This site has been so helpful in me getting SEVERAL offers. As I’m sure you’ll know, a lot of the posts on this site detail what you should SAY to questions. I’ve gone for a slightly different take - I will focus on the the way you should ACT, how you carry yourself in a positive manner, so you can develop that whole package and get snapped up by employers.
Instead of making my post specific to just one employer, I will detail my experiences over the last few months that involved applying to the Big Four plus Grant Thornton and BDO. This will be useful for those of you looking for that edge to give yourself the x-factor when it comes to interviews, and will be helpful for those seeking September 2011 roles if unsuccessful this time round. Here we go!
PWC & KPMG
The time has come to fill out those dreaded job applications. The first ones I crack are KPMG (easiest to fill out). I send that off just a few hours later. ‘Do I really want to go into audit?’ I wonder to myself. I suppose I never dreamed, even at university that I would end up working in audit. Well, I could definitely do it for a few years, and I’d get a great qualification out of it, I reason with myself.
I wonder if I’ll be successful this time round? In my third year of university, I send off an application to Deloitte, with disastrous results, as I got rejected immediately. That put the fear of God in me, and I hastily decided not to send off any more applications until after uni, when I have more time to prepare my applications, and less time spent on my degree/daydreaming/nights out at the SU.
Feeling pretty productive, I decide to fire off another application, and decide to go for PWC. Slightly tricker, because this time, unlike KPMG, waffling on about how their CSR programme ‘inspires’ me and deepens my desire to join their graduate scheme to spend most of my days learning about what is true and fair isn’t enough. I need to tell them the things they could do to an ideal client.
What is far from ideal is having to answer this question. Realising now isn’t the time to fume over what is fair and what isn’t, I decide to pick a small privately-owned medical practice. It is owned by a family friend and I figure I have the edge and will know far more about the business than PWC ever hope to. I quickly finish this and away it goes.
THE ONLINE TESTS
A few days later, I check my emails to see that both PWC and KPMG have responded with a request to finish online tests. This is so flimsy I know, but I decide to go for PWC first because I like the look of their website more. And I think their name just sounds so perfect. Pricewaterhousecoopers. It’s a dazzler to look at and to say.
I do a few practice runs of numerical tests…not the diagrammatic ones because unfortunately I can’t find any on the internet. I quickly finish them and feel they went well.
Now I am on a high, and decide to go continue while I’m on full steam and finish the KPMG ones. I did a degree in History and so verbal reasoning should be quite straight forward.
I begin the first test, I believe it was the verbal reasoning…and finish it feeling like a pile of bricks fell on my head and knocked out my brain cells. At the point I feel quite tense, and quickly downed a shot of Sambuca to call my nerves. ‘I NEED to ace this test and get a job!’ I steer myself.
The numerical test then follows. Unlike the PWC ones, each question needed umpteen calculations to come up with the correct answer. What doesn’t help is you are faced with 8 possible choices to select the answer from, so there is a helpless feeling of being swamped.
After the online tests bombardment, I feel quite deflated. There is no way I can continue the rest of the day with this uncertainty, of not knowing if I passed or not. I mentally review the tests in my head and conclude that I most likely passed PWC, and sadistically failed KPMG. I decide to ring KPMG. I explained that I just took their online test and felt sure I failed them, so could they please put me out of my misery by telling me how badly I did now so I could continue living my life and not be stuck in this graduate jobseeker’s unenviable limbo of uncertainty.
The recruiter laughed, looking up my details and to my shock, informed me that I passed! ‘But…it went so badly!’ I quite uncharacteristically stammered down the phone. Apparently the pass scores are low so I scraped through!
My first interview was with PWC in Embankment Place, London. As I made my way there on the tube, I wondered how the interview would go. ‘Will they like me?’ I pondered. ‘Will I commit a faux pas?’ ‘How would I react if I knocked my glass of water over? Would I pretend nothing happened and continue? Or would I have a heart attack right there and then, showing that I show zero competencies in being able to handle pressure?’
