Crafting the Perfect Big 4 ApplicationThe Complete Step-by-Step Guide
It’s really quite simple.
There are just three things that you need to master to almost guarantee yourself a Big 4 position. Each one as important as the next.
Networking, application and interview. That’s it.
In this guide we’re going to analyze the approach you need to follow to properly prepare your Big 4 application.
But first a reality check. It doesn’t matter whether you personally know a Big 4 Partner or your GPA is 4.0.
(Discount this at your peril.)
A great application can make the difference between securing the Big 4 position that your skills deserve, and being left out in the cold.
The Big 4 Application Process
Applying for your dream job is pretty scary.
Understandably you’ll have some doubts.
What if they don’t like your application? What if they do like it and you have to attend an interview? What if your Big 4 contact says they’ll hand over your resume but they don’t?
What if, what if…?!
The first part of this guide will help overcome that fear of the unknown. We’ll break down the exact process you’ll go through, whichever route you come through.
And we’ll throw in some secret top tips from our team along the way.
You attend a Big 4 target school.
Good job, your pathway to the Big 4 as either an intern or new hire is going to be a lot more straightforward (though not necessarily easier) than your non-target peers.
But whatever you do, don’t get complacent.
Being at a target school doesn’t make you special. The Big 4 just prefer to recruit from target schools because it’s easier.
Recruiting for the Big 4 is all about hiring the best candidates with the smallest amount of effort. The Big 4 make money by serving large corporate clients, NOT by spending days trawling through student resumes.
So for all the great Big 4 networking events and office visits that target status gives you (yes, you must attend them ALL), there’s still one huge factor working against you.
There might be a hundred other candidates from your school that are applying for the same positions as you. So you’ll really need to stand out because the recruiters will compare all the resumes and cover letters from your school directly with one another.
While it might be much more difficult for a great non-target candidate to get access to the right Big 4 recruiters in the first place, once they do they won’t have this level of direct competition from their peers.
What can you do to beat the competition?
Your school will have an internal application process that you’ll need to go through. Make sure you know the deadlines ahead of time as they’re often very early in your senior year.
Being part of a reputable student organization can help a lot here. Many organizations have this information widely available to their members.
Speak to your careers center and get all the information that you can. You need to know:
- When the campus interviews are going to take place.
- How many candidates will be hired.
- Last minute things you can do to improve your resume.
Speak to your mentor and see if they can offer insights into their recruiting experience.
What extra research can you do on the firms and position BEFORE you even secure an interview?
These factors will help you stand out from all that competition.
But this isn’t even the worst part!
I guarantee you that everyone at your school will be using the same resume template provided by the school careers center. How in the world can you stand out when your application looks like everyone else’s?
It’s this simple: don’t use generic templates!
I know from experience that reading through 50+ resumes that look exactly the same is mind-numbingly dull. A resume that looks slightly different from the rest instantly stands out.
To be clear, I’m not advocating using outrageous resume designs or new-age cover letters. The Big 4 are highly professional organizations and they’ll be looking for something sleek and to the point.
The best resume template is one that looks good on the eye and is easy to read and get the required information from.
So you’re a non-target candidate.
First off, don’t panic, it’s possible for ANYONE with the right skills and attitude to join the Big 4.
Did you read the target school candidate section above? If you didn’t, go back and do it now. Because everything I mentioned there is the exact opposite for you.
There won’t be emails from your career center reminding you of deadlines.
There’ll be no automated school system for applying.
You really need to put in the hard work yourself. And because of this, having a mentor is pretty crucial for you.
Whether you’re an intern or new hire candidate, the approach required is pretty much the same.
Top Tip: we always recommend trying to intern at the Big 4 if you can. It’s often easier to get an internship than a full time position, and once the firms know you do good work your path to a full time position will be that much easier. Another great and lesser known approach here is to try and intern at the Big 4 in any field. Even if you want to be an auditor, intern in the forensic department or a smaller tax department. It’s that Big 4 name on your resume and networking potential that you’re looking for.
And the best part for you is this…
Once you’ve put in the hard work, and because I already know that you’re a great candidate, you will have almost zero competition for the role. That’s something target school candidates will dream about!
So the important factors for a non-target application are:
Yes, that’s not a typo, you read it right.
