Updated: Jun 11, 2020
I'm currently starting my 7th year working at a public, big four accounting firm. I can't believe how fast time goes by, since I still remember when I was a fresh new start eager to dive into this career.
Now I'm a Tax Manager, and I coach and review the work done by junior staff. I remember thinking back on how nervous it was talking to a Manager, and now I have become one. It's so weird to think that junior staff may be nervous talking to me.
My career has definitely taken a turn, which have been unexpected but rewarding. Instead of continuing my career in one place, I had left on a 2 year secondment to Korea after I obtained my CPA designation in Vancouver. I have now returned and am resuming my career here.
As a group of new staff started work at the firm this month, it just brought back memories of all the hard work, stress, and anxiety I felt trying to get recruited and land a job. Today, I hope to give you some insight on what I had gone through and what had worked for me to get recruited at a big four.
Before I start, I know Audit is often the popular route for the big four. However, I just wanted to say that Audit and Tax have different competencies and I deliberately chose the Tax route because that career path and the type of work was more appealing to me (but that is a whole other conversation). I just wanted to (briefly?) summarize the recruiting process that I went through in hopes that it would help you and give you some insight.
1) The Right Courses and Getting Decent Grades
So before you even apply for the job, the big four firms' expectations are for you to eventually obtain the CPA designation. In order to do so, there are prerequisite classes you must take in university to be eligible for the Professional Education Program (PEP) here in Canada.
I did a BComm and specialized in accounting. Most of these prerequisite classes are usually taken in the third and fourth year of university. Now, obviously, grades are going to be important and will be reflected in your application. However, grades aren't everything.
I had decent grades, but it wasn't stellar like some of the other applicants. This is when some of your other merits, such as your networking skills and a killer application comes into play.
2) Networking & Making Connections
I knew this area is where I needed to step up and really make an impression. I wasn't the best networker and had trouble holding a conversation at first. But I went to a lot of them to really practice talking to anyone I could. My uni hosted a couple of events, the firms also held their private events, and then there was the ultimate, humongous, mother of all networking event where all the big and medium sized firms held at the convention centre.
I made sure to go to a couple during the summer so I could become more natural at it. My school had actually hosted these networking classes where it showed you everything from how to smoothly join a conversation, to how to do a proper handshake (no limp fish hands), to how to prepare a couple of key questions, and also on how to follow up after the event by writing a thank you email.
There was almost a formula to it - but the most important part was how to make a real connection and leave a positive first impression. Easier said than done right? I had spent so much time pouring over this, but the biggest thing I learned was to be genuine about portraying yourself and in trying to get to know the other person (don't be a try hard!). And of course, practice makes perfect. The more you put yourself out there, the more confident you become in commanding a conversation.
3) Application (Resume and Cover letter)
I probably spent a good chunk of my life perfecting my resume and cover letter. I actually took some practical courses and even had career advisors who walked me through how to write effective resumes. I received a lot of guidance and "good practice" recommendations, such as keeping it to ONE page, using active verbs, tailoring it to the skills the jobs are looking for, and quantifying results to have an impact. I mean, I can go on for hours but I will save that for another time.
The cover letter is also an area you can shine and really show the firms that not only do you WANT to work for them, but you have also done the RESEARCH to tailor your content specifically to the firm you are applying for, and most importantly, telling them what YOU can DO for THEM.
At the end of the day, you need to remember that they are a business, and the fact that you want a job there and that you have all these amazing traits is less impressive compared to illustrating how your tailored experiences are going to help them make money. It also helps if you name drop a couple of people you met at the networking events, who can vouch for you as a good candidate.
I also want to note, that this is the stage where you determine which firms to apply to. I knew of people who applied to like 16 firms (ie. all the small, medium, and big firms) to increase their chances of getting a job and some who only applied to a handful. It gets quite strategic, because if you have a killer application and applied to 16, you may be running around to a million interviews, which may reduce your chances of getting an offer if you spend less time preparing for each one. Compared to if you only applied to a handful, while you may have less options, you are able to be more focused. The networking events should have also helped you narrow your list to those firms whose cultures were best compatible with you and that you want to work for.
4) Call back for Interviews
So after you perfect your application and submit it - if the HR people like what they see, they will call you for an interview. The first stage of interviews (because there are several), is the phone interview. This is a chance for HR to filter through the candidates who are basically incoherent. Big firms do not want people who are only good at studying and not good at talking with people. Public practice essentially sells an service, which means you would need to communicate effectively with clients and with each other. If all you have been doing was studying and getting stellar grades, that alone won't guarantee you in.
If you pass the phone interview, the second stage is an in-person interview with a manager. My case was a little unique (I don't know if firms still do this), but I also had to do some assessments as well - such as a case analysis written piece and team work exercise. This second interviewe literally took the whole day, as you can imagine.
So, the typical interview is with a manager(s) who will sit down with you and ask you questions about your resume. However, these questions are more scenario based, such as "explain a time when you had conflict with a team mate" or "describe a time you had exceeded expectations on a project," etc. I had also spent long hours in front of the mirror asking myself interview questions and answering them as a story.
Finally, if you passed the second interview (which I would say is the toughest part), you land yourself the third and final interview with a partner at the firm. I would say this is easier (though it can be more nerve wrecking) because all the heavy lifting had already been done on the interview with the managers.
The last interview is just a check to make sure you are a good fit with the firm. I found that it was more of a casual conversation than an interview, per-say. I guess the biggest thing here is to be likeable. Do some small chat, talk about hobbies, ask about their career, etc etc.
One tip I can share is to be enthusiastic and to listen. What is an easier way to go through an interview? I found that being a good listener and almost having them do most of the talking alleviates a lot of the pressure off of you. Just make sure you don't go completely quiet, and show you have been attentively listening by connecting what they're saying to your experience, opinion, humorous comment, etc.
5) Offer letter (or call)
After months of prep and a couple of nerve wrecking weeks after the interviews, you are finally awaiting results day. The recruiting process with my school and the firms were very strict, and they had to follow certain timelines set by the CPA institute. The firms couldn't go poaching top notch candidate, but rather, all the firms had to wait for a certain date to give the life-changing call that you had been provided an offer.
I remember vividly the day I got the call - it was the same partner who had interviewed me. I was ecstatic when I was told that I got an offer, to the firm of my choice. All the hard work had finally paid off. Now onto the next chapter of my life!