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The Experienced Accountant's Guide to the Big Four Interview

The Experienced Accountant's Guide to the Big Four Interview

Big Four accounting firms hire thousands of experienced accountants every year to work in advisory, risk management, mergers and acquisitions, and other specialty practice areas. Unlike recent graduates, experienced hires are brought on for their specific industry knowledge and qualifications.

The interview process for experienced hires starts when a candidate contacts the company through an existing employee, Web page, alumni program or one of the firm's experienced-hire recruiters.

Deloitte & Touche USA asks experienced candidates to complete a profile on its Web site. "We take a look at their educational backgrounds and make sure they have CPAs or MBAs," says Mary Butchko, Deloitte's national director for experienced hire for audit and enterprise. Candidates who are not CPAs should tell the recruiter they plan to become certified as soon as possible.

Getting the Call

Once you catch the eye of a Big Four firm, an experienced-hire recruiter will interview you by phone to review your experience as well as available opportunities, says Cheryl Levy, national director of recruiting for KPMG.

If you're relatively young and chose to go straight into private accounting after graduation but are now seeking Big Four experience, be ready to talk about that decision. "Depending upon how long they've been in the [private accounting] market, we'll talk to them about why they didn't consider the Big Four," Butchko says.

Candidates who pass the recruiter's phone screen are next vetted by a human resources professional in a process that includes criminal and credit background checks.

At Last, We Meet

The final step in the experienced-hire interview process is face-to-face interviews with practice managers, senior managers and partners. During those interviews, expect to field questions about your specialty and experience, says Maureen Kelleher, director of Americas experienced recruiting for Ernst & Young.

You'll get a mix of queries, including questions about technical and current accounting issues. Also expect to hear behavioral assessment questions about your leadership, teamwork and client-service experience.

If you're seeking a job involving heavy analysis or writing, you might be asked to submit samples of past projects. MBAs may be asked to do case studies.

Don't be alarmed if the date or time of your in-person interview changes. Kelleher says last-minute interview changes occur often, because the employees you need to meet travel a lot, and their schedules frequently change.

Make the Best Impression

How can you make a positive impact on experienced-hire recruiters? "I'm always impressed by how prepared [candidates] are and how much they know about the firm, the profession and the practice they're interviewing for," Kelleher says. "Sometimes they even have thought about ways we might do things differently or better, and they show how they'd make a contribution."

Amy Van Kirk, campus recruiting director for PricewaterhouseCoopers, was impressed by a candidate whose thank-you note included a PowerPoint presentation explaining how the candidate would tackle an immediate issue facing the company.

What to Stay Away From

Surefire ways to blow the interview include inappropriate conversations, becoming too casual (be particularly on guard during any meals you're invited to) and even saying you don't like accounting.

"We've had candidates say, ‘I love the interaction with clients but not doing the debits and credits,'" Levy says.

Showing a negative attitude or denigrating a former employer will also hurt your chances, Kelleher says. "Even if you've been fired, there are ways to talk about it without bad-mouthing the employer," she says. "People don't work very hard at camouflaging their resentment."

The one thing guaranteed to drive a stake through the heart of your interview with any accounting firm is dishonesty. "Integrity is a number-one criteria for administration into Ernst & Young," Kelleher says.

Expect Fast Results

While the Big Four interview process may be grueling and intense, it likely won't be drawn out. After you interview, the Big Four will make an offer or cut you loose pretty quickly. "Assuming we have a number of candidates, we try to get back with them within 48 hours to a week," Levy says. 

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