Which accounting qualification is best for you? A complete guide

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If you’re looking to start a career in accountancy, getting a recognised qualification is the best way to boost your career prospects. But, which route is best for you?

In this article, we’ll cover the key differences for you to make that all-important decision. So keep reading or click the links below to get straight to the information you need.

Which accounting qualification is easiest?

Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT)

AAT is the ideal first step in any accountancy career. Its global recognition and foundational syllabus gives you a platform to get into the industry without any prior experience or accreditations.

With this under your belt, you’re free to begin working or progress to ACCA or CIMA for further development.

Subjects and entry requirements
Level 2 Certificate in Accounting – All you need is a good standard of English literacy and basic maths skills. This will provide a solid introduction and cover key topics like bookkeeping and Sage accounting software.

Level 3 Diploma in Accounting – You’ll be expected to have competent knowledge of terminology and manual double-entry bookkeeping. Here you’ll build on the skills you’ve already learned and begin more advanced ones such as preparing accounts and utilising spreadsheets.

Level 4 Diploma in Professional Accounting – To start you will need to have completed Level 3 or have good knowledge of the key topics. You may be accepted if you have real-world experience, but it’s essential that you have a good understanding to build on. At this level, you’ll develop your expertise across management accounting, systems, auditing, and more.

If you’re unsure where to start, you can complete the AAT’s skill checker launch for the most accurate answer.

Alternatively, if you’d like to go into bookkeeping, you can opt to study the 2 standalone certificates. Simply complete the Bookkeeping Transactions and Bookkeeping Controls modules from Level 2 and the Advanced Bookkeeping, Final Accounts Preparation, and Indirect Tax modules from Level 3.

Career options and salaries
Once you’ve completed the Professional Diploma and have working experience in the industry, you can either become a full AAT member (MAAT) launch and go on to earn an average salary of £30,000 per year[1] or a fellow member (FMAAT) and earn an average of £40,000 per year[1].

In addition, you’ll be able to include the recognised letters after your name. And as part of a global network, you’ll be joining more than 125,000 students and professionals across 100 countries[2].

Additionally, if you complete the Bookkeeping certificates and have some real-world experience, you can apply for a Bookkeeping membership and include the recognised letters after your name also.

Those with the Foundation Certificate can go on to become an Accounts Payable Clerk, Accounts Officer, or Purchase Ledger Clerk.

At the Advanced Diploma level, you can expect to find roles as a Finance Officer, Assistant Accountant, or Bookkeeper.

If you have the Professional Diploma, you could work as an Accounts Manager, Commercial Analyst, or Financial Accountant.

In short, AAT allows you to open doors and earn on average 17.5% more than non-qualified accountants[1]. It’s also proven to boost job security further, with levels for those accredited increasing from 74% to 85% since 2011[1].

Length of study
The time it takes to complete the qualification is totally dependent on how many hours you can commit. Because there’s no time cap, you’re only limited to the amount of exam sittings available per year. In our blog “How long does it take to study AAT?”, we cover how long, on average, you can expect the course to take.

Try our distance AAT course free for 7 days.

Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)

ACCA is another popular option with over 240,000 members and 542,000 students in 178 countries[3]. The full qualification is equivalent to a degree, and in fact you can choose to gain a BSc (Hons) degree in Applied Accounting or even Master’s in Professional Accountancy at the same time as completing your ACCA exams. However, if you don’t have the relevant existing qualifications, you can study the Foundation Diploma in Accounting and Business from scratch and work your way up. If you want to become chartered certified, broaden your prospects, and earn a higher salary, this could be for you.

Subjects and entry requirements
Diploma in Accounting and Business – There are no requirements for this level. As the equivalent of a first year of a degree programme or HND standard or equivalent, anyone can work their way up from here. You’ll first cover the basics in business and technology, management accounting, and financial accounting.

Applied Knowledge – If you have a degree accredited by ACCA or other relevant qualification, you may also be eligible for exemptions from this, plus Applied Skills. This level of the full qualification will teach you the basics in business and technology, management, and financial accounting. It is the same as the Foundation Diploma in Accounting and Business, but you will move up to the next level once you have completed these 3 exams.

Applied Skills – Once you’ve finished the Applied Knowledge exams, or if you were allowed exemptions from these by ACCA, you will begin the Applied Skills level. Here you will learn about corporate and business law, taxation, financial reporting, and more.

Strategic Professional – You must have completed the Applied Knowledge exams and be working towards your final Applied Skills exams to sit an exam at this level. However, if you have exemptions from ACCA, you can sit at this level.You’ll cover leadership areas and advance the skills you’ve already learned.

If you’re not sure where to begin, have a look at ACCA’s exemptions checker launch.

