The Accountancy Recruitment Process (larger firms)

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#1

Hello all

After spending the last two months or so going through the accountancy graduate recruitment mill, I thought I’d share some advice / tips / info I’ve come up with. I’m not going to go into the details of specific firms’ procedures (there’s plenty of posts out there with that stuff already) or suggest answers to questions (ditto – but be wary). This is more of an overview of the process with a few tips along the way. Also - apologies to experienced Wikijobbers who may find this a little basic – I’m aiming this at folks new to the game and it really consists of stuff I wish someone had told me when I’d started out.

Before applying

  1. You have to know what accounting actually entails these days. Most larger firms split their work, and therefore their graduate intake, into three main service lines: Audit, Tax and Advisory / Consulting services (this last one covers a huge range of specialisms). Audit is usually the largest service line, taking the most graduates, with Tax in second place with the rest being more specialist (and therefore much tougher to get into). Also become fully aware of the qualification (ACA, ACCA, CTA etc.) you want / have to aim towards.

  2. Though it may be tempting to apply to as many firms as possible, bear in mind that it is better to send off five or six good applications and get two or three interviews than it is to send off twenty ‘cut-and-paste’ applications and get one interview. Research the firms you are interested in, rank them in terms of priority, then apply in that order. After the first few applications you’ll (hopefully) start to get interviews and therefore have less time to fill in forms anyway.

  3. Make sure you are positive that accounting is for you! Would you rather be doing law or management training? If you’re sure, stick with it – it’s much easier to fill in several applications for what is basically the same job than it is to divide your brain trying to apply for different professions.

The application form

  1. A good way to start is to make a list of everything you’ve ever done! Not just GCSEs. A-levels, and degree modules but also all summer / part-time jobs (no matter how menial), work experience, voluntary work, music / drama exams, sports, extra-currics at school and university, positions of responsibility (eg. badminton club treasurer / president / secretary) etc. etc. Once this is done, arrange the list chronologically (most firms only really want to hear about stuff you’ve done in the last three years).

  2. Using this list as your ‘raw material’, start to fill in the form. Obviously, things like name, address, qualifications and schools / universities attended are the easier bits. Tougher are the questions where they ask things like ‘give an example of when you had to work as part of a team to overcome an unforeseen difficulty’. This is where the list comes in. Whatever the question, try to arrange it so it shows you in your best light (obviously) and is based in fact. Be concise – though some forms will restrict you to 100-200 words, others will allow you up to up to 400-500. If the form you are filling in has a large word limit don’t feel you have to use it all – one form I filled in gave a 400 word space for what was basically a yes / no answer!

  3. Don’t be tempted to copy and paste too much. Although the questions asked by each firm will be similar, and your answers will use the same material, be prepared to rewrite your responses according to the slant of the question. For instance:

‘Why do you think you are suited to a graduate role in accounting?’

‘What qualities would you bring to firm if we employed you?’

Both ask for the same answer but in a slightly different way. Tailor accordingly. Also, copying ‘I really want to work for PwC because…’ into an application for BDO Stoy Hayward is a guaranteed route to the ‘thank you for your time’ pile.

  1. Check, check, check, check and check again. Errors of spelling and grammar (don’t rely solely on your spellcheck – do it yourself too) show a lack of attention to detail and will almost certainly lead to you being filtered out. Most firms (so I’ve heard…) run auto-spellchecks on forms before reading them so don’t fall over at this earliest of hurdles.

  2. Style. Don’t worry too much about this. The key words are ‘concise’ and ‘relevant’. Between these two poles, your own style should come through. Bullet points are excellent ways of achieving both by avoiding the need for linking phrases such as ‘In this role I…’ and ‘In addition, I also…’ which can eat up potentially valuable word space.

  3. Once you’ve sent it off, try not to worry too much. You should get an acknowledgement of receipt (usually an automated email) straightaway but for someone to get back to you with a result may take a while. Some places it could be 24 hours, other places 3-4 weeks. It all depends on the size of the HR dept, the office you’ve applied to, how busy they are, whether anyone’s on holiday etc. etc. Also no news is not bad news – don’t assume that all the yes’s find out straight away and the no’s are told months later – one form I sent took nearly three weeks to get a (positive) response (this also applies to waiting for results in later stages).

Online tests

  1. The best thing to do is to google ‘numeracy tests’ ‘literacy tests’ ‘psychometric tests’ etc. and practice as many as you can find. Some firm’s websites have practice tests on them. Most are multiple choice and replicate very closely the format used by the real ones.

