How to Prepare for Working at a CPA Firm

Working for a CPA Firm

What Accounting Firms Look for in Grads and Experienced New Hires

By Brian Jacob, SPHR, Vice President of Human Resources

Today's competition for jobs is tough. But, for those with accounting backgrounds it is even tougher. Sure Big 4 firms are touted at college campuses, but is that the right fit for you? What about experienced accountants? Do you want to work the hours and be limited when it comes to your work/life balance and exposure to more exciting opportunities?

The majority of accounting firms, whether Big 4, regional, local, public or private, offer similar perks, such as healthcare, retirement accounts, CPA exam prep, CPE training, bonuses, vacation and holiday pay, and more.

But, landing a job in this competitive market isn’t just about the benefits. It's also about what you want in your career.

What type of people do you want to work with? What kind of experience do you desire? Does international travel and opportunity matter to you? What does your career path look like? Do you want to be a partner; if so, by when?

Rather than focusing your efforts solely on landing a Big 4 position, consider regional and local firms as well. They too offer similar perks, but may be a better fit for your personality and goals.

Your answers can help define if you should look at a Big 4 firm where you may be more limited on industry exposure and work scope, or a local or regional firm where you’re likely to gain experience in all types of industries and accounting work.

Taking a deep dive now into what you want before applying to a firm can help you save time, effort, money, and energy in the long term and help prevent you from looking for a new job within just a few years.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What am I interested in and does the firm have opportunities in that area?
  • Does the firm’s culture matter to me? If so, what am I looking for?
  • Do I prefer work variety or to be a cog in a wheel?
  • Is work/life balance important to me?
  • Does getting along with my coworkers matter to me?
  • Do I value my free time as much, if not more, than my work time?
  • Am I looking for diverse experiences because I’m unsure what I’d like to focus on now?

Student / Recent Graduate

As a student or recent graduate, you may have heard that GPA is an all-important marker you need to be concerned with. That is only partially true. Let's take a look at two scenarios where GPA is not a major factor; but rather life experience is.

Scenario A

Molly will graduate at the top of her class at a prestigious university. She majored in accounting and minored in business administration. Here GPA is 3.75. She has no other work experience, but was on the student government and likes to play the violin in her spare time.

Scenario B

Dave will graduate with a GPA of 3.15 from a state college. He majored in accounting. His work experience includes being a part-time barista and occasionally tutoring high school students in advanced math. He also coaches the junior football league.

In both cases, the students have an accounting education, but their GPAs were very different. The point here isn't the GPA itself, but rather what the student did while attending school. A recruiter may be looking at how well-rounded they are. What experiences they might have had outside of school. And, how they might fit, culturally, into the firm.

The lesson here is, it's not all about the GPA, but rather what you did to gain life experience and how that might translate to current and future clients at a firm. Remember, the firm is interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them.

What other tips should I know?

What else can college students and graduates do before and during the application process?

  • Put a respectable GPA, over 3.0, on your resume. If lower, be prepared to share why.
  • Attend career fairs and visit all types of firms to gain face time.
  • Attend firm events outside of career fairs to expand exposure to their culture.
  • Include extra-curricular and volunteer activities on your resume.
  • Be honest. Avoid lying or embellishing your resume.
  • Review your digital footprint. If you don’t like what you see, use a private account or remove content that would reflect badly on your personal brand.
  • Be personable and communicate effectively.
  • Prepare 1-3 small-talk topics in case there is an “uncomfortable” silence during an interview.
  • Proofread and fix typos in your resume, cover letter, and emails prior to sending them to a recruiter.
  • Review your work history and be prepared to discuss short-term positions.
  • Be computer and tech proficient beyond gaming and social media.
  • Have an understanding of GAAP and the ethical principles of being an accountant.
  • Demonstrate when you worked unsupervised, collaborated with teams, encountered new social situations, etc.
  • Include if you fluently speak or write a foreign language or have international experience.

The Importance of Soft Skills

One thing you might not know about the accounting profession is you write–a lot!

Bill Driscoll, a district president for global staffing firm Accountemps, said, "Having strong writing skills, as well as accounting knowledge, can really open up a lot of different doors." He has found that new accountants are sometimes intimidated when asked to write proposals or to correspond with clients.

Other, soft-skill areas include strong attention to detail, problem solving and critical thinking abilities, leadership and teamwork talents, ethical and moral values, and self-management capabilities.

As you make your journey toward graduation or your first accounting job, download this checklist and refer to it often as you prepare for your leap into the accounting profession.

Experienced Hires

You've been in the accounting profession for a while and have a taste for what it's like. But, you’re unsatisfied with your current situation and want to make a change.

As an experienced accounting professional, you have desired skills to work in many business scenarios, including those outside of an accounting firm. This article from CPA Practice Advisor even goes so far as to say you're a "hot commodity."

According to the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), "CPAs and potential CPAs have a variety of career paths from which to choose. Within public accounting, you can work for any sized firm, ranging from a large, international CPA firm to a small, local accounting practice. Within government, you can create a path to success at either the federal, state, or local level. Non-profit organizations and education also offer many diverse opportunities." As you consider your move, take stock of why you’re leaving and what you seek in a new firm or company.

Opportunities for experienced hires at public or private, large or small firms range from audit, tax, and management consulting. On the company spectrum, you would work in a variety of areas, such as financial accounting and reporting, management accounting, financial analysis, and treasury/cash management. There are also specialized opportunities in financial forensics, business valuation, personal financial planning, and IT consulting.

What should you consider when preparing your resume and for an interview?

  • Do your research about the kind of firm you'd like to work for and the people you’d like to work with.
  • Define your top, three industries of choice.
  • Consider people you may already know at a firm. Referrals are a great way to get your foot in the door.
  • Highlight any foreign language or international business skills. That, alone, could set you apart from the competition.
  • Demonstrate your knowledge of regulatory or business changes that could impact the clients your choice firm has.
  • Basic accounting skills are becoming more and more automated. Now’s the time to take stock of your soft skills, such as communication and collaboration.
  • Check your social media profile(s) and online footprint to see how your personal brand may appear to a stranger.
  • Search online for the hiring manager's name using LinkedIn or the firm's website. This step helps you to customize cover letters and emails. It also demonstrates initiative and the ability to use search tools to conduct research.

Speaking of LinkedIn, Intuit has five tips for preparing your profile, including:

  1. Using a professional photo—not one from your prom or a wedding;
  2. Customizing your headline;
  3. Crafting an interesting summary;
  4. Highlighting your experience, and
  5. Asking for recommendations.

Ironically, working through a recruiter could be a double-edged sword. Did you know, if you're working with a recruiter and your resume is rejected, the hiring firm may not consider you for one year even if you apply on your own?

If you're looking for new career opportunities, download this checklist as you contemplate potential employers.

The End Game

What this boils down to is you and your career, along with the firm and its ability to exceed client expectations.

Katherine Whitehorn wrote, "Find out what you like doing best and get someone to pay you for doing it." And Abraham Lincoln said, "The best way to predict the future is to create it."

With that in mind, you know you better than anyone else. And, firms know what they are looking for. When you find the right fit, it can be a long-term match, giving both you and the firm opportunities you could only dream of.

At Brady Ware, you'll work for a recognized market leader alongside colleagues with deep expertise in audit, tax, consulting, and corporate finance. You'll also have the opportunity to thrive in an environment that encourages passion, creativity, and a commitment to helping our clients prosper.

If you're interested in becoming part of our team, visit our career page to learn more about what we offer and the opportunities we have available.

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