6 Strategies for Applicants with a Unique PathOur Guide for Non-Targets, Experienced Hires and Outside Industries

You took the ‘road less travelled’, except it hasn’t made all the difference yet.

The Big 4 now sit at the top of your career goal list. That’s great!

A lot of people only realize after graduation that they have what it takes to join the Big 4. In fact, one of our most asked questions is, “My situation is different because of [reason]…do you think I can get into the Big 4?!”

Most of the time the answer is, “Yes, but it’s going to take serious effort.”

So what exactly can you do then? Getting into the Big 4 with an unconventional background is tough. Not impossible, but pretty tough. Unlike recruiting at a target school, the Big 4 are not going to come to you.

You’ll have to go to them.

Get Your Exams Passed

CPA or any other relevant certification or industry exams. Other examples include internal audit (CIA), management accounting (CMA), financial analyst (CFA), or even your MBA.

Pros: Having your CPA (or other relevant industry qualification) will almost always be the first requirement, shows you’re 100% committed to the career path

Cons: Expensive, time consuming (but hey, you may have to do it at some point anyway), may need to attain the required hours to be eligible to sit

You’re going to eventually need to get your CPA to continue on past Senior at most, if not all, of the Big 4. There are some exceptions, but getting your CPA before or during the application process shows you’re serious about getting in.

Having the relevant certification to the career you want will put you at the top of the application stack.

Another benefit to this strategy is the long-term effect it’ll have on your career and life. Industry certifications can be the difference between a promotion or not. And looking long-term, possibly even executive level positions.

Now the challenges.

Specifically the CPA exams can be expensive, yes. Compared to your salary, it’ll be worth it in the long run. There is also the possibility you could be reimbursed by the firm for completing the exams when you start. Some firms give bonuses for passing all 4 within a year or two of starting.

It is time consuming and I’d recommend at least one month per exam, especially if you’ve been out of school for a while. We talk a lot about productivity and time management in regards to studying for exams in this post. For other certifications, your mileage may vary, but don’t expect any of them to be a walk in the park.

Think of it as an investment.

If you’re working and studying at the same time, that can be challenging, but learning how to deal with multiple things at once is a desirable skill the Big 4 look for naturally.

After putting in all of that effort, the feeling of passing an exam is exhilarating as you could tell through Chris’ story. This strategy is probably the best approach in the short and long term.

“Once I finished school (after a 10-year break), I started studying for the exams right away.  My wife was 7 months pregnant so I wanted to try and get a head start on studying before she had the baby.  My son was born 3 weeks before taking my first exam (FAR) and thankfully I was able to pass and have the confidence to know I could get through them all.  It was a really tough process and I had a few failures along the way, but it was one of the most rewarding accomplishments I’ve had.

Transitioning into public accounting after passing the exams was a pretty drastic change for me.  Being that I had no prior experience it was a little overwhelming and there was a steep learning curve.  I was fortunate enough to have a great boss who knew I didn’t come from an accounting background and was patient with me.

I remember not being able to sleep the night of the score release (like every other one) and getting out of bed at 1AM to check my scores.  I was sitting in the dark on my couch and my heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to come out of my chest.

I said a quick prayer before logging in to my NASBA account and literally started jumping around my apartment when I saw I passed and was done!  My wife woke up and started crying because she knew how hard I worked and she finally had her husband back! We both made sacrifices the past couple years and the whole process of going back to school and studying all the time took a toll on both of us.  I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it wasn’t for her support along the way so it was an accomplishment for both of us.

Passing the exams was everything to me and the main reason I went back to school and put my life on hold for 2.5 years.  I knew with my prior background in construction that employers wouldn’t take me seriously unless I passed them all. For me, the stakes were high and I knew I would probably end up back in construction if I had given up on them.” Christopher Rella

Formerly a Bricklayer turned CPA, By far our most interesting candidate background and an all around outstanding person.

Complete a Master’s Program at a Big 4 Target School

Pros: Access to networking events and student organizations, having a suitable masters will improve your chances of getting the job even more, can “reset” your GPA

Cons: Expensive, time consuming

Every year, students just like you begin their 4-year journey to a Bachelor’s degree without knowing what they want to do.

Understandable. I was completely overwhelmed with options when I first began college.

