If you want to work in finance and you're not confident of your ability to get into investment banking, you might want to try the Big Four accountancy firms of Deloitte, KPMG, PWC and EY. After all, they hire thousands of graduates annually and are reportedly three times easier to get into than the big investment banks. They also pay moderately well, with starting salaries averaging £25k.
However, just because the Big Four are easier to get into, that doesn't mean they're easy.
PWC tells us that it plans to make 1,400 full time graduate hires in the UK in 2016, along with 600 interns and school leavers. For these 2,000 roles it received 39,000 applications, putting the acceptance rate at 5%. Other Big Four firms have similar acceptance rates: KPMG hires around 1,000 people in the UK and receives around 20,000 applications; Deloitte receives around 30,000 applications for 2,000 entry level positions; EY receives 12,000 applications for 800 UK graduate positions.
If you want to work for the Big Four, you'll therefore need to know your stuff. This is how to make it through their process.
1. Know which Big Four division you want to work for and why
Yes, you want to work for the Big Four, but which division do you want to work for? Big Four firms have a variety of different divisions, including audit, consulting, tax, technology and advisory. Before applying you need to be clear about where you want to work and why.
Andrew Bargery, campus and schools engagement leader at PWC in the UK, says students are asked to specify a particular business area when they apply. "We want students to have a definite idea of where they want to work and why they want to get into a particular business area," says Bargery.
At PWC, 50% of applicants go into audit/assurance. The next biggest area of junior recruitment at the firm is consulting, followed by tax, advisory, actuarial and technology.
2. Apply for internships at accounting firms, but don't assume it's all over if you don't get one
If you want to work for an investment bank, it's imperative that you get yourself a summer internship: internships are a crucial part of banks' recruitment process.
The same does not apply to the Big Four. "We don't have the same approach to internships as investment banks," says Rob Dyer, head of graduate recruitment at Deloitte UK. "Last year around 30% of our graduate hires came from our intern programme."
"We hire 1,400 graduates annually and take on around 350 summer interns," says Bargery at PWC. "Even if all those interns convert [to full time hires] - and 90% do - we will still be going back to the market with 1,000 full time graduate vacancies. If you don't get a summer internship, don't assume that you can't get a job in the accounting sector."
3. Apply to accounting firms' offices, not London
While investment banks are focused in the City of London, the Big Four accounting firms have offices all over the UK. And they hire graduates into most of them.
If you're applying for a graduate job, the London office will be hardest to get into.
"At graduate level, we receive the most applications for our London office," says Dyer at Deloitte. Bargery says it's the same at PWC: "London is always very popular. It has far more opportunities, but also far more applicants. Our message is always that you can have a great career outside London."
4. Think about applying to PWC, EY, Deloitte and KPMG before you go to university
Large accounting firms have been particularly proactive when it comes to organizing apprenticeships, 'school leaver programmes' and even running their own university courses. EY offers a five year structured training programme for school leavers. Deloitte runs a five year structured 'Bright Start' programme for people who want to apply without going to university. KPMG has a school and college leavers programme for people who want to go into audit. And PWC runs a range of apprenticeships and a degree programme.
5. You won't need high UCAS points to get into PWC. You will need them to get into EY, KPMG, Deloitte
Academic screening is an element of most