In the 20+ years I spent in recruiting (including over a decade with KPMG’s Campus Recruiting team), I saw a lot of great students, made some very close friends, and witnessed some recruiting horror stories. To round out my personal experiences and give you an accurate glimpse behind the curtain, I’ve reached out to many of my former colleagues, as well as competitors in the recruiting field. I’ll try to reveal what recruiters want to see in candidates, what do they actually see in candidates, and how candidates can make a better impression while applying for a position at a Big 4 Accounting Firm.
Life at the Big 4
One of the most often questions I’m asked is “what is life in a Big 4 Public Accounting Firm like for an early career professional?” I’ve tried to break it down in some bullet points that are common for all four firms. Smaller firms will use many of the downside points in their recruiting efforts, while most of the larger firms will align with the upside to say, “we have that too!”
- Unparalleled resources
- The most up-to-date technology
- The biggest and most well-known clients
- International opportunities
- The most complex issues to solve
- Constant training on the latest issues
- Resume builder
- Rapid advancement
- Good pay and bonuses
- Extensive PTO and sabbatical benefits
- Job security
- Travel opportunities
- Long hours
- High pressure, competitive environment
- High pressure to pass the CPA Exam (in most practices)
- Rolling busy seasons
- Lack of flexibility for continuing education
- PTO given but can be difficult to use
- Solid pay, but may not reflect effort
- Can become siloed into practice
- Lack of diversity at the Manager/Executive level
- Staff utilization – increasing clients/decreasing staff
Must-have traits to work at Big 4 accounting firms
Despite the size or scope of the firm, there are some standards that they all have. You can see it time and again when you look at the core values posted on the PwC, Deloitte, EY and KPMG sites. I know at KPMG specifically, we heard the core values at every training and every firm meeting. Our leadership (C-suite executives) truly lived this out every day. I was with the firm when one of our Partners was brought up on insider trading charges. Our CEO, John Vehimeyer, worked swiftly and decisively to communicate with everyone in the firm and make the right decisions with our clients to assure that the situation was handled properly. He was a case study in integrity, communication skills, and leadership. He inspired me in that moment and made me proud to be a KPMG employee.
Here are the most wanted traits by firms, truly regardless of size:
- High work ethic
- Good communications skills
- Comfort with change
- Leadership experience
- Cultural fit
- General respect for others
My sage advice
If I boil down my very top suggestions for candidates, they are:
1. Timing is everything
A candidate needs to understand the recruiting cycle. When does a firm recruit for internships? Are there pre-intern programs (externships) available? If a candidate is studying abroad during the normal recruiting cycle, how do you go about maintaining contact? First piece of advice is to work with the career center at your school. They will often have strong relationships with the recruiters and can give you some good tips on timing.
2. Be on time … all the time
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but if you’re not 5 minutes early, you’re late! It’s true in the professional world. Clients can make you wait, but you should never make them wait for you. In the broader world you cannot control traffic or parking issues. Always build in padding so that you can be sure to be on time. Even showing up on time can be a problem if you are rushing/running to your meeting. There is nothing worse than sitting across from someone that is sweating and panting. They made it on time but are not prepared for an interview or client meeting.
3. Impressions mean a lot
Everyone always talks about making a great first impression. I don’t want to ever dismiss that, but I’m here to tell you that you can make a great first impression and then kill that throughout the process. You must continue to be on your best behavior. Don’t get too comfortable with the professionals. Even if they are letting their guard down, continue to toe the professional line. It’s not fair, but you can be judged on lacking professionalism even when others are not showing a high level.
4. Bad personal hygiene stinks
Yikes! It doesn’t matter if you haven’t showered in a while, choose not to use deodorant, or if you overuse that special Victoria Secret perfume or Axe body spray. You have to make sure you’re making the right impression! Also, you need to look like you want the job. Dress properly, make sure you are free from wrinkles and the fit is appropriate. If you have any questions, check with the career center at your school to confirm.
5. Research beyond the website
The website is great but doesn’t always give you local details. Use your network. Talk to other interns, recent hires, or even folks on LinkedIn. Don’t be afraid to reach out and find out what is happening at the firms you are considering. What do the employees think of their workplace? How exciting are the engagements they are working on? Do the Partners and Executives show that they care about their employees? Find out more than just the vision and plans at the headquarter offices.
6. Don’t just ask questions, ask good questions
Every firm wants candidates to be engaged in the process and ask thoughtful questions. This is an important way to gauge a candidate’s ability to seek important information about a critical decision in their life. Here’s a trick for you: Most questions are asked in one-on-one situations and professionals don’t compare questions asked. Come up with 4 – 6 really good, sharp questions and use them in multiple situations. This is a good way to gauge consistency in answers throughout the firm. It’s important that you are not just asking questions to ask questions. Don’t try to stump the professional or pull obscure information from the website or the news just to make you look smart.
7. Buzzwords don’t impress
The words you use matter. If you are just regurgitating what the website says, you won’t be taken seriously. You don’t need to prove to everyone you meet that you are a smart person just because you know the jargon of the industry or firm. You impress them by your application of such things and not just showing that you know the words.
8. Always send a thank you letter or email
Thank you notes are like cover letters. Some recruiters love them and base their decisions on the quality and timeliness of receiving them and other recruiters don’t care that much about them. The problem is that you don’t know what type of recruiter you’re dealing with. Which means, you must send one. Make sure that you put a little bit of time between the interview and your note (email is fine in most cases). Don’t be like a candidate I had who finished the interview, reached into his folio and produced a handwritten thank you note before he even walked out the door. That’s way too soon, and seems disingenuous. If you decide to mail a note, there is no need to use scented paper. I’m not sure we need to smell your favorite perfume again.
9. We all know each other … and we talk
The one thing that surprised me the most in my time recruiting was the way that some students tried to “play” the process or recruiters. Most students are unaware that the recruiters see each other quite often at events and even build friendships (despite the competitive nature of recruiting). As we went through the semester I would often talk to my colleagues, including those at the other Big 4 firms. If there was a candidate that we were both recruiting, we would check in to see if they had accepted with the other yet. I even had one situation where the candidate had accepted a full time offer with me but was still interviewing with another recruiter and had informed them that there was no acceptance anywhere else. It is important to understand that recruiters tend to stick together.
Sometimes it’s not even the recruiters that talk. There are several professionals involved in the process and inevitably, someone knows someone else that you may know or have interacted with. Some processes include a social media sweep. How do you represent yourself on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram? The recruiter may not be the one to look up such things, but someone who went to your school a year or two ago and knows some people you know may have access.
10. We’re watching at every step
Receptionists, administrators, and others are keeping an eye throughout the process. After 2nd round interviews where we invited candidates to our office, I would regularly walk out to Ms. Linda, our receptionist, to see if she had any feedback on the candidates that came through. Inevitably, she had some advice for me on the young men and women who came through and greeted or ignored her.
We also had several levels of professionals interact throughout the process. Partners might conduct the interviews and make the final decisions, but all the professionals from Associate to Sr. Manager were solicited for feedback.
11. Be CPA ready
Though I’ve heard Partners at local firms openly deride the requirement for students to be CPA Exam ready (150 hours for CPA eligibility) prior to starting full time, the reality is once you start with any firm, the CPA Exam will be a major task to complete regardless of where you’re working. And, since recent college grads have the highest pass rates of all CPA Exam candidates, the sooner you’re prepared, the better your odds will be of passing.
A big reason I decided to join Surgent after spending so much time recruiting in public accounting was that I really appreciated Surgent’s approach to CPA Review. Using adaptive learning technology, Surgent identifies what new graduates already know and what they still need to study. This can get students exam-ready in just 58 hours. So, to get you CPA ready as quickly as possible, my last piece of advice is to give Surgent a look for yourself.
Ready to start studying for the CPA Exam?