The only (ONLY) way you’ll get in is if someone from the Big 4 knows you and passes your resume to the recruiter with a personal recommendation.
Of course your resume and cover letter must be top notch, but they won’t do much good remaining on your hard drive.
We’ve got some great strategies for getting in from a non-target here.
And another word of warning…
DO NOT ONLY APPLY ONLINE.
We’ve said it before, but applying online as your only option is doomed to failure. Unless you have some insane experience or education (Harvard PhD for example) your resume will never been seen again.
You may think that coming into the Big 4 after you’ve finished school is pretty much impossible.
You’d be very wrong.
The Big 4 are always looking for talented candidates.
As people-driven organizations, the Big 4 don’t own any factories or other big assets–the only way they can grow is by hiring more and more people.
More people = more money.
So even if you’ve applied for the Big 4 already and didn’t get in, all is not lost. After 1 or 2 years working in a related role, you’ll become immensely more valuable.
Think about it like this. Would the Big 4 rather hire a candidate straight from school that has no real life experience, or a candidate who has been working for a top 50 accounting firm or boutique consulting firm and has a proven track record?
It’s a no brainer really.
The Big 4 are actively looking for people just like you, that’s a given. But the problem is that they don’t have refined processes in place to find you.
So you need to do the work. Because if you don’t then some other candidate will.
You need to network hard.
Without those Big 4 contacts you’ll have a very tough time of it.
And because those networking meetings with Big 4 recruiters are not going to be put in front of you on a plate, you’ll need to be a little creative in how you find the connections. So here’s a little helping hand
What Are The Big 4 Looking For In A Candidate?
Before we get into specifics on how to write a great resume or cover letter, we need to think conceptually about what the Big 4 actually want from a candidate.
Otherwise it’s like trying to write a novel before you’ve even thought about the characters or plot.
It probably wouldn’t be the next bestseller…
So what do the Big 4 actually want?
They want a Complete Candidate.
It’s not just about a high GPA, or being accounting society president, or even passing your CPA.
A Complete Candidate is someone who has:
- great technical ability
- exam results to back it up
- good social skills
- a great personality
- relevant work and leadership experience
- evidence of drive and ambition to succeed
We know from personal experience, the Big 4 would rather hire someone with a 3.4 GPA and great social skills rather than a 4.0 uber-nerd. The key here is to be a well-rounded individual. That’s what they want.
This is because client service is as (if not more) important than technical ability.
If you can evidence positions of responsibility, that’s a great example of this. If you’ve been elected by your peers then there must be something about you that people like and relate to.
Don’t fill your resume and cover letter only with examples of your technical wizardry.
Mention the volunteer work you did, or the team you led during your work experience.
That’s how you become a complete candidate, and that’s exactly what the Big 4 want.
These are the character traits that achieve the most at the Big 4. There are many people at the Big 4 who are as technically gifted as the Partners, but it’s the Partners who have also mastered the sales and people side too.
The Mistakes that Everyone Makes(and How You Can Avoid Them)
We get this question probably more than any other:
“What are the biggest mistakes that people make when applying to the Big 4?”
I’ve seen people do crazy things. But it’s often the smaller mistakes that hurt great candidates. And honestly, these mistakes are annoying and will relegate you to the bottom of the pile pretty quickly.
So in addition to telling you what not to do, I’m going to show you how to properly correct the problem.
#1: Not Planning Ahead
You’re a great candidate.
Drafting a compelling resume and cover letter should be easy, right?
Well, there’s a reason the topic of poor applications comes up again and again here at The LAB.
The problem is this:
Nobody thinks about their resume or cover letter until they’re about to apply for a job.
Out of the blue an opportunity to join the Big 4 presents itself and…you aren’t prepared at all.
Or even worse, you knew Fall recruiting was coming but didn’t make time to prepare.
That’s not a good place to be.
So it doesn’t matter if you’re a student, experienced hire, someone just browsing jobs, or you’re coming from a non-traditional background, you need to constantly be updating your resume.
This is the same advice we give to the professionals who are already working in the Big 4 too.
If you don’t do this, you’ll end up rushing to compile a list of your last 5-10 years of achievements in just a few days.
I can tell you now that the end result will not be worthy of the Big 4.
