to be a Chartered Accountant, if you’re going to do accounting!)

Then, somewhere between school and CTA, their marks started dropping. They work harder and harder, and are somehow getting less and less results. It’s desperately frustrating, and for students who are used to achieving and performing well, it’s also soul-destroying. They’re used to having everyone think of them as ‘smart’ because of their academic performance, and they can’t explain why they’re not ‘smart’ anymore.

Often, they close off. They’re not used to asking for help. They can create a highly stressed, self-critical, desperately anxious mental space that’s even less effective for studying. It’s gut-wrenching to know that you’re slowly disappointing everyone around you, even though you’re doing the best you can.

They’re perfectionists, with a Fixed Mindset

I tell students that there’s a “You” and a “CTA You”, and these are NOT the same people! CTA requires them to study and perform in ways that are completely counter-intuitive for them. It runs contrary to their very nature. It might sound a little strange, but this is highly traumatic, and changing your study approach, mindset and habits this late in your life and studies is no joke. Especially not when this is the year that counts the MOST!

Generally, CTA students are highly detailed, strive to achieve, has a good memory, focus on ‘getting it right’, doing the job well, being thorough, taking the time to get it ‘just’ right, they’re intensely aware of disappointing others, desperate to avoid failure, and aren’t used to bad performance.

Then you throw them into CTA. Everything about who they are now counts against them. The rules have changed, and no one told them. They have NO time to go through the work in the detail, thoroughness, dedication that they feel they need to. They fail a LOT, are constantly feeling like they’re disappointing everyone. And all of a sudden, the memory they’ve always relied on, doesn’t help them at all.

The ‘basic’ message here, is that everything that made them so good at their academics earlier on (and will make them good professionals one day), is now against them. The things that they believe are strengths now count against them. And no one warns them, or tells them how it all changes and what to do about it.

I spend a good deal of time in my Study Coaching on this particular issue and how it practically affects them. I help them change their study habits and approaches to fit what CTA requires, as opposed to what their perfectionism trait dictates.

(Watch the video, or read the article to get more info on Mindsets and perfectionism.)

Fixed vs Growth Mindset

The Perfectionist Student: Why is it dangerous?

The pass rates are really low, and they know this

UNISA has a 5% – 9% graduation rate; CTA has a 12% pass rate. Students know this. It haunts them constantly. They know students who’ve tried and failed. They’ve heard the horror stories, they know what’s waiting for them around the corner. It’s like the dreaded dentist visit; necessary, but terrifying. This creates self-doubt, fear, anxiety and stress, even before they’ve started the next level of studies. There are so many others who’ve failed, what if they’re no different? How do they make sure they’re successful? What should they change? What advice do they listen to? Who do they trust?

It’s tough to have a positive mindset when you live with these fears every day.

The subjects all require different skills

Some subjects require formulaic thinking; some are numbers-based; some are communication-based; some need out-the-box problem solving (remember those horrible word-problems in Maths?!); some require theory learning and memory.

Very, very few students are strong in ALL of these skills. So, accounting students struggle with some subjects more than others… and they need to pass everything, all the way to CTA level and beyond. They can’t ‘drop’ their weak subjects along the way.

It’s also something that most accounting students don’t know. No one tells them that there’s an underlying skill requirement that’s different for each subject. They focus on the work, the detail, work so hard and feel frustrated that they just can’t get it right. Knowing that it’s the skill set that’s the challenge, NOT the technical content makes it a lot easier to solve.

The volume and complexity of work is intense

Students have to know a LOT of theory, laws, formulae, complicated knowledge; processes and how to apply all of this to different situations. There’s a huge amount of work and thinking.

Getting through the theory for everything, and then preparing for exams, is pretty tough. Most students don’t get through the syllabus for their subjects, especially if they’re part-time students.

It’s extremely tough to balance time. It’s a constant juggling act to decide which topic to study, which to leave, which to focus on, whether they know it well enough or not (Answer: NEVER!).

They feel stupid. ALL. THE. TIME.

For a perfectionist, feeling stupid is NOT a joke. For students who used to believe and feel they were smart, whose families think of them as smart, this is traumatising.

The textbooks are huge, the degree and CTA sounds impressive, but there’s so much that accounting students don’t know, so much they’re struggling with. They’ve probably never felt so stupid in their lives. I remember feeling like such a con-artist when people asked me what I studied. They were really impressed, and assumed I had to be smart to be studying this… but I felt like I knew nothing. I couldn’t get through the work, was always behind schedule, and couldn’t pass the practice questions. (You can read my ‘stupid’ story here).

Most accounting students I know feel that they’re MORE stupid than any other student. They spend a LOT of time comparing themselves to others, to try assess whether they’re normal or especially stupid, what their chances of passing are.

