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Top questions students ask about accountancy careers

The top ten student FAQs about accountancy careers

Find out the answers to the top ten questions most commonly asked by students about graduate careers in accountancy.
Accountants develop a variety of skills which can be highly transferrable to other areas of business.

Careers advisers hear a range of questions from students interested in a career in accountancy, usually concerning the type of roles that are available, the type of firm students should apply to and the experience and skills required to make a successful application.

What skills will I need for a career in accountancy?

You will need a range of skills as accountancy is definitely not just about number crunching. Employers seek graduates who have good numerical and analytical skills, but also place a lot of emphasis on communication skills, as you are going to be representing the company in meetings and in consultation with a wide range of clients. You will need to be able to problem solve and show initiative, and you will need to be flexible and willing to travel to various sites to carry out your work.

There seem to be a lot of options in accountancy: how do I choose the right one for me?

There are a variety of ways you can become a chartered accountant, and there are many different job roles once you start work. You could be considering working in audit, which is looking at the accounts of other companies and ensuring that they are meeting obligations and maximising their resources. You could be considering working in tax, where you might be advising a company about the best way to pay tax to the government so that it is operating within the law but also maximising the profit the company makes. You could be considering working for a firm to manage its in-house accounts, keeping them on track and in budget as well as helping to decide how any profits can be used to maximise the benefit to the company and its shareholders. To find the best choice for you, research each option by looking at the TARGETjobs employer hubs, on company websites and at employee profiles. You will need to consider your skills and strengths and think about how these might suit each of the different roles that are available. It is also really useful to talk to people working in accountancy or get some work experience. You could use Linkedin to connect with people and find out about their role or you could approach an accountancy firm to ask about work shadowing. You could also apply for an internship.

How do I get an internship in accountancy?

Most of the big accountancy firms offer internships to students in their penultimate year of study. Some also offer insight experiences to first year students who want to find out more about the profession. To find an internship with one of the big accountancy firms you will need to look here or on their website and apply online. Smaller firms can sometimes offer work experience but you might have to make a speculative application to them. Make contact with them to find out whether they would be prepared to let you come into the office and complete some work experience. You can send your CV and a cover letter to explain more about yourself and the skills you could offer them.

How important is my degree classification and A level results when I'm applying for a job in accountancy?

Recruiters in accountancy firms have traditionally been very keen to see good academic results from their successful applicants and have often asked for at least a 2.1 in your degree and more than 300 UCAS points. More recently however there has been a change in approach to academic qualifications and many of the larger recruiters are starting to look more broadly at skills and competencies rather than relying on academic achievement to narrow the recruitment field. That said, accountancy is still a very popular and competitive area of graduate work to get into so doing the best you can in your degree will be important. It's always best to check on the individual company website to find out what their academic entry criteria are before starting your application.

What is the application process like for a career in accountancy?

The application process can vary depending on the employer and it's important to check the information on the company website to know what to expect. Many of the large graduate recruiters have a rigorous process of an online application form followed by online testing,  such as verbal, numerical, non-verbal and situational judgement testing. This is then followed by either a telephone or increasingly a video interview, which is in turn followed by an assessment centre and interview. The assessment centre activities may include more online tests, group exercises, written exercises, presentations and interviews. Many students find the process daunting and it is advisable to get help from your university careers service with making applications, practising tests and preparing for assessment centres and interviews. Smaller accountancy firms, in most cases, have a much simpler application process as they don't have the budget to support such lengthy activities. They may simply ask you to submit a CV and cover letter and then go for a face to face interview.

What do accountants actually do?

Accountants prepare and examine financial records to ensure they are accurate and that a business is financially stable as well as meeting its obligations with regard to paying taxes to the government. Some accountants work ‘in house’ for a business and are only responsible for looking after the financial records and planning for the particular company that they work for. Other accountants work for an accountancy firm which will sell their services to other businesses in order to help them with their financial planning and monitoring. All accountants need to be able to work accurately with numbers and be trustworthy in delivering results.

Can I move into another finance role if I decide I don't like accountancy?

There is some scope to move around within finance and the qualifications associated with gaining chartered accountancy status are highly regarded in business. People often move from professional services roles to management and financial planning roles. Accountants develop a variety of skills which can be highly transferrable to other areas of business. These include working effectively with people, managing projects and following complex processes.

What is the training like?

In most case training is on the job, and employers are keen to give early responsibility to new recruits. If you are training to become profesionally qualified you will also need to completea series of exams and will need to study hard both at college and in your own time to get through these. You can find out more about the types of qualification that are available by looking on the websites of the professional bodies for accountancy and reading TARGETjob's introduction to professional accountancy bodies.

I don't want to work in a corporate environment - are there other options open to me in accountancy?

Yes, any business, public sector organisation or charity needs an accountant, whether they employ someone directly or use the services of a professional accountancy firm. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) supports accountants who want to train to work in public finance and there are other graduate schemes such as the Civil Service and National Graduate Development Programme that have finance routes. It is also possible to find accountancy roles in charities, although these positions usually require candidates who are part or fully qualified and have some experience.

What can I do while I'm at university to maximise my chance of getting a graduate job in accountancy?

There are lots of things you can do at university to improve your chances of success in getting a graduate job in accountancy. Gaining work experience during your vacation times, or even alongside your studies, is a great way to develop relevant skills and test out whether working in accountancy is for you. Many graduate employers offer first year insight experiences and second/penultimate year internships, and you should definitely consider applying for these. Even practising getting through the recruitment process can be extremely valuable for the future. Part-time work in hospitality or retail can also be useful as it allows you to develop some of the skills that employers are looking for. Many student unions have a variety of societies available to students and becoming involved in a society can help you gain new skills. Perhaps consider putting yourself forward for a role as treasurer, in order to practise looking after budgets and accounts. Work experience doesn’t have to be paid or substantial but it should give you an opportunity to develop skills and give you something to talk about when making job applications.

Written by Clare Dawson, University of Birmingham. December 2016