A trick I learned from a Senior Manager at Deloitte is this: Open a document, save it to your desktop and call it, “Accomplishments”. Any time you do anything noteworthy, take 2 minutes and write about it in as much detail as possible.
When it comes time to write your resume (and down the line your year-end and mid-year reviews), you’ll have a giant bank to pull from.
This has saved me on more than one occasion.
It’s very easy to forget what you did 6+ months ago, much less to be able to go into a high level of detail about it.
Another big issue with not making sure your resume is 100% complete?
Annoying the interviewer.
And you definitely don’t want to do that!
I’ve experienced it so many times while interviewing at the Big 4.
A potential candidate will elaborate on a fantastic achievement during an interview. And then the obvious thought will come to mind…
Why wasn’t this in the resume?!
It will lead the interviewer to question the rest of your application. What else did they miss? Why am I having to drag this information out of them now?
You don’t want the interviewer to go down that path.
But wait, that’s not all!
It’s not only about misrepresenting your achievements. Rushing to put together your application in general is a recipe for disaster. Your structure will likely be wrong. There might be typos. Do these and you’ll never even have the chance to meet the interviewer.
And if you’re really pressed for time you might do the unthinkable and use a generic non-Big 4 resume template from your careers center or even (and this pains me even to say it) some random site on the internet.
Please do not do that.
(P.s. Big 4 Career LAB is NOT some random site. So if you want a super detailed, step-by-step guide to writing your Big 4 resume click here).
The recruiter will know. They will not be pleased.
So what’s the solution?
The key to avoiding this major mistake is to constantly think and plan ahead.
Use this helpful quote: “Write it down now because you’ll forget it later.”
Not only is this a proven technique that a lot of people don’t do, this is guaranteed to bleed over into more than just the recruiting process.
This will set you up for long-term success.
#2: Not Tailoring Your Resume for Each Specific Job
Most candidates rush to create their resume and cover letter and then proceed to send it to every company they apply to.
What’s so wrong with that might you ask?
Well, when you see hundreds of resumes a month (like most Big 4 hiring managers) you develop a knack for noticing whether an application is generic or not.
It becomes obvious when someone copied and pasted their introduction email and cover letter from one company to the next.
Again (and we’ve said it before), when only 1 in 20 candidates secure a position at the Big 4…
You NEED to STAND OUT!
Even though you might be applying to ten different public accounting firms, they will each have their own quirks and firm culture. You must take note of this and amend your application accordingly.
Here’s an example:
Meeting hard deadlines, working without constant guidance, and being proactive are hugely important skills that the Big 4 need, but that a smaller accounting firm might not.
The smaller firm might be more interested in whether you can tell a debit from a credit (exaggerating here, but you get the picture).
So think about the position you’re applying for and tailor everything accordingly.
#3: Concentrating Only on GPA
Ok, so we all know that people with 4.0s have an easier job of getting hired.
But the harsh reality is that even those with perfect test scores are not guaranteed an interview (just ask experienced hires, GPA is almost meaningless at that point).
I should know…I personally saw people with 4.0s not get hired by the Big 4.
That’s because a lot of candidates believe GPA is the only factor in landing an interview. This often means that candidates with lower GPAs try harder and are generally more successful.
People assume that if their GPA is over 3.5, they deserve an interview.
Nope, sorry buddy.
While the Big 4 generally do have a “minimum” GPA requirement which you must reach, typically around 3.0 for most positions, there are ways to make up for any shortfall in grade points.
Think about it this way.
The primary reason GPA is used as a screening tool at all is because larger companies have hundreds upon hundreds of applicants who they’ve never met. GPA is an easy way to narrow down the field.
But once you’re past this hurdle, GPA barely matters.
Your other technical and soft skills are infinitely more important than your GPA.
You want to be somewhere between a 4.0 GPA and zero soft skills and a 2.8 GPA with all the soft skills.
Have a good GPA. Volunteer. Take up leadership roles. Work. Have interesting hobbies.
If you haven’t noticed all of these things we talk about involve putting yourself out there. Probably in uncomfortable situations.
This is key when it comes to growing as a complete candidate.
How to Write the Perfect Big 4 Resume
We’ve told you what not to do and what the Big 4 want.
So writing the perfect Big 4 resume and cover letter should be easy, right?
Well yes, it is. So long as you have the right tools.
You need a foolproof strategy to follow…