Perhaps you joined a non-target school without knowing – so it’s not even your fault. Now you’re aware of the advantage target schools provide and you’re ready to capitalize on those opportunities.

This is potentially the easiest method, and no doubt a common one, but understandably out of reach for some candidates.

If you have the slightest inclination that you may want to complete a Master’s degree in a relevant subject then definitely go for it. Masters in Accounting, Finance, MBA, etc.

Two things to consider:

  • If you’re going for your CPA hours requirements, make sure the program you’re applying for offers exactly what you need
  • Don’t go to a non-target school for your Master’s program. There is no real benefit for the amount of time and money you’ll spend on it (Holding a Master’s may make your application more compelling in the general sense, but do not complete a non-target Master’s on the assumption that it will improve your chances of securing a Big 4 career)

It’s the targeted nature of the school – and the direct access to recruiters it brings – that makes this approach so valuable.

With that being said, make sure you make the most of your Masters program by utilizing student organizations and networking events .

Oh and if your GPA is not great, then a Master’s program is one of the few ways to reset it.

Beg, Steal and Borrow Your Way to An Interview

Pros: Your best option for getting in right now without spending money

Cons: Potentially difficult

So now we come to our favorite topic and one of Big 4 Career LAB’s specialties. If you come from a unique background, this is really the only option you have for getting into the Big 4 now without spending more money or taking more time.

You’re an amazing candidate, right? All you need is the opportunity to showcase your abilities to an interviewer. We get it. But you need to be invited to interview, that’s the hard part.

Remember our mantra that the Big 4 recruiters are lazy and want to do their job as easily (for them) as possible? Your job is to make it easy for them to give you a job.

How do you do that?

You need:

  • An authentic personal brand
  • To network effectively
  • To ace the interview

Something you can work towards immediately: Building and utilizing your LinkedIn connections.

Once you get some solid connections, make it a point to ask them for a coffee somewhere by their office. Be straightforward and direct.

Now, going to coffee with a Manager isn’t going to guarantee you a spot if there’s nothing open. If you make a great impression (through your awesome personal brand and effective networking skills), then you can keep in touch and be in the back of their mind next time a spot opens.

The Experienced Hire Route

Pros: High success rate if you stick to the plan, you’ll get paid, you’ll join the Big 4 at a higher promotion level

Cons: Potentially most time consuming, not guaranteed if your experience isn’t relevant

Okay, so you tried networking, you don’t want to do another degree, etc. What options are left to you?

The experienced hire route.

For those candidates that really, truly struggle with networking, the experienced hire route is the best and only option. To clarify, an experienced hire is a candidate that is applying for a position that is above entry level, typically at the Senior level (for our purposes anyway).

You would be surprised how valuable and scarce good experienced hires are.

Typically someone trying to get into Big 4 later in their career is truly motivated to succeed. This increases your odds because a lot of people are typically exiting the Big 4 at the level you’ll be entering at.  

This is your approach: you apply for a firm that is ideally top 30 accounting, larger boutique consulting or tax law firm. You work at that company for around two years gaining as much experience as possible and passing all relevant exams.

“Do your best to work on the largest clients possible, that’s what really helped me get into EY from a smaller firm” Logan Allec

Manager at EY, Founder of MoneyDoneRight

While you’re there you continue your networking efforts and make connections with Big 4 employees in positions similar to yours.

Utilize the Young CPA network, professional organizations, and industry societies to your advantage. Industry societies means stuff like the Young Professionals in Energy, American Accounting Association(academia), Institute of Internal Auditors, Institute of Management Accountants, etc. Treat this how you would treat joining a student organization or attaining a mentor.

When the time is right you apply, either online directly to an opening (this is where applying online sometimes works, in this case the business really needs you), or through your contacts.

Fun fact: Did you know that Big 4 employees are rewarded with a finder bonus if they introduce an experienced hire to the business. This is why it’s much easier to network and get results if you’re an experienced hire.

If done right, it is really unlikely that this method will fail. So long as you network effectively, work toward the CPA exams, and you do good work for a reputable firm, then two years later you’re in. And the best thing, you go into the business at a higher level and you haven’t really lost anything compared with if you’d got the original job when you graduated!

It’s a great approach, but it takes dedication.

One more thing to be conscious of.

Relevant work experience. If you are working in a financial-based accounting job in industry, it might be really difficult for you to join PwC as an international tax senior. Make sure your experience aligns with the Big 4 position you are seeking.