I arrived with some time to spare and decided to wander into a nearby Starbucks to calmly compose myself. As I queued up to order, the lady in front of me was having an argument with the Barista. Apparently they had got her order wrong and she left the place in a huff, positively fuming. I am sure if anyone placed a finger on her, the heat radiating off her body would have made that person’s finger spontaneously combust.
Whilst I placed my order, I took a moment to reflect. Would that be me in ten years’ time? Fantastically successful (I spotted her shoes, they are NOT cheap), but miserable, corporate, and irritable? Perhaps even divorced?
I had a seat in this busy Starbucks branch, but felt ill at ease. It was just a stone’s throw away from the PWC building. There was an older gentleman sitting a few tables away, messily devouring a biscuit. Could he be the partner that might interview me if I make it to assessment centre?
I scoffed down my slice of carrot cake and made my way to the park (I’d like to call it Embankment Park?) for a breath of fresh air. The time came for my early morning interview.
As I signed in at reception on the first floor, I took a good look around the place. Dark, no natural light, were my immediate first thoughts. It felt very 1990s. If you switched off the lights it would be pitch black. The walls were peppered with lots of management-speak. Phrases like ‘find your space’, which left me wondering how many funny pipes the creator had inhaled. Not the best first impression.
My interviewer soon came along. He was a short guy. He wouldn’t have been a rugger bugger at school, however he wasn’t a total nerd either. Slightly bookish, this view of him was accentuated by his thick-framed glasses. I can see what inspired him to get those glasses. Probably modeled after Randy Jackson off American Idol but he didn’t pull off ‘cool’ in the same way. He called out my name and had an inviting smile.
TOP TIP: When your interviewer approaches you, DON’T jump up immediately. Doing so makes you look tense, as though the interview is ALL that you have on your mind. Instead, took a second to look at them, then SLOWLY and GRACEFULLY rise up. Extend your hand slowly, while having your mouth turned ever so slightly upwards. Once they introduce themselves, and you have introduced your name, round off with ‘it’s a pleasure to meet you’. Then turn your slightly upturned mouth into a proper smile. BEAM at them with your eyes. Make it look as though you are genuinely pleased to see them, rather than looking as though you were programmed to jump up and grin foolishly whenever anyone calls your name.
My interviewer was warm but inquisitive. He started off by delving into my choice of an ‘ideal client’ on my PWC application. Why did I choose a medical clinic? What would I suggest they do next? I said they should most definitely expand around the country. I also mentioned that with all the recent changes in accounting standards in response to the global financial crisis, PWC was in a very good position to earn fees from advising this business on how they could be compliant when it came to these standards.
“But is that a good thing?” my interviewer queried. I had no idea what to say. But I was determined to salvage myself and sit squarely but firmly on the fence.
“Well it’s neither here nor there, is it, I suppose?” I casually offered, meaning essentially nothing. I took a sip out of my glass of water as I did so, hoping the interviewer would move on to more pressing questions i.e. namely, the ones I had prepared for.
“But DO you think it is a good thing?” my interviewer repeated. I panicked. This interviewer was not going to be fooled by my attempts at deflection. I asked for a moment to think while I worked out how to answer this.
TOP TIP: I thought the best way was to answer it taking a short and long term view, followed by an analysis of all parties involved. I answered in the short run, it might lead to more revenues for PWC, but in the long run PWC could lose the client as the client might think they are paying far too many fees towards PWC.
I also took a society point of viewed, and argued that on the whole more regulation might not be a good thing as it makes having a business a much more complex and expensive matter.
“Hmm. Very good. Now, moving on…” I silently breathed a sigh of relief. I had cleared this hurdle.
I noticed the rest of the interview remained conversational and not strictly competency focused. I used every opportunity to ring home just how much I knew about audit. I asked my interviewer questions like his thoughts on the new reporting standards for the UK, and also what whether there were any times he did not enjoy at PWC.
