How to get an internship (or three) at a Big Four accounting firm

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Many students complete one internship, and some complete two – but rare is the person who even attempts to do three.

Enter Sushant Chawla. An economics and engineering student at the Queensland University of Technology, Sushant completed consecutive internships at Ernst and Young, Deloitte and KPMG at the end of 2015.

The experience, he says, was invaluable, providing him with insights into the culture and career development opportunities of each company. It also left him with some helpful tips for other students eager to complete an internship (or three) at a Big Four firm.

1. Start early and make a good first impression  

Sushant’s applications - which emphasised his extracurricular activities and time spent working for international not-for-profit organizations (AIESEC and Enactus) - were already quite impressive. However, according to Sushant, what made the biggest difference was his decision to attend on-campus careers fairs early on in his degree and introduce himself to the representatives of larger firms.

“It helps to remember that each of the Big Four firms receive hundreds, if not thousands, of applications for each available role,” he says. “So I think it really helps when they can connect a friendly and familiar face to your name.”

2. Manage the application process carefully

With exams and assessments never far away, Sushant's first challenge when it came to the internship application process was simply finding enough time to complete it.

“All of the Big Four firms start accepting applications around  March,” he says. “And that's exactly when semester one starts getting intense.”

Even after the initial application forms were submitted, he still needed to find time for subsequent interviews and psychometric tests. As a result, Sushant had to be careful with his scheduling.

“Each of the firms I applied to required candidates to complete a video interview, a group interview, an online psychometric test and a one-on-one interview,” he says. “I definitely found it helpful to focus my energy on the tasks where I thought I could really stand out. For me, that meant prioritising the face-to-face interviews.”

3. Develop soft skills           

When asked how he, or the other successful candidates, stood out during interviews, Sushant answered with two words: soft skills.

On paper, he explains, a lot of candidates appear quite similar to each other. They're intelligent, often experienced, and able to provide impressive academic credentials. By contrast, soft skills – such as the ability to work in a team, manage your time, communicate effectively, give a presentation, or coach people – must be demonstrated.

“The group interview is all about seeing how well you work with others to complete a complex task,” he says. “That's where people who have developed soft skills really shine.”

The good news? There might actually be something to learn from your next vexing group assignment or class presentation – and you never know when such skills will come in handy.

4. Figure out what you value in your job – and make sure you'll be able to get it

For many soon-to-be graduates, an internship is one way to secure a graduate role at a reputable firm. So it's essential that they identify what they want from their job before checking whether the firm will be able to provide it.

As far as Sushant was concerned, few things were as important as the culture of his workplace. After a month at each firm, he had a well-informed sense of where he'd best fit in.

“They were all fantastic places to work and I got to meet heaps of inspiring people,” he says. “But, for me, the creative culture at Deloitte gave it an edge because that's exactly what I was looking for.”

5. Remember that the firm wants you too

Internships are hard work. Over the course of three months, Sushant provided full-time support in a busy tax department at Ernst and Young; designed and implemented an internal client reporting solution at Deloitte; and oversaw technological solutions at KPMG.

While working on these projects, Sushant tried to impress his supervisors (and potential future employers). However, he emphasises the importance of remembering that interns aren't the only ones trying to impress – so are the firms, which might want to hire talented interns later on.

This is an empowering fact to keep in mind. If you've received an internship, the chances are that you've already demonstrated motivation, aptitude, and an ability for consistent hard work. So don't be shy about asking internship supervisors what they can offer you as a graduate.

The payoff

For Sushant, being curious, candid and committed during his internships paid off. He received offers from all three of the firms that he interned for and accepted a full-time graduate position at Deloitte.

“I have no doubts that Deloitte is the place for me,” he says. “I asked a lot of tough questions as an intern, so it was easy for me to say yes when they offered me the graduate position.”

When it comes to the value of completing an internship, Sushant is similarly decisive.

“If you have the opportunity to do an internship, go for it,” he says. “You'll learn so much that a brochure can never teach you about life in a firm – and that makes all the difference when you search for jobs later on.”