Getting work experience in an accounting firm

Getting work experience in an accounting firm
An internship can be a first step towards a graduate job in accountancy. We answer your questions about applying for work experience and making the most of it.
Treat the internship application as seriously as you would the application for a full-time position.

For many students, a formal internship is their first foray into the world of accountancy. Internships 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. Work experience 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. Sophie Kelly completed an internship at Smith & Williamson and is now working as a trainee in business tax at the firm. She comments: ‘‘The internship helped me understand the work the firm did, and that I would be coming into a very supportive department. It also gave my employer a chance to get to know me, and see how I would work within the department.’

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.

What will I do during an internship?

As an intern, you should be treated as a member of the team and given meaningful work to do, similar to (if not the same as) the work carried out by new starters on the graduate programme. You’ll often be given the chance to tackle key pieces of work and projects that can really help the business. ‘The work has been interesting and engaging so far. As a new starter I may have had to do one or two more menial tasks, but this was something I expected and certainly does not happen often,’ comments an intern at Mazars (via TARGETjobs Inside Buzz).

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.

If you play your cards right and perform well, you could find yourself in the happy situation of getting a job offer at the end of your internship. 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. You may be able to negotiate a different role if you are offered a permanent job

Richard Jones, an audit associate at Grant Thornton, who did an internship with PwC during the summer after his second year, comments, ‘My time at PwC definitely helped me in the interview for the placement here. The bit of experience I had in accountancy showed I had some knowledge and I was able to draw on real-life experience.’

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. 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?

First of all, 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. Then let your enthusiasm shine through and really get involved – a ‘can do’ attitude can really help you stand out.

According to recruiters we’ve spoken to, some of the biggest mistakes interns make during their placements are:

  • Acting like they know everything – sometimes even assuming they know more than those with full-time positions. This also extends to trying to be helpful and updating systems, which isn’t appreciated as it can create more work.
  • Being late. Apparently, nothing is said if you’re a little late, but it’s noted.
  • Leaving early. The general advice for interns with nothing to do is to find things to research. Using your initiative will be far more attractive to an employer than spending hours twiddling your thumbs.
  • Not showing willing. Interns are expected to be enthusiastic, even when all they’re doing is photocopying.
  • Consistently making mistakes. If you make a mistake, you’re expected to learn from it quickly. Work should be double checked and shown to other interns for review.

Avoid doing any of the above, and you’ll be well on your way to making a success of your internship.

What if I can’t get an internship?

Many firms offer tasters such as BDO’s Insight days, PwC’s Talent Academy, Deloitte’s ‘Spring into Deloitte’ event, EY’s Leadership Academy or Skills Sessions run by the likes of KPMG, which give you a chance to meet recruiters and learn about the employer you’re interested in. Make sure you read our article about alternatives to internships.

There’s a good chance too that these tasters can increase your chances of getting an internship the following year. Haydn, an assurance associate with PwC, tells us, ‘I attended PwC’s Talent Academy in my first year of university which gave me an insight into the world of professional services. I then completed an internship with PwC in my second year before being offered a graduate job.’

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