No one sends them a memo about how changes in the profession will affect them

The Accounting profession is changing. They need to keep up with industry and societal expectations of quality, knowledge and competence.

If society expects more from the profession, then the profession expects more from their members, and that means that the student’s exams change. It makes perfect sense. BUT, who’s telling the CTA student how, or if, these changes will affect their exams?
Most of them find the changes in the exams, while they’re writing it. They don’t get a ‘heads up’ about what will change and how to deal with it.

It requires a LOT of time

UNISA CTA information states that they need about 30 hours a week of studying. That’s about 4 hours a day, 7 days a week. (This doesn’t take into account areas that accounting students struggle with. Most students need a lot more than that to get comfortable with their work!). Those study hours on top of a job, travel time, other responsibilities and life’s obligations, means that they are always juggling their days and weeks to try keep on top of everything. There’s very little room for error, and this creates even more stress.

There never seems to be enough time in the day and week to get through everything. They NEVER feel ready for an exam. With the exception of a handful of students I’ve lectured (and that numbers into the thousands!), they feel unprepared, haven’t finished the syllabus, theory or questions. A lot of undergraduate students defer exams (ie: write them the next semester, because they’re ‘not ready’ yet. I STRONGLY discourage this).

No matter how much they’ve studied, they are still terrified that they haven’t done enough. The high failure rate doesn’t help this. There are so many things that can go wrong… forgetting theory, not understanding concepts properly, bad exam technique, exam stress, running out of time in the exam. It can feel like a hopeless situation.

It’s a lot harder if they’re studying on their own

For distance students (eg: UNISA BCompt or CTA), If they have a lecturer explaining topics to them, the learning process can save time.

  • Full-time classes are great, because someone’s explaining the work to you, so you learn it faster. They still have a lot of work to do after class though. They have to spend time practicing questions and making sure they can apply the work.
  • Part time classes help… but to get all that work across in less time means there’s an information overload! If they’ve been working all day, it’s a really, really long day for them. I studied this way, and I’ve lectured part time students for years too… it is HARD! I’ve seen the exhaustion, caffeine intake, tears of frustration (near-hysteria as exams get closer!), trying to keep their eyes open late at night… I really admire the determination and strength this takes

If they’re studying alone, they take a LOT longer to work through everything

  • It can take a long time to understand complicated topics by reading textbooks and study guides. They don’t always explain things in the way that the student will understand, where else do they get help from?

Second language struggles

I think these challenges are often underestimated for a lot of accounting students.

The levels of communication required by this qualification are very high. There is a huge amount of complex terminology specific to this industry, that can’t be directly translated. So, students who have English as a second language need to be really comfortable with ‘normal’ English, but also need to work harder to understand the subject-specific terminology. Translating this understanding when they think in one language and have to answer an exam in another, not only takes time, but is really tough. (Of course, if they’re studying on their own… that’s going to make things even harder!)

They need to make sacrifices with family time

There’s no way an accounting student can attend birthdays, weddings, family and social events without feeling guilty that they’re not studying. They can’t afford to take the time off from their studies either. In CTA especially, students are generally behind schedule from the day they start… that doesn’t change through the year. Obviously, they also feel that they’re missing out on life, and feel guilty about, the important events in their family and friend’s lives.

There are a lot of tongue-in-cheek jokes about friends and family who will write them off along the qualification path; it’s really hard for people not studying this to fully grasp how much they’re putting in, how all-encompassing it is, and just how much time and energy this demands… all day… every day.

It is extremely hard to build and maintain relationships through all of this. They’re tired, grumpy, scared, worried they’ll let the people they care about down by failing, they’re overloaded with information, and that clock is ticking

They sacrifice work and salary opportunities

They could leave the CA(SA) qualification path before finishing, and probably get a better job, and better salaries… but that’s a short term win. If they finish the qualification, their career prospects and salaries will be a lot higher, and that’s worth working towards!

I’ve been in this situation; I stayed in a bookkeeping job for five years during my degree because it was better for my studies and I knew that I’d be leaving to do articles after I passed CTA. I could’ve earned more money and had the opportunity to work my way up the corporate ladder somewhere else, but then I wouldn’t be able to drop back to the lower article clerk salary when the time came. I’ve also known accounting students who took the higher-paying jobs, and could never go back to articles, because their life costs had increased and they couldn’t afford the salary cut. It’s possible… but tricky

Paying for studies is hard. It gets more expensive every year. University fees, textbooks, classes, etc… and if they have to repeat subjects, well, the costs add up quickly!

It’s understandable to seriously consider leaving the CA(SA) route. Families often quote these costs and failures as a good reason to ‘try something else’. It’s a very difficult choice to make.


This isn’t a complete list, and don’t apply to everyone, but they may help you understand some of why CA students feel so stressed.