Find a Position Where School Isn’t a Consideration

Pros: Easy(ish) once you’ve found the right fit

Cons: Very hard to find the right fit

No pun intended, the Big 4 are big. We talk about tax, audit and consulting all the time, but each Big 4 offers hundreds of auxiliary internal and external services that are outside of these realms (but closely related).

Want to work in international tax? Have you considered transfer pricing, VAT, tax management consulting, international assignment services (working with expatriates), tax technology, supply chain optimization? The list is extremely extensive.

While audit may hire 5,000 graduates a year, the digital marketing team may hire 5.

Now I’m not advocating that an accounting student applies for a digital marketing position (it wouldn’t work… trust me), the point is that there are literally hundreds of departments in very closely related fields that struggle to find candidates.

When a team is struggling to find candidates, there’s much less room to be picky.

To prove the point, I did a quick search of one of the Big 4 careers websites. The following jobs are prime for this type of application (assuming a finance/accounting background):

  • Cost Accountant, Arlington (this one seemingly doesn’t even have a minimum GPA requirement!)
  • Audit Analytics Specialist, Nationwide
  • Retail Cash Management Project Associate, Nationwide
  • Internal Controls Consultant, San Jose

Like we always say at Big 4 Career LAB, get yourself in the door first. When you’re first a Cost Accountant in Arlington, it’s far easier to become an auditor in NYC than if you apply straight to NYC audit along with 10,000 other candidates.

It’s an art and you’re not guaranteed to be successful, but it’s a structured approach that can work wonders. If you’ve done your networking properly, try reaching out to your contacts to see if they have any insider information on teams that are struggling to hire.

Also, don’t be afraid to try something new if it could mean inching you closer to your long-term goals.

Be Open to Relocation

Pros: Experience life in another city, state, or country. More opportunities than normal.

Cons: Difficult with family, completely dependent upon what’s available upon application

Just like you saw above, there are Big 4 positions open all over the United States right now. Especially if you have a little bit of relevant experience.

Most people aren’t open to relocation, so by letting that be known up front, that increases your odds.

It also shows that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to work for their company, which is a desirable attribute.

Having your CPA or a little work experience could also assist in this strategy. Regardless, it’s a bold approach that increases your overall odds when applying.

If you have some specific locations in mind, then think ahead and make sure to start networking on LinkedIn. This will give you a head start, because applying blindly is a losing game unless you’ve got some specialty experience.

Pick your contact’s brains about the local culture and see if it’s a good fit if you’ve only been a few times (or not at all).

While this option is not for everyone, it’s definitely something to keep in mind for those looking for adventure and aren’t afraid to travel away from home.

(A Hail Mary) – Apply Online

Pros: Almost zero effort

Cons: Almost zero chance of success unless you fall into a specific group

Oh if I had a dollar for every time I heard a student say that they applied online and didn’t hear anything back.

I bet you didn’t know that, ideally, the Big 4 wouldn’t even have online applications.

Remember that the recruiter is always trying to make their job as easy as possible and believe me, interviewing ten candidates at a Big 4 target school in one day is much easier than trawling through hundreds of online applications from Big 4 non-target schools, most of which won’t make the grade.

But the online application process exists for a reason. It is to catch experienced hires, non-typical candidates with unbelievable knowledge or experience that would make the resume reviewer take note, such as a PhD from Harvard, or for a niche service areas that sometimes struggles to fill places.

Can you spot the difference between this ‘option’ and the other ‘strategies’?

That’s right, the others require legitimate effort. Putting yourself “out there”.

This option is the most passive thing you could do, and that’s exactly why it gets the worst results.

So, unless you fall into one of the above categories, I wouldn’t recommend applying online as the best option, particularly for something broad like audit or business tax. Do it, by all means, but don’t expect results.

Putting It All Together

Coming from a unique background makes your job search harder, but by no means impossible. To be successful, pick a strategy and get started.

Stack a few of the strategies to get the best results. Working towards the CPA or other relevant designation will never hurt. Start making connections now, keep up with them, utilize them when necessary.

And always: remember to have a positive mindset.

“If you want to get into Big 4, don’t focus on why you can’t; focus on why you can.” Logan Allec

Manager at EY, Founder of MoneyDoneRight

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