  2. Don’t worry if your degree is not maths / physics (etc.). The maths tests are really just arithmetic and logic, deriving information from charts and graphs. That said, they are not ‘easy’ and are time-pressured (if everyone finished with 100%, there would be no point in the test). Just make sure you are in a quiet, undisturbed place (NOT the uni computer room at lunchtime!), have a calculator, pen and paper ready and be calm. Do the firm’s practice test if there is one.

  3. This may not suit everyone, but my ‘tactic’ was to simply work through the questions from beginning to end, skipping out the ones that I couldn’t work out too quickly. If necessary, when the timer got to around 45 seconds to go, I just guessed the ones I hadn’t answered. Also – check at the end if there is time (not as you go along – this could waste precious time later).

  4. Don’t be surprised (on the literacy tests) if you end up giving the same answer (even if it is ‘cannot say’) two or three times in a row.

First interview

  1. For me, these were invariably ‘competency based’ interviews with a HR person / manager in the service line I applied to. In a sense, these are 3D application forms – the interviewer simply asks you a selection of questions from a predetermined list and then makes notes of your answer. That said, their impression and opinion of you does count hugely - they are, after all, probably the person who would be your immediate supervisor and would therefore see you every day.

  2. Appearance (sorry if this is male-biased). For me, this means a suit (regardless of any ‘business casual’ policy the firm may have). It also means a sharp, new / freshly cleaned suit. The one you’ve been wearing for your weekend job the last two years will not do. Also – shiny shoes (new if necessary – but break them in first) and smart shirt, tie and socks (socks should match the colour of the suit, not the shoe). The received wisdom is that accounting interview dress should be conservative. For instance, a red tie may speak confidence, and therefore be suitable for sales / marketing roles, but may not be apt for accounting. I went with a plain white shirt and discreetly patterned blue tie. If all this means a pricey trip to M&S (or wherever), think of it as an investment rather than a cost. Also – haircut, shave, fingernails, nosehair etc. etc. Vanity is most acceptable here (but say no to gallons of aftershave / hair gel).

  3. Plan route, book tickets, do a ‘dry run’ if practical. Leave nothing to chance. Set off very early and make sure you have the phone number of the office with you so you can phone if you are going to be unavoidably late. Get the name of the person who will be interviewing you (looks better when arriving at reception). It is good practice to arrive at the office roughly ten minutes before your appointment – sit in reception and read a newspaper (shows interest in the news and may hide any nervousness you may give off by looking round anxiously, pacing up and down etc.).

  4. Meeting the interviewer: big smile, confident, firm handshake, ‘good to meet you’. Use names. Make small talk (weather and journey is fine) on the way to the interview room. It is often said that an interviewer makes their decision in the first four minutes and spends the rest of the time justifying their decision. Personally, I think it is more like the first four seconds, so I always tried to convey as much confidence, trustworthiness and business-like professionalism as possible in my greeting. That said, don’t overdo it.

  5. The questions. There are plenty of lists around wikijob of questions people have been asked, and there is no need to replicate them here. You will not be asked all of them (most interviews are limited to one hour). However, there were a few questions that I was asked in every interview without exception. These are

‘Why do you want to work for [name of firm]?’
‘Why do you want to work in [service line]?’
‘Why accounting?’
‘What distinguishes [name of firm] from its competitors?’
‘What do you think you will be doing in your first year / during your training contract?’
‘Do you know what the [ACA / ACCA / CTA etc.] involves?’

You will also almost certainly be asked to briefly discuss a current news issue. Try to avoid ‘the credit crunch’ as a single topic and instead focus on one particular aspect of it (eg. a high-profile administration, the latest bank bailout etc.) or talk about something completely different. I found the BBC News website, the Sunday Times ‘business’ and ‘news review’ sections and the BBC World Business report (broadcast at 5.30am but available on the iPlayer by 9am) invaluable sources of info.

For the competency questions, the secret is simply to prepare. Rather than try to prepare ‘model’ answers for every question, I found it easier to make notes around ten or so past projects / work experience / voluntary work and keep them in my head as a kind of mental database that I could pick examples from as needed. This does require a certain amount of improvising in the interview but don’t be afraid to have a (short) pause to think before answering a question. Besides, if you’ve made it this far, you’re clearly smart enough to think on your feet a little.

Second Interview

These are basically the same as the first interview, except you will be interviewed by a partner – the big cheese who ultimately decides whether you get the job or not. Although all the partner interviews I had involved some competency questions, as the person interviewing you is a part-owner of the firm, they are free to deviate from the prepared questions if they wish (whether they do or not is up to the individual partner – I don’t think it’s a good / bad sign either way).

