For undergraduates, accounting career fair is likely the first time you meet with official representatives from these firms. Career fairs range in size: it can be as small as a handful of reps in a function room, or it can be held in a resort with hundreds of local, regional and national companies across many industries.
General Career Fairs
These are big recruiting events organized by your college, or jointly with other nearby colleges to attractive more employers to attend. You will be able to meet not only Big 4 and other accounting firms, but also Fortune 500, regional and local companies.
Meet the Firms
Meet the Firms are smaller career fairs for the accounting and finance profession. Organized by your college’s accounting club or Beta Alpha Psi, they are usually bi-annual events: one during fall for full-time recruitment; another in winter to early spring for summer internships.
Typically an invitation-only event, the format varies from BBQ to a rather formal dinner. The firm rep to student ratio is higher and you can consider this a pre-interview event. BBQs are more casual, but at dinners you make polite small talk, partners and managers pimp their firms, while associates attend for free food, and you get to talk about why you are interested in that particular accounting firm.
People go to these fairs for different reasons. For those who are starting out, this is a good place for initial research. You can talk to recruiters and employee representatives from many firms and industries, and ask honest questions you might otherwise avoid in formal interviews. You can even ask some of them to review your resume and seek for their advice. From there you can narrow down your preference when it’s time for interviews.
For others who know which firms they are interested in, it’s a pre-interview process and a chance to leave a good impression.
Most organizers specify the dress code, but it is most likely business formal. Whatever people say, I would go for conservative business formal because this is what the recruiters and attending professionals expect to see.
I would also bring a nice leather resume holder with at least 10 copies of your resume; blank paper, pen as well as a place to hold all the business cards you will be collecting. For guys this means the suit pockets but ladies may need to think about where to put them.
If big accounting firms don’t attend your school’s campus fair, you might want to contact nearby schools and see if you can participate their fair. If you manage to get in (or sneak in), be honest to recruiters and tell them why you are there.
Most students are inexperienced in attending career fairs. You have a great advantage if you follow these steps and mentally go through what you will see and whom you will meet on the day.
1. Research Ahead
You don’t have time and energy to visit all attending firms. You must prioritize, and research helps narrow down your choices. I would pick 4-6 companies to allow sufficient time for you to chat with the representatives and leave a good impression.
2. Be Likeable
You have two goals in this fair:
The first goal is more important than the second in my opinion. Accounting firms host these recruiting events to scout candidates that are a good fit for their firm. If they like you, it’s good fit.
Part of your job as a public accountant is to talk to people on a daily basis, may it be your client, team or interns. Therefore, CPA firms look for candidates who can hold a decent conversation. I have suggestions below on questions for the associates and managers. If you run out of questions, you can also talk about your hobbies, sports, or whatever that click with that person. Just don’t get too carried away or else you’ll miss goal #2 (show them that you are serious).
3. Start with Your Least Favorite Firms
It is pretty normal to get nervous, and this affects your ability to converse naturally and be likable. To calm yourself down and boost your confidence, start chatting with people in the firms that you don’t really want to join. It could be the last choice among your 4-6 firms in mind, or it could be any company with friendly looking representatives. Once you are settled and excited to meet people, move on to your target firms.
4. Target the Associates, not the Partner
Your peers would naturally want to talk to partner or senior manager, since these guys are more important and have more say in the recruiting process.
While this is true, I don’t prefer this strategy.
I suggest that you talk to the junior accountants first. First, you don’t need to queue up and talk to them, and they are usually eager to talk to you because they want to appear to work hard.
Second, they are closer to your age, and are more helpful in answering your “real” questions (by that I mean questions you really want to get answers for, not those to impress).
Good questions include:
Don’t ask these bad questions:
Another important reason is that many attending associates and seniors are alumni of your school. That’s why they are at this career fair and not elsewhere. There are so many things in common that you can bring up and start an interesting conversation. Back to point #2, being able to carry a good conversation is the key to impress.
Once you think they like you enough, you can ask for their business cards, and even ask them to introduce you to their manager or above. It’s much better (and faster) to approach the partner this way.
5. Get Introduced to the Manager+
Being introduced by the associates is equivalent to a stamp of approval, and yes, the manager/SM/partner should pay more attention to you. To take advantage of this opportunity, don’t chit chat about random things with the partner. He is busy and easily distracted by the 20 students around him each trying to ask a question.
Begin by saying how helpful the associates have been telling you about the everyday life as a first year. Ride on that and ask similar question related to the senior guy. For example, if you have been discussing the various industry groups, ask about how the partner got into his group, or how life was like back then when he was a first year. Something that stirs his fond memory and hopefully connect his old self with you.
6. Wrap Up the Conversation
Be considerate and don’t talk to the partner for an hour. Besides, you have other firms to meet. Wrap up the conversation gracefully as soon as you think you’ve left a good impression. Get their contacts for follow up, thank them and leave.
7. Take Notes before Your Forget
Lots of things are going on at the career fair. It would be such as waste (or disaster) if you forget or mix up the details of whom you have talked to. John used to jot down tiny notes on the back of people’s business cards. I used to laugh at him but this is actually a quick and effective way to get organized.
8. Shoot Our Your Thank you Emails
While memory still fresh, write thank you emails to the people you had 3-5 minutes of good chat with. Customize each email with the sparks and highlight of the conversation. Express yourself as someone who is interested not just about a job, but the people who are representing the firm.
Some readers suggest to connect them using Linkedin. I haven’t tried sending thank you notes via Linkedin, but it’s a great idea to explore.
Campus recruiting is the easiest way to break into Big 4 and big accounting firms. It’s hard to stand out from the crowd with so many students there, but if implement the above strategies, you give yourself a great start. Good luck!
I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley), and I also passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam on my first try. Additionally, I have led webinars, such as for the Institute of Management Accountants, authored featured articles on websites like Going Concern and AccountingWeb, and I'm also the CFO for the charity New Sight. Finally, I have created other accounting certification websites to help mentor non-CPA candidates. I have already mentored thousands of CPA, CMA, CIA, EA, and CFA candidates, and I can help you too!