Getting Your Foot in the Door at Big Four Accounting Firms

          The dream of many senior accounting students is to graduate, pass the CPA exam, and be picked by a Big Four Accounting Firm – PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young, and KPMG. It is a dream they should have been preparing for since their first day on their college campuses. A common mistake by college students is to begin preparing for the next stage of their lives immediately before that stage arrives, such as applying for colleges during their senior year of high school or searching for a job during their senior year of college. Accounting students who want to be picked by a Big Four firm must begin distinguishing themselves from day one of college through not only a high GPA but also through involvement in accounting societies and in leadership roles.

            Every successful student prides him or herself on a high GPA. It is the easiest and quickest way employers can compare and rate students. The GPA comparison is an impartial, numerical way to limit a candidate pool and to begin to find the best of the best – which is exactly what Big Four firms are vying for. Suggestion: Dedicate yourself to work for an “A” in every class so that your cumulative GPA can handle those few classes that are difficult for you.

Although a high GPA will help you land an interview, it is far from the only factor that the Big Four accounting firms are looking for and will not necessarily grant you an employment offer. When a student graduates with a degree in accounting, employers know that the student understands accounting, but they want to see what else the student can do. One partner stated to a class that his firm would rather have an accounting student with a 3.3 GPA who was a leader on campus than a student with a 4.0 who sat in a room all day and studied. This should stand to you as a large road sign stating, “Get Involved!”

Today’s employers are looking for leaders who are involved in a variety of activities on their campuses. An accounting society is a great place to start. Most universities have several from which to choose, whether local or national societies. A great starting point would be to join your state’s CPA society. Hint: Many universities will pay the student membership fee for you. In addition, join or help establish on your campus a chapter of a specialty accounting society, such as Beta Alpha Psi (a superior service-oriented honorary society), the Institute of Management Accounts, or the National Association of Black Accounts, Inc. These societies will help you earn a degree of diversification and expand your education. In addition, the national or international organizations have many networking events for students to meet HR personal and young managers and partners of the Big Four firms. These events give students opportunities to establish a relationship with them, reducing the pressure during future interviews. Suggestion: When attending networking events, bring a resume and make it a point to introduce yourself to a partner of the firm you are gunning for and be sure to leave a resume in the hands of a HR staffer.

A high GPA and involvement in an accounting society is still just the foundation. To distinguish yourself from other competitive accounting students, you must get involved in other organizations and hold leadership roles. Choose organizations that have a great interest to you, then get heavily involved in them and look for opportunities to broaden your leadership experiences. Hint: When deciding whether a position is worth the investiture of your time, do not question how it will look on your resume, rather evaluate what leadership experiences it will give you to discuss in an interview. Resume bullets are simply talking points in an interview. If you did little with a leadership role, there will be little to talk about in an interview.

Internships are essential to employment with the Big Four firms. Over 90% of interns at Big Four firms are given employment offers, leaving few entry positions to be filled by those who did not intern at the firm. Because accounting students know that Big Four firms do not offer internships until their junior year, most students do not make contact until then, missing a golden opportunity. Recently, the Big Four firms have begun offering short visits to their offices during the summer after a student’s sophomore year, referred to as externships or leadership adventures depending on the firm. Each firm, in its own style, offers two or three day externships that include tours of the local office, seminars about the firm, and some firms even include a day in the field with an audit team. PwC takes the experience a step further, sending two hundred of its top internship potentials to one national office for a deluxe leadership adventure that includes a full day of community service. The similarity among all the firms is that the office visit includes an interview, usually with a partner, for an internship during the student’s junior year and a chance to be a step ahead of the crowd.

            Possibly the most difficult task of landing an employment offer from a Big Four firm and the one given the least consideration, is determining with which firm you best fit. Each firm has its own personality and is looking for a specific type. To ensure the best chance of landing an offer with the right firm is to start working for offer from the first day of college.

L. Anthony DiJiacomo is an highly involved student leader at West Chester University, triple-majoring in Accounting, Fiance, and Management.

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