TOP TIP: Towards the end of the interview, I thanked the interviewer for his time. I also explained to him that I LOVED how warmly he came across, and that if this was a reflection of what the people were like at PWC, I would LOVE to work there. He practically radiated positivity as he beamed back at me.
Flo: 1, PWC:0
GRANT THORNTON AND ERNST&YOUNG:
I started filling out the GT application. But soon noticed you had to do it all in one go rather than being able to log back in and out as I pleased to fill it in stages. What a palaver.
I simply didn’t have time (then) to do it all at once, so postponed to finish GT later on in the week. Meanwhile I logged on to the E&Y application form and my first thoughts were ‘what a mess’.
After exchanges back and forth with their Recruitment Team in Birmingham, I came to learn of things like what a GPA meant (it’s American for degree classification). I also learnt E&Y had done away with competencies and were looking for ‘strengths’ instead. I asked the recruiter what strengths he would like me to exhibit, but he said he couldn’t tell me. Mysterious!
TOP TIP: Anyway, I thought to give the whole thing a bit of a Google and found this
I used this to answer the ‘strengths’ questions on the E&Y form, crossed all crossable parts of me and clicked ‘send’.
This was the application I dreaded the MOST as last year I had dismally been rejected at application form stage. Fortunately for me this time round, I breezed through the application form screening and the online tests. However after this stage, I was invited for a telephone interview. I thought this would replace the first stage interview, but no, it wasn’t to be. It was a screening call lasting 10 minutes with a lady called Ania (or was it Anna? More on the lack of clarity later).
I had a thought. Surely there was a way to use the fact that they could not see me to my advantage. I had a brainstorm and thought about the possible questions they might ask me.
TOP TIP: For the phone interview, I typed up the answers to possible questions they might ask me, and blutacked them to my wall! Do this instead of just putting them in front of you, so you can stand during your phone interview, it lets your voice carry further and you are better able to make an impact!
TOP TIP: Make your voice as interesting as possible. DON’T make it sound as if you are reading off a script. Vary it with pauses, speed up and down. Add ‘Oh, and also…’ as if you just remembered something you wanted to add further. Of course you never forgot, it was right there in front of you. But make yourself sound human and communicable!
What was ironic was the lady that interviewed me didn’t speak very clearly. So that’s a fail on competent communication from Deloiite & Touche then…
A few days later Deloitte were ‘delighted to inform me’ that I had passed.
PWC ASSESSMENT CENTRE:
I made it through to the final stage. I turned up at Embankment Place (or Embankment Dungeon if you take into account the dim interior lighting) and checked myself in.
I saw other people waiting as well. It is quite easy to tell who is a business person and who is a graduate candidate. The latter are mostly quiet, a bit nervous looking, constantly readjusting their tie and making sure their collar is pressed.
Some go the extra mile and attempt to casually read the FT they found lying on the coffee table. However they fail to pull off the calm, leisurely look as they struggle between looking presentable and wrestling with the large pages of the FT broadsheet.
We are greeted by the person who will be hosting the day. A slightly older woman, with a rather aloof demeanor. I am left with the impression that she would rather not be there. As she leads us into the ‘hosting’ room where we will be based for the day, I pick a seat away from her, quickly deciding that she was not the type who would enjoy small talk with grad applicants.
My intuition is confirmed when one of the candidates sat close to her, asks if most of the places have filled up by now. “You can check the number of vacancies left on our website. That is pwc.co.uk”, she replies tersely.
We go through the psychometric tests, followed by the group exercise.
TOP TIP: You want to show leadership skills, so once the group discussion part of the group exercise begins, wait one or two seconds. If no one says anything, just launch right in there. Start with a ‘good morning everybody’.
I find it QUITE useful to use the individual reading time to prepare an introductory sentence that you can then use. For instance. ‘Good morning everybody. So this project on the Maldives is quite interesting. We have to achieve X, Y and Z today. Lets spend some time talking about X. What are our general thoughts on this? For instance, I thought option A looked quite financially viable. Alex (another candidate), what is your view on this?’