Etrays

  1. Go to the civil service fastrack website and do their sample etray. This will tell you everything you need to know about the basic format, style and structure. There really is no other real preparation you can do for your real etray except make sure you thoroughly read all the pre-assessment day material available to you. I suppose you could play a few rounds of minesweeper to improve your mouse technique…

  2. My tip for the etray is to spend at least ten minutes reading the material before attempting to respond to any emails. This will allow you to ‘become’ the role you have to play much better, will give you an idea of what info is available to you and where to find it (thus saving time searching later) and will also make sure you have a good idea of how the different pieces of info relate to each other (many emails require using info from more than one source - failing to make use of all sources available may lead you to the wrong answer). Also – if the info you are given is on the computer, keep it all open in the taskbar and consider putting the taskbar on the left or right of the screen so you can stack more windows and see more of the titles.

  3. My other tip is start with the first email and work steadily through one at a time. I personally did not bother trying to prioritise the emails yet finished all mine within the time allowed. It is worth bearing in mind that a few of the emails are simple judgement calls and don’t require reference to the info – deal with them swiftly. Also – don’t worry about emails you’ve already answered. You can’t go back and change them so why waste time?

Group tasks and exercises

There isn’t really anything you can do to prepare for these. Just bear in mind that whatever the task your group is set, the HR observers are there to see how you perform in the group, not how successful the group is.

Lunch

  1. Though these aren’t part of the assessment process, it’s best to keep things professional – as if you were at a lunch with a mixture of colleagues and clients. Don’t ask current trainees about salaries, benefits etc. – aside from the fact that they are sworn to secrecy, would you normally ask someone you hardly knew how much they earned?

  2. Although the trainees you lunch with are unlikely to have a major say in your recruitment, it is quite possible that they may be asked informally what they thought of the candidates they had lunch with. Be the one they have something good to say about rather than something negative. I personally tried to steer the conversations away from the business of the day and connect with trainees I spoke to on a more social level.

After the final assessments and interviews

  1. Many people on wikijob seem to have been phoned within a few hours of their last interview to be told they had the job. This is great if it happens to you. However, don’t worry if it doesn’t. As far as I know, the final decision is made when HR have discussed you with the partner concerned (even if that consultation is a simple ‘hire them’ from the partner) and if the partner is busy, this could take a few days. As I’ve said above, no news is not bad news – the offer I have accepted took two weeks to arrive via email.

  2. If you are unsuccessful, most places offer some kind of feedback, so do take them up on that. The level of detail does vary though. However, the most important thing is to move on and keep trying.

That’s all I have to say, I think. It’s very long but I wanted to try and pass on something to future applicants and contribute something to wikijob which has served me so well these last few months. Obviously, all the tips / tactics I used may not be suitable for everyone, so read as many posts / forums / etc. as you can to get a fully rounded picture of the process.

My final thought is that although the graduate job market is (according to the media) shrinking and that many firms attract at least 100 applications per place, statistics only tell part of the story. Many of those initial thousands of applications will be from obviously underqualified people or similar non-starters and will be filtered out immediately. In my completely unfounded opinion, I think as long as you can get past the application and online tests, you have a good chance of being ‘in’ so long as you thoroughly prepare for each stage and play the game right.

There will always be somewhere for good quality graduates to work, and as you’re on wikijob, you’re probably among them :slight_smile:

#2

Fantastic post.

Thank you so much - a great account of how to get a job in accountancy.

This post is so good I’d like to spotlight it - would that be ok? We’ll make it a sticky post and potentially a wiki too. It’s very good and people would certainly benefit from your knowledge!

Where did you get a job in the end?

#3

Some really good stuff there. On the lunch with an associate - I would say that its true we have hardly any influence over the decision to hire but I do get asked about my opinion on an informal basis. I’ve taken a number of candidates out to lunch and you can kind of tell which ones have a really good chance just by the questions they have to ask. Definitely mix up the topics you want to talk about and connecting on a social level will inevitably swing the opinion in your level but don’t miss the opportunity to ask questions that you might get asked in the partner interview.

Think about good questions that will give you some insight into the job you’re applying for - even simple ones like what do you do everyday? How do you juggle the time you spend on different projects? What was the last thing you worked on? What’s the most difficult part of your job? etc.

It’s a really good opportunity to find out information that is not widely available on the internet and highly specific to what you will be doing. A few good, intelligent and precise questions can make you stick out as worth something but don’t try to oversell yourself too much either.

#4

Where do you work at Loquitur? Big 4?

#5

Yeah - joined just over a year ago.

#6

Hey Red

Glad you liked my post! Please feel free to spotlight / sticky / wikify as you see fit… I’ll be starting at a big 4 in September.