If you’re an accounting student yourself, it may also help you understand the stresses of your journey, and why you may feel overwhelmed at times It will all be worthwhile in the end, but it doesn’t mean it’s not really, really hard.

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  1. Thank you so much for this letter. My lecturer suggested I read this after talking to him and I am glad he did.

    I have just recently graduated but did not meet GDA requirements and I was in distraught. My family and friends do not understand why I do not celebrate/dwell too much on the fact that I got my degree and I am graduating. It’s even harder trying to explain to my parents why I cannot just go and work. I’m really anxious about the future , I need to work on the other side I want to go back and redo my final year in order to qualify for GDA. Trying to explain all this, as confused as I am makes me feel misunderstood and even more frustrated. I have sent them this link in hopes that they will understand why I feel the way I do right now and possibly why I cannot do what they would like me to do.

    Again thank you so much, I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series. I know I will gain a lot from it.

    • Thank you for your comment.
      I’m really glad this has helped you. I do hope that it helps your family understand the reasons for your decisions and dreams. Good luck for the year!
      Thanks for letting me know!

  2. I have always been a cum laude student until I did CTA L2 with Unisa and failed in 2016. Most of my family members I could tell they didn’t understand how a genius in their own eyes can fail . Thanks for the letter.

    You are such an inspiration – being a former Tabaldi student and have had a privilege to be taught by you ( AUE3701)

    keep up the good work…. the impact you have on future CA SAs is immense

  3. I got very emotional reading this post, especially when talking about the amount of time we sacrifice with family and friends.

    I still carry with me a large amount of guilt for the times I missed along my qualification journey and the friends I had to leave behind. Reading this article helped me to understand that those who I lost along the way were never true friends and those who are still with me today are lifelong friends.

    I recently passed the November 2017 APC but couldn’t fully enjoy the moment because I have never truly let the guilt go. I now realise that the seven years I spent studying was ABSOLUTELY necessary for me to get to where I am today, in a position to help those I love most.

    Thank you for the post!

    • Sounds like congratulations are in order! Well done for completing your qualification 🙂
      Yes, it’s very hard to keep making those sacrifices all the time, for so many years. It’s not really ‘fair’ to say that the people around us should bear the consequences of our decision to do this qualification… but the reality is that we have to do what we feel is necessary for our future, and this one requires a lot of sacrifice.
      I wrote this article to try help the family and friends of CA-students understand that the sacrifices don’t come easily, and WHY they need to be made… more understanding may help!

      I hope you and your loved ones are able to put all that behind you and enjoy the next phase in your career!

  4. Hi Yvonne,

    I am only reading your article now but, I believe it still applies.

    I am now in the situation where I have deferred two exams in my undergrad degree, and I believe I know why you strongly discourage doing so. I am now 2 days away from my deferred exam date, and I am freaking out even more than the first time. I will definitely not do this again.

    I am actually a SAIPA student in my second year of articles and always wanted to keep the option of doing SAICA if I thought that I could do it. Which seems silly now if I can’t even manage my undergrad. I am now seriously scared of failing my modules because I didn’t keep my time for preparation between every other challenge we face, registering for more modules and raising my daughter.

    At the end of the day, I know I can’t give up, I don’t want to give up, I just don’t know how to make myself believe that it will be ok. Which is desperately scary if you have others who depend on your success. My confidence is crushed, and I feel derailed.

    My point is, I realized I have made it a lot harder for myself by deferring than it could have been.

    thank you for your articles.

    Best regards.

    • Hi Danielle!
      Thanks for your comment 🙂 I TOTALLY understand you. I really do encourage you to write those exams, REGARDLESS of what happens. I’d like you to watch this: https://youtu.be/uEWfvI-NTc8
      It comes from my Study Coaching courses, and although it’s too close to you for you to go through this now, this video might give you an alternative thought process to start with. Once these exams are over, I REALLY suggest you work through my Study Coaching Basics, because it will give you a WHOLE bunch of stuff to think about, which I believe would impact your decisions about whether you should / might continue the CA-route.
      Your decision-making with regard to this is based on a Fixed mindset, and if we can work on a Growth mindset, your study process will change completely. 🙂 If your marks and results are based on study habits created from a Fixed mindset, then this means that your results and ability to pass is NOT based on whether you’re smart enough to be a CA… it’s based on fear, and theory-based studying 🙂 I’ve also written a bunch of articles on this topic… https://accountingstudyadvice.com/perfectionism-mindset-beliefs/
      I’d really like you to take a look. Because I REALLY don’t want you to go through life thinking that you can’t be a CA because you’re not ‘smart’ enough to pass this stuff.
      🙂 Keep going! I seriously respect your commitment to your career, and your family. It’s tough enough to study, I can’t imagine how tough it is to balance that with being a mom!!!

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