Perfect introduction, as you show the ability to lead a conversation, as well as a desire to achieve the set objectives. Once everyone has put forward their general thoughts, then agree on how much time to spend talking on each point. So you can nail that time management competency as well.
Post psycho-exercises and group exercise, my stomach was sans food. So you can imagine how glad I was to hear it was time for lunch. We were led to a room where we could grab something to eat as well as have a chat with a first year PWC trainee.
Imagine my horror when the ‘food’ turned out to be still and sparkling water, coffee, tea… oh and biscuits!! After a quick chat, I asked if I could dart downstairs to grab a meal. Quite shocking, but apparently they have cut out the lavish feast they used to lay on for candidates! Gutted!
TOP TIP: The partner interview is part competency but also to see who you are as a person. If you have a great personality, let that shine through like a lighthouse in the rough seas, and they will be attracted to it.
By all means, do not throw caution to the wind and let yourself go! So whilst I told the partner that I had lots of fun in Marbella last summer for instance, I did not let him know what I got up to exactly as that would simply be TMI.
Beam a genuine smile. To do this, picture your smile traveling up your body, all the way to your mouth, then up your nose to your eyes. It sounds ridiculous but as you think of it this way, you think how ridiculous it all sounds, and it makes you smile some more! There you go, you are doing it now! Hold that smile!
Laugh at his jokes. Titter, but not inappropriately. Beam every now and then in appreciation. Also at the end, when thanking him/her for their time, lightly joke that you appreciate it as you are sure they have high charge-out rates that you probably won’t be able to afford now as a 20 year old graduate. This instantly shows that you are in the ‘know’ and are keen to join the industry.
TOP TIP: I started filling out the application the month before, but you have to complete it in one sitting, rather than being able to log in and out to complete bits and bobs as you please. Imagine my horror when I got an email from GT saying my application has been marked as ‘incomplete’ and that I can no longer apply for that position.
So top tip with GT, finish and send the application all at once. No procrastination with them!
ERNST & YOUNG FIRST INTERVIEW:
Now I remember being quite daunted about the E&Y application form and their new ‘strengths’ mantra. Using the link I provided further up in these diaries, I tried to suss out what they were looking for, and so talked about how I ‘felt’ in the experiences I relayed to the questions on the application form. As cheesy as they felt at the time, they got me through to an interview with them.
Let me just say their offices in London Bridge are truly stunning and I complimented the interviewer on this, I must say she seemed quite pleased to hear it (“It simply IS, isn’t it?!”
A bit more on the strengths-based interview. I was simply flooded with a million questions that I did not see the sense of. Case in point, I was asked if I thought there were not enough hours in the day. At this point I knew I would just have to be straight and to the point, no competency-waffle would satisfy her.
So I explained honestly and said while I would like more hours for sleep, whilst I am awake I am very good at managing my time and in fact find it quite satisfying when I am able to achieve a lot in a day, as I regularly do! I detailed a recent example of this.
TOP TIP: With strengths based interviews, lean forward and smile, and raise your voice enthusiastically when you are talking about a pet project for e.g. the time when you raised a lot of fundraising for a cause close to your heart. These will bring out these supposed strengths they seek.
TOP TIP: Towards the end of the interview, I was asked what I felt was the most important attribute for a graduate coming into the firm. I explained that personally, I felt it was important to have the right attitude, and to know that as a graduate, I won’t have the same experience and knowledge as the rest of the team. Thus I shouldn’t be surprised or be resentful if I am given ‘dull’ work like photocopy, but instead, I could use it as a chance to learn. By that, I mean, using it as an opportunity to learn what it is I have been asked to photocopy exactly, and how important the document is in the grand scheme of things.
At this point, my interviewer leaned forward and said ‘pardon, WHAT did you say?’ I carefully repeated what I said, after which she promptly began scribbling furiously onto the sheets laid out in front of her.
