I failed my CTA – now what?

In order to become a chartered accountant (CA) in South Africa, one has to complete an accredited undergraduate degree, an accredited postgraduate degree or diploma (also referred to as CTA by Unisa) and complete three years of practical training, or articles. During these three years, aspiring CAs are to write and pass two national exams which are set by SAICA (the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants). Once all of this is done, and this takes about 7 or 8 years minimum, a new CA emerges.

I completed my undergrad degree at UCT and attempted my CTA there as well. Unfortunately I failed the CTA.

Although not unexpected, it was and is still very difficult to deal with. My CTA year was a bit of a mess. I went through a deeply depressive time during my June exams, which I have documented in detail in another blog post (Mental Health Issues in the Student-Sphere), and it showed in my results. Coming back from a situation where your highest mark is 37% is not impossible, but it is a tough ask. Still, I tried. I worked hard and I really tried, but I definitely did not believe that it was possible for me to pass. This of course stressed me out. I did not have the money to repeat my CTA full-time and I needed the CTA to take up the job I had lined up. So, of course, as MY November exams approached and the stress mounted, I once again went through a deeply depressive episode, this time landing me in a psychiatric clinic for 21 days.

I will write about my experience in this psychiatric clinic in more detail another time, but what I will say right now is that that hospitalisation was the best thing that could have happened to me at that point in my life. I think that was the first time in my life that I could focus on myself, just myself. My mom and boyfriend were the most amazing people during this time for me. I cannot imagine how horrible the whole experience must have been for them and how scared they must have been, but not once did they blame me and not once did they project their own fears and their own guilt onto me. They respected my boundaries and allowed me to heal and recover. If you ever have a friend who is hospitalized for a mental illness, feel free to ask them for advice on what you should do in order to provide said friend with the best possible support.

So back to CTA: because I was hospitalized for 3 weeks, I had to defer my exams to the January examination period. I then proceeded to fail two of these four exams.

This was really tough for me. Although I appreciated the opportunity to recover in a private psychiatric clinic, which itself is a privilege that very, very few people with mental illnesses are afforded, I still struggled to deal with the failure.

For as long as I can remember, I was neither artistic nor athletic, but I was intelligent. My mom managed to teach me to read in 2 weeks (she is an amazing teacher!) and then nurtured my love of books by driving me to the library every week and sometimes twice a week because I went through them very quickly.

Unsurprisingly, then, I ended up defining myself by my academics. In short, my academics became me and you don’t need a degree in psychology to know that that is an unhealthy and very narrow definition to have of oneself. Failing at anything academic-related became a major struggle, and I failed quite a bit during undergrad. The issue was that I would fail tests and pull miracles out of my ass (horrible image, I apologise) in the exam, which allowed me to pass the course overall. I had gotten through undergrad without failing a single course. Clearly that did not work for my CTA year. Some miracles are impossible, even for me.

So when I realised that that there was a very real chance of me actually failing, I spiraled completely. I became more depressed and anxious than usual and ended up being hospitalised for a suicidal episode.

In the end, it seems that the idea of failing CTA was so much worse than actually failing CTA. Failing was tough and I sometimes find myself feeling sad about it; it is something that is always there when I hear my friends talk about their upcoming graduation and when they talk about their board exam results which will be released soon. I still feel it, but I also know that if it hadn’t been for those 3 weeks in the clinic, I would not have been able to handle this failure like I am handling it now. I am immensely proud of myself for not spiraling into suicide mode immediately, but for instead understanding that my journey is just a little bit different from my friends’, and that we’ll reach the same destination in the end.

The most amazing thing about failing at something so important is that one suddenly realises how many alternative options are available. So, here is my advice to the class of 2017:

  1. Apply to Unisa’s CTA program as a backup:

Even if you are confident that you will pass, apply anyway. The program is called the Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Accounting Sciences (CTA level 2). Get this right, because you don’t want to end up applying for a bridging course by accident. Unisa is confusing like that. The closing date for applications is usually around 25 November of each year, but keep an eye on the website in case it changes.

  1. Many small and medium-sized firms allow you to pursue your CTA while you do your articles:

Apply to these firms. You can write your CTA in your first year and write both ITC and APC in your second year, which means that you will still qualify in line with your initial timeline.

  1. Sometimes something goes wrong with an application:

Maybe you missed the application deadline or you applied for the wrong program or you just do not have the health and stamina to pursue your CTA in your first year. It happens. Some firms allow you to do your CTA in your second year for a valid reason. You can then do your CTA in your second year and write ITC and APC in your third year. Discuss this with your employer or prospective employer and try to figure something out.

There are so many options out there. I think that it is nice to have options. I did not think of these things, so I had a crazy amount of pressure on me to pass first time around, to the point that I became suicidal. I know how ridiculous this sounds, but when I think about where I was in November 2016 and where I am now, I am immensely grateful to be alive. I did not plan on making it past 11 November 2016, but it is now 14 March 2017 and I am still here. I have a new job, I celebrated my 7th anniversary with my boyfriend just last week and I recently got to see my ‘baby’ brother head off to university to study Astrophysics.

I got to experience all of that because of alternatives. We don’t all have to have the same journey, as long as we get to where we want to be.

I don’t think that I can ever thank my support system enough. My mother, my two brothers, my boyfriend and my three closest friends who really helped (and still help) me through rock bottom, panic attacks, depressive episodes and everything else.

I am alive because of you. I have a job because of you. I am a functioning adult with adult responsibilities and a new outlook on life because of you. Thank you.

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