If I want to be a pharmaceutical sales rep, is it worth me self funding the ABPI exam?

As a job seeker looking for work as a Sales Representative in the UK pharmaceutical industry, you may have seen the phrase “must be ABPI qualified” mentioned in job adverts. But what is the ABPI qualification? Do you need to have the certificate before applying for vacancies?  Can you pay to sit the exam yourself?  Would having the exam give you access to more job opportunities?  We’re often asked these kinds of questions, so we decided to answer some of the most frequent ones here.  

There are 2 different ABPI qualifications:

  1. the full ABPI Diploma (for sales representatives who call upon doctors, dentists, and other UK prescribers and/or promote medicines based on their therapeutic properties), and
  2. the Level 3 Certificate available in the promotion of prescription medicines, which is taken by representatives who promote medicines primarily based on price, quality and availability to those who do not prescribe medicines (generic medicines). 

For clarity, when the ABPI is mentioned from hereon in, it refers to the full ABPI Diploma

The ABPI website http://www.abpi.org.uk provides a wealth of information about what the ABPI is and what they do, with information specific to the exam here https://exams.abpi.org.uk/Pages/home.aspx .  

What follows is based on our experience having recruited pharmaceutical sales representatives in the UK for many years; candidates wishing to secure their first role in the industry have asked us on numerous occasions whether self-funding the exam will help them find work, and our intention here is to provide information which may assist with your decision-making process if you are considering this.  We are not advocating for, or against, self-funding the ABPI.

Do I need to pass the exam before I join the pharmaceutical industry?

No. Entry level candidates are not expected to have their ABPI qualification when applying for jobs in the industry.   In fact, the majority of new starters have NOT self funded the ABPI exam – this applies to graduate trainees and applicants changing career direction to pursue a role in pharma.

Where ‘must already be ABPI qualified’ is mentioned in a job advert, it usually means the hiring manager is looking for someone who is already an experienced pharma rep, and that particular job is not aimed at trainee applicants.

Will self-funding the ABPI give me any advantages when applying for jobs?

Whilst self-funding the exam will show you are committed to becoming a pharma rep, there are many other ways of doing this which are less costly and just as effective (e.g. shadowing a pharma sales rep to observe the realities of the job first hand; learning about the NHS in your country; using online resources to read up on the job and industry), whilst also giving you more insight into the realities of the job.

If you already have a degree in a life science subject, then prospective employers will have no doubt that you will be able to assimilate the knowledge they will provide in order to sell their products effectively; if you have no life science background at all, it may be a concern whether you will struggle with learning the information required during the company’s initial training course, or indeed about your likelihood of passing the ABPI in future, so sitting the ABPI exam yourself may help to reassure them of your abilities.

Will self-funding the exam enable me to apply for job vacancies where the ABPI qualification is listed as a requirement?

As mentioned before, in many cases when a job advert includes the phrase “must be ABPI qualified”, it actually means ‘must already be employed as a pharmaceutical sales representative’ (i.e. this is not a position where the hiring manager is prepared to consider trainees / entry level applicants). Although having your ABPI demonstrates your commitment to joining the industry, it does not guarantee you will be a successful pharma sales rep, that you will enjoy the job, and does not give you the on-territory experience and customer contacts some managers may be looking for.

Why do Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives need the ABPI qualification?

The ABPI Medical Representatives Exam (equivalent to an ‘A’ level qualification) is taken by representatives who call upon doctors, dentists and other UK prescribers and/or promote medicines on the basis of their therapeutic properties. It must be taken by all medical reps working for companies who have agreed to abide by the ABPI Code of Practice for the Pharmaceutical Industry; this includes approximately 80% of pharma companies operating in the UK.

If the company that employs you is an ABPI member, they will pay for the materials you require when they feel you are ready to combine your job responsibilities with the study needed to prepare for the exam; they’ll give you time to revise and pay for you to sit the exam – taking the exam is part of your job, and your continued employment in the industry depends upon you passing it.

Representatives who are ABPI qualified understand the ABPI code of practice and will conduct themselves in an ethical way, have a sound knowledge of the NHS in their locality (the information on the NHS will vary according to where in the UK you are – the structure of the NHS is different in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), have a good understanding of human anatomy and physiology, systems of the body, and more specialist knowledge of certain disease areas; they will also have studied drug research, development and manufacture.

What is the pass mark and what happens if I don’t pass?

You must achieve at least 60% in each unit.  The exam must be taken within one year of joining the industry and prior to passing the exam, individuals cannot be engaged in this type of employment for more than two years. 

If you fail any of the units, you can re-sit the one/s you failed (there is no need to redo those you have already passed) if you are still within your time limit to pass the exam, at the same cost as your original booking, . 

If you do not successfully pass all of the units within the 2 year time frame, unfortunately you cannot continue promoting medicines on the basis of their therapeutic properties.

What does the exam include?

The exam is made up of two main sections – a morning session which is obligatory to all participants, and an afternoon session where you select a certain number of disease specific units (once you are employed by a company, they will guide you as to which units they want you to choose, usually in line with the therapy areas you are selling in on their behalf).

You may take the exam as separate modules individually, although some companies prefer you to sit it all in one day. 

How much will self-funding the ABPI exam cost and how long will it take?

Funding the full ABPI Diploma yourself is expensive – the total cost of ordering learning materials and exam fees for both mandatory and optional units is £974.40 (information correct as of November 2020).

It requires a considerable commitment of time for study too; if you have no prior knowledge of human biology or any of the topics, you may need to study for 300 hours for the four mandatory units, and for 150 hours for the disease area specific units.


Here’s a quick round up of what self-funding the ABPI could realistically do for you, and what it won’t:

What self-funding the ABPI will do:

  • 💊 Give a greater understanding of the NHS, pharma industry, drug research & development, human anatomy & physiology
  • 💊 Reassure a hiring manager/company of your scientific capability if you do not have a life science degree or A level science / biology
  • 💊 Demonstrate your genuine commitment and desire to joining the industry (but remember, there are other ways of doing this too)

Things to bear in mind:

  • 💊 Self-funding requires a significant commitment of money – almost £1,000 – for materials and exam entrance fees (do you have this amount to spare?)
  • 💊 Many hours of study time are needed to learn the syllabus and prepare for the exam (given your current circumstances, can you fit this in this alongside existing work, family, and other commitments?)
  • 💊 Having the ABPI qualification does not guarantee you a job (are you still prepared to invest the requisite time and money considering this?)
  • 💊 Being ABPI qualified does not mean you can now apply for vacancies where the hiring manager will only consider experienced reps (“must be ABPI qualified”)
  • 💊 Passing the exam will not help you understand the realities of the job and therefore whether pharma sales is the right career for you. Many trainees have huge misconceptions about what being a pharma sales rep involves, and hiring managers will still want to be sure you are fully aware of “what you’re letting yourself in for”
  • 💊 Having the ABPI will not give you the skills needed to be a successful pharmaceutical sales specialist.

If you would like further information or clarification then please comment below or get in touch with us by email (apply@saplingrecruitment.co.uk ) or telephone (07815 846176 / 0161 2986448).

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