I feared that perhaps I had voiced a very bad faux-pas, and I asked her if there was something wrong with what I said. I was FULLY prepared at this point to retract my statement, if it were to get in the way of me progressing to the next stage.
'No, there was nothing wrong what with you said. In fact, I thought it was excellent. I actually spotted a strength in you!" she replied. I was so happy that I practically cooed in delight. She beamed back at me.
I left their fantastic headquarters by London Bridge in high spirits.
At this point, I was well into November, with an offer from PWC and a future AC session with EY. I had attended and passed my KPMG first interview without incident in October, and so my KPMG AC date was imminent. I had passed the Deloitte phone interview months ago, however my first interview fell towards the end of November! A slow process for them, needless to say.
KPMG ASSESSMENT CENTRE:
Unlike the PWC assessment centre which was quite straightforward, the KPMG equivalent is like going into battle. E-tray exercises, drafting typed responses without spellchecker, partner presentations.
This forum provides pages of information about the actual content of the AC. I will go into strategic elements that can give you that leading edge.
TOP TIP: If you are interviewing or assessment centre-ing at Canary Wharf, arrive at the entrance lobby at least 15 minutes before. For my first interview, I turned up 5 minutes before my interview. My cool, composed self morphed into a panicked, stressed out mess when I realised it would doubtless take more than five minutes for the ten people in front of me to finish their business with the receptionist. Note: this is Canada Square at 9am, there WILL be a queue. So be earlier than usual.
TOP TIP: When the assessor brings everyone through into the main room where the e-tray exercises begin, and when the assessor invites candidates to have a toilet break before the exercise begins, GO to the toilet! Just before the e-tray was due to the begin, one candidate cheekily asked if he could go to the toilet, and before you know if, the rest of the candidates deserted the room for the toilets in harmony.
To say the assessor looked visibly irritated would have been the understatement of the year.
TOP TIP: At lunch, immediately launch into conversation with the trainees. They are human, just like you are, and do you want them to think they could potentially be working with a drone? Be conversational, fun, and friendly. Ooze personality.
TOP TIP: At lunch, another way to set yourself apart is this. When orders are placed for drinks, order a small glass of wine. Doing this immediately separates you apart. The other candidates will most likely order an orange juice, or even tap water…fearing they might get so trollied at lunch that they might have to be carted into the partner interview room as one blubbering, apologetic bundle, tie askew.
Getting the wine shows you are bold and daring. However, this is just a trick. Have a sip or two, and when the waiter comes round again, discreetly order a glass of something non-alcoholic. THIS will be your drink for your meal. Leave the wine untouched, save a few sips every now and then.
TOP TIP: For the partner presentation, I quite strongly recommend avoiding presenting on the large companies like Microsoft, Dell, and Deloitte (I know someone who did that, with disastrous results).
Pick something you are likely to know better than the partner. This will give you the edge.
Since graduating, I’ve been working as a PA for a modelling agency. However, the good thing is I have done bits and bobs around the agency, even sitting in for some of the people on our books every now and then, so I know how the company works, to a far greater extent than the partner would - unless they were an ex-model of course.
This is a very effective strategy, and ensures that you will be in a good place to answer any tough questions about the company. The partner that interviewed me was extremely intrigued and genuinely interested in the company.
I stepped out of Canada Square, had a quick look around (LOVE the area) and soon after got a call from the partner offering me the job.
So what have I learned from my graduate search, two job offers later?
It’s important to be more than a drone. Have a personality. Let it ooze through. Besides, a smile exudes confidence and allays any underlying anxieties you might have. Don’t afraid to bring out the inner you.
Do I see myself being in audit? Well, truth be told, I never imagined being in this line of work. But I can definitely do it for three years and then analyse my options after wards.
This forum has been an absolute delight to use and I hope my top tips can provide a unique slant on things, and help you develop that leading edge to snap up that job you are eyeing.
By all means, ask any questions that might have popped up upon reading this, and I will do my best to answer them. DO bear with me, I am away with the agency at the moment but will endeavor to respond as soon as.
Best of luck with your search.