What Large Firms Expect From New Accounting Grads

Recruiters weigh in on what they want to see from new hires.

October 11, 2016

Securing a job post-graduation won’t be an issue for most accounting students.

But those looking to end up at the nation’s largest firms, where fast-paced environments can lead to lucrative career paths, will need more than good grades to get hired.

Large firms already view college campuses as a major source of talent and frequently travel to schools with strong programs to look for new hires.

“More than 50 percent of our hiring comes directly from campus, and that’s really the lifeblood of our practice,” said Kathy Schaum, KPMG’s national director of campus recruiting.

Here are some tips about what stands out to recruiters from large firms, including the Big Four:

Plans to pass the CPA exam. Though licensure is not required on day one (particularly because most states have a work experience requirement for licensure), large firms strongly encourage new hires to get a CPA within the first few years on the job.

At Grant Thornton, most new hires need to have fulfilled the 150 academic hours required for CPA licensure before being hired, said Tony Fuller, a Chicago-based recruiting director at the firm. Grant Thornton also encourages students to sit for as many portions of the exam as possible before starting.

KPMG also wants students to have the academic portion squared away before starting work, Schaum said.

At Grant Thornton and KPMG, there’s a nice financial perk for passing the CPA exam shortly after hire. Both firms offer new hires a $5,000 bonus for passing in the first year and $3,000 for passing in the second year. Most new hires, Schaum said, sit for the exam in the first two years.

Comfort with technology. Basic Excel knowledge is a must, and most students start their jobs with adequate skills when being hired, Fuller said. Recruiters are also looking for demonstrated abilities to quickly pick up other software programs. Most large firms have their associates use proprietary software, so new hires will have to master new programs regularly. Prospective hires can highlight their skills during interviews by discussing projects that used advanced Excel functions or by listing technology-focused classes and program certifications on a résumé, Schaum said.

Data analysis is a growing need in many firms, and recruiters want to see more emphasis on analytics in collegiate accounting programs, Schaum said. “We’re really demanding more of our people in that area,” she said. “We’d like to see more of our new hires come in with experience in data analytics.”

The company recently partnered with business schools at The Ohio State University and Villanova University to develop a master’s level program in accounting data and analytics. KPMG will pay tuition and room and board for 50 students, who will have a job waiting upon graduation. The program launches in fall 2017.

Strong communication skills. The ability to talk and write in a clear and effective manner can set job candidates apart from others.

Job candidates with strong numerical skills but average communication skills will still do well, said Bill Driscoll, a district president for global staffing firm Accountemps, a Robert Half company. But having strong writing skills as well as accounting knowledge “can really open up a lot of different doors,” he said.

Fuller suggested that accounting faculty incorporate more business writing in courses. He has found that new accountants are sometimes intimidated when asked to write up proposals or correspond with clients.

A diverse résumé. Firms desire job candidates with résumés that boast of a variety of activities outside of academics. “We’re looking for a student that’s fairly well-rounded,” Schaum said. “They need to be good at a variety of things.”

When it comes to electives, Schaum looks to see if a student has chosen challenging courses, as opposed to filling up on easier offerings—a sign that they are engaged in different areas and interested in learning new things.

Fuller also likes to see work experience, even if it’s a lifeguard position or time spent waiting tables. It signals to him that an individual understands workplace expectations and has the ability to show up to work on time. 

Being a team player. Accountants must work well with others, especially now that they are more likely to find themselves in leadership positions. “Accountants have become increasingly more critical to a company’s operations,” Driscoll said. “Companies want accountants to be part of the management team.”

To prepare for that role, students should have experience working in different settings with different types of people. Recruiters will look to see if they have work experience or have taken on extracurricular activities that offer those types of opportunities.

Being ready for a professional office culture. New hires will need to come across as professional in their demeanor and appearance from day one. KPMG frequently meets and corresponds with applicants during the hiring process and assesses whether a person is able to be professional, Schaum said.

New hires also have to have reasonable expectations about their role within the larger company. Schaum and Fuller both said that, occasionally, an overconfident employee arrives thinking he or she should quickly ascend the corporate ladder. “It takes hard work, experience, and time to develop the necessary skills for partnership,” Schaum said.

Fuller said that those without much time on the job need to be willing to learn from more-experienced colleagues. “There’s a balance of being humble and realizing you’re not going to know everything and you’re here to learn,” he said.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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