Career options and salaries
With the ACCA qualification and the required working experience under your belt, you’ll be a Chartered Certified Accountant with the ability to use the recognised letters after your name. As well as having connections with like-minded professionals, you’ll also get access to the institute’s careers board, plus ongoing support and advice.

Because 96% of employers think ACCA is a respected qualification[5], you have a broad range of career options. Potential roles include Auditor, Business Analyst, Commercial Accountant, and Financial Strategist. Those with 3-5 years’ experience often earn between £55,000-£90,000 per year[6].

In summary, ACCA opens the door to even more opportunities. And because of the chartered certified status it brings, you’ll have the Code of Ethics and Conduct to adhere to; this helps to regulate the industry and ensures you’re always up to date with best practices.

Length of study
There are no time limits to complete the Foundation, Applied Knowledge or Applied Skills exams, but you have seven years to complete your four Strategic Professional level subjects once you have passed your first Strategic Professional exam. How quickly or slowly you do the exams is your choice, however, you’ll need to consider the exam sittings available to you each year. At Eagle, our mentors help you create a personalised learning plan so you have clear timelines to study towards.

Try our distance ACCA course free for 7 days.

Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)

Like ACCA, CIMA is considered one of the more advanced qualifications, but you can still begin studying without experience. The key difference being that CIMA is more focused around management and leadership skills spanning across not only finance, but business too. And there is a particular focus on adding value to organisations.

Subjects and entry requirements
Certificate in Business Accounting – Here you only need to have good maths and English skills, ideally GCSE grade C/4 or above. You’ll learn the basics of business economics, management accounting, and more.

lCIMA’s CGMA® Operational Level – To begin here, you will be expected to have completed the Certificate, AAT Level 4, or have a relevant degree. Throughout this level you will become confident with managing costs and carrying out analysis.

CIMA’s CGMA® Management Level – You will need to have finished Professional Operational to start, or have relevant exemptions. By the end of this level, you’ll know more about performance management and advanced financial reporting. You’ll also understand the management of different business functions, such as HR.

CIMA’s CGMA® Strategic Level – You must have finished the Professional Management level or have relevant exemptions. At this final stage, you will learn about strategic and risk management, as well as understanding the financial strategy of organisations.

It’s important to note that to become fully qualified you will also need to have professional real-world experience.

If you’re not sure where to start, find out if you have any exemptions from CIMA launch.

Career options and salaries
With the CIMA qualification behind you, you’ll have the benefit of using the recognised CGMA, FCMA, or ACMA letters after your name. In addition to joining more than 650,000 members and students[7], you’ll even get access to their career hub, CV resources, and CPD opportunities.

Those with CGMA status usually have a starting salary of £34,000, rising to £63,000 and above as you progress[8]. And because 96% of FTSE 100 firms employ CIMA accountants[9], you’ll have many paths available to you with healthy benefits. If you have your eye on becoming a senior expert in business or financial fields, CIMA is probably your best choice.

Potential roles include Management Accountant, Business Analyst, Finance Manager, and Chief Financial Officer (CFO).

Length of study
The Certificate is likely to take around 12 months to complete, whilst the Professional qualification takes around 3 years. Have a read of our blog “What is CIMA?” for more information on the course.

Try our distance CIMA course free for 7 days.

Which accounting qualification is easiest?

Looking at the average UK pass rates for each:

The ACCA qualification requires students to pass 14 exams. Based on Foundation results from June 2023[10], the total average pass rate was 78%. The Applied Knowledge paper average was 72.6% and Applied Skills papers’ overall average was 53.6%. And the Strategic total rate was 51%.

The CIMA Certificate has a total of four exams (objective tests) whilst the Professional Qualification has 12 exams (objective tests and case studies). Based on results from August 2023[11], the Certificate level had an overall average pass rate of 65.25% across the four subjects. The Professional qualification saw a total average of 64.4% across all exams. Case Study results overall saw Operational pass rates reach 69%, Management reach 58%, and Strategic reach 48%.

The AAT’s national UK averages from July 2023[12] show that 8% of students taking the Foundation Certificate achieved a Distinction, whilst 68% achieved Merit status. And for the Professional Diploma, 2% reached Distinction and 43% Merit, with 53% getting a pass.

Get accountancy qualified with Eagle

If you’re looking to gain an accountancy qualification, why not find out more about studying our online courses here.


[1] Source – AAT salary survey 2021
[2] Source 2
[3] Source 3
[4] Source 4
[5] Source – ACCA annual Employer Survey, 2019
[6] Source – ACCA Salary Survey
[7] Source 7
[8] Source – CIMA MI team, June 2019
[9] Source – CIMA, June 2019
[10] Source 10
[11] Source 11
[12] Source 12