I was going to put AMA in the title but I’m not sure how often I’ll get to reply, but regardless I will try and do my best to answer every legitimate question.
So essentially I completed my masters in Accounting and Finance in 2011 (graduating in early 2012). Since then I worked two unpaid internships (one in finance, the other investment management) in order to try and gain some vital work experience and make myself a lot more employable. As the title says I attended numerous interviews/assessment centres and even made 7 final/partner interviews and yesterday I was finally offered a contract with Kingston Smith (out of all my app’s it’s defiantly the one I most wanted to work for, so as you can imagine I’m pretty happy). Rather than going through specific processes (there’s plenty of that on this forum already) I thought I’d share my experience as a whole. This is a HUGE block of text and I apologise for that, this’ll probably be most useful to new/first-time applicants.
Prelude: (Feel free to skip this if you’re not up for reading a tonne)
I’d say the application process is down to three deciding factors. 10% knowledge, to be fair employers won’t really care how smart you are, you got the 2:1 degree and 300+ UCAS points that’s all they need to know, your aptitude for advanced stochastics isn’t going to be a deal breaker. 20% luck, yeah, I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will call me out for BS on this one but in my experience sometimes you just need a little luck. Whether it’s the time you attend an assessment centre with 9 members of Mensa or you have a partner interview with a partner who’s basically a carbon copy of you, there will always be factors out of your control. Don’t get so down about that, just learn to work with it. Finally 70% of landing an offer is preparation, there’s a word I’ll mention frequently in this and it’s practice, practice, practice and then PRACTICE SOME MORE! Seriously preparation is EVERYTHING when it comes to your application so never underestimate its importance. I mean real preparation too, Googling “top 10 competency questions” and then thinking you’re set is not preparation.
The one word that sums this up is PRACTICE! Even if you’re a maths wiz you’ll still probably do poorly the first time you tackle these, the complexity isn’t that high, but time really is your enemy. I was particularly poor at verbal reasoning when I started (been a numbers guy), but the more you practice the more your brain will develop ways to complete them. There are tonnes of learning tools out there that you can use, personally I found graduatewings.co.uk/ a fantastic source for practicing these tests. You do have to pay, which is a bummer, but for £20 you get 24 numerical, 18 verbal and a load of other obscure tests like data entry and logical reasoning. I found these tests to be very similar to the online ones companies will ask you to complete and far better than any books I bought. For spatial and diagrammatic tests I found the books to be good enough, though you probably won’t need to do those for any of the accounting firms.
Be aware that the numerical tests at assessment centres are usually a lot harder than the online ones they’ll give you, so don’t get complacent just because you passed the online ones.
Many assessment centres will have group assignments to complete, one huge mistake applicants seem to make is they get tunnel vision and focus on getting the task right. Whether you get the task right or wrong has no bearing on how well you do, all that matters is how you work as a TEAM! I actually made it to one partner interview even though during the AC we failed the group exercise miserably. Don’t feel like you HAVE to be group leader or talk all the time either, odds are group assignment from university/work should offer enough experience for you to draw on. If not just focus on your personality skills and social interaction. This really isn’t that hard at all.
I don’t have much to say here as I only ever had two written/E-tray exercises. Just make sure your hand writing is up to snuff (yeah, sounds silly but think back, when was the last time you wrote a two page essay by hand?) and that your handwriting is legible. If you’re dyslexic don’t be afraid to let them know before hand, it shouldn’t go against your application chances, you may get additional time and it also shows initiative and disclosure. In both the exercises I did it proved very beneficial to research the company. Not humongous detail is needed but at the very least know what specific services they offer (and what they actually do, don’t just write “tax”), the company’s goals/principles and what they offer their clients.
Again, preparation is your best friend here. Unfortunately interviews just seem to be the thing which you’ll start off bad at and get better with experience. Try to be aware of your body language, eye contact and posture. You’d be amazed how sitting back (to try and get relaxed) makes you look like a slouch who just doesn’t want to be there. The most important thing you can do with competency interviews is find out the key competencies of the company you’re applying for, and every company is different. If you can’t find them (from the website) then call up their recruitment HR and ASK for them.
My strategy for this was to list all the impressive achievements from my study, internships and extra-curricula’s and then classify them under topics such as communication/leadership/initiative ect. Next I would look at the competencies of the company and try to predict the most likely questions to be asked and focus my answers to highlight my strengths relevant to that question. I found actually writing them down really helped, but I would advise against learning a scripted answer. There’s going to be interviews where the question won’t fit your specific answer and you want to sound genuine/organic and not robotic.
I would also advise rehearsing answers for the generic questions of;
“Why choose us?”
“What are your strengths/weaknesses?”
“Tell me about yourself” (be careful with this one, think about what they NEED to know about you)
“Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?”
These questions are very common and can be quite difficult if you’re not prepared (especially the “5 years time” one). Also prepare a good question or two to ask them, try to balance it between questions that actually are useful to you and questions that show off your commercial awareness (for example, “how has the raising of audit requirement threshold had an effect on the company’s performance?”)
If you’re applying to industry rather than a firm then you MUST learn all you can about the company, skim their most up to date annual/stakeholders report. Learn the key financial information (gross/operating/net profits, tax, share price) and the names of key board members (chairman, CE, CFO and chairman’s of the remuneration, nomination and audit committees). If questions about these don’t come up in your interview try to bring it up yourself to demonstrate your knowledge. It’ll make it look like you’re really dedicated to landing this job.
Hard to give advice for this one as these can vary so much. The most important thing I can say is THE PARTNER INTERVIEW IS NOT A FORMALITY. Do NOT underestimate it, if anything this is the most important part of your entire process. This is someone who’s interviewed scores of applicants over their career and they know exactly who will and won’t fit in with the company. Firstly do some research for what type of interview it’ll be as all partner interviews are different. This forum is excellent for that, the PwC one seems to be almost entirely competency, while the Deloitte one is quite the grilling apparently. Do a forum search for your company and they’ll probably be a topic on if (definitely if it’s a top 20 firm), do not go in there unprepared. Finally this is an interview where you really do get scope to sell yourself. In the HR competency interview you can get away with just ticking the profile boxes but this interview is a chance to show yourself as a truly outstanding candidate and why the partner should hire you. It’s going to sound really cheesy but I believe I really put my heart and soul into my KS partner interview. I really wanted this job so much, so I did everything I could to show them my passion and what I could bring to the company. Obviously don’t be TOO overbearing, you don’t want to go all psycho and scare them off but it really isn’t a time to be reserved or introverted. Put yourself out there.
Also, as a little side note, if there’s no water, ask for water. Trust me, during an interview water is your security blanket
Finally all I can say is don’t give up! Times are harder than they’ve ever been, the last 18-24 months have probably been the hardest and most mentally testing of my life. I had two final interviews that went really well but still didn’t get a job. Even the feedbacks were completely positive, but on that occasion there was just someone better than me who had excellent relevant experience (that luck factor). It’s perfectly fine to feel disappointed at not been successful but try not to feel regretful. Thinking you could’ve done better at an interview or didn’t prepare enough for an AC will eat you up much more than a rejection email. ALWAYS ASK FOR FEEDBACK! If you made it to the AC you should be entitled to feedback. If you’re feeling depressed give it a day or two then contact them, because it’s very important that you know EVERYTHING you did poorly. If they give vague feedback you need to really press them for more information. Also if you’re getting a lot of rejections I would advise you to talk to someone, I got pretty down at one point and just withdrew into myself. I stopped seeing friends and spent pretty much all my time at home just sat in my room. This is really not a good mental state to be in while applying (or for anything) and just acknowledging your difficulties and talking about it with a trusted friend or family member can really help.
That’s about it. If there’s any questions I’d be happy to answer them. For specific questions about companies I can only offer information on Kingston Smith (offer), The Old Mill (partner interview) and Smith & Williamson (partner interview). I do have an AC booked for Baker Tilly but I don’t think I’m going to bother. I also made it to final/partner interviews with industry companies, a local council and an investment management firm, but not sure that’ll be much use to people on here.