Getting work experience in an accounting firm

Work experience and internships are part of the turf for those seeking graduate jobs in accountancy. We answer your questions about the kind of work experience on offer and how to be an ace when applying for it.
Getting work experience in an accounting firm
An internship is not a ticket to a job but it can raise your chances significantly

For many students, a formal internship is a first foray into the world of finance. They are an opportunity to get to know the sector, make contacts and see whether an employer or a type of work is a good fit. An internship is of course also a great opportunity to boost your application for full-time jobs. Some firms, such as Deloitte, formally require you to have some work experience on your CV. It expects to see at least four weeks' worth, although they don't have to be consecutive weeks or a formal internship.

‘Internship programmes benefit both the students who take part and the graduate recruiters who run them,’ says Stephen Isherwood, senior manager in graduate recruitment at EY. ‘Both can find out about the other before making firm career choices.’ You will need to put some effort into finding the right internship, however, and even more into making a successful application.

What is an internship?

Internships offer a structured introduction to working life in the sector and the organisation. Most are aimed at students in their penultimate year of study and run for eight to ten weeks during the summer, but some organisations also offer shorter ‘taster’ programmes.

As an intern, you should be treated as a member of the team and given meaningful work to do. ‘Internships allow employers to attract high-calibre undergraduates to their graduate programmes at an early stage,’ says Joy Lesslie, graduate recruitment manager at Standard Life. ‘You’ll often be given the chance to tackle key pieces of work and projects that can really help the business.’

What’s in it for me?

You will get to test your skills in live situations, explore your career options and gain an insight into the organisation. It’s an unrivalled opportunity to find out about different areas of the business and to network with other professionals and like-minded ambitious students. An internship is not a ticket to a job but it can raise your chances significantly: Deloitte aims to offer 80% of its interns full-time jobs, PwC 85%. Some firms, such as Grant Thornton, will fast track their interns through the application process.

‘Many people who do an internship get a job offer at the end of summer,’ Stephen confirms. ‘So they don’t have the additional stress of having to apply during their final year.’ If you play your cards right and perform well, you could find yourself in this happy situation. On the other hand, you might find that the area of work or the organisation isn’t right for you – it’s much better to discover this during an internship than after you’ve graduated and accepted a permanent offer.

An internship can still point you in the right direction, though. ‘It could be that another area or department within the organisation appeals to you more,’ Joy comments. ‘You may be able to negotiate a different role if you are offered a permanent job.’

How do I find the right internship?

You will usually be expected to apply for a particular business area so it’s important to spend time exploring the different divisions and career opportunities that exist within a firm before submitting your application – this can seem bewildering at first. Grant Thornton, for example, offerns internships in all five of its divisions. Attending company presentations, speaking to students who have completed internships and reading organisations’ websites will help you gain an understanding of the business areas and also give you a feel for the culture of the organisation.

How do I prepare for applications and interviews?

Apply early! Many focused students will apply long before the deadline, so consider doing the same – if you leave it too late, recruiters may already have offered the internships to strong candidates who applied earlier than you. Also, treat the internship application as seriously as you would the application for a full-time position. Think about your skills and how they might be relevant to the role you’re applying for. If you haven’t got any work experience, think about skills you’ve picked up in other ways, for example during extra-curricular activities.

Recruiters like to see applicants who have done their research and can explain why they are interested in a career in this sector. Academic qualifications alone won’t get you a place – it’s important to show that you have an aptitude for the business, and genuine curiosity and enthusiasm will also help you stand out.

Recruiters will routinely ask questions about the job role and about the area(s) of accountancy and financial management that the company operates in, so be prepared for questions such as ‘What do you think you would do as an auditor?’ or ‘What do you think you are going to do in the first year?’ They are looking for a realistic understanding of what’s involved in the role you are applying for and for your answers to suggest what strengths and attributes you have to equip you for the role. Make sure you keep up to date with what’s going on in the world by reading the business press and not just on the day of your interview.

How can I make the most of the experience?

To start with, recognise that you’ll be working in a professional environment: make sure you’re on time and dressed appropriately. ‘Ask for feedback on your performance from an early stage,’ advises Joy. ‘You need to do your absolute best during the short time you are with the company.’ Let your enthusiasm shine through and really get involved – a ‘can do’ attitude can really help you stand out.

‘On paper your work experience may look really good,’ says Stephen, ‘but you won’t have developed your commercial awareness if you haven’t looked around and picked up the kind of things a good candidate does: how a business is managed, and how it deals with customers.’

What if I can’t get an internship?

Many firms offer tasters such as BDO’s Insight days, Skills Sessions run by the likes of Deloitte and KPMG, or three-day residential courses run by EY, which give you a chance to meet recruiters and learn about the employer you’re interested in. Also, read our article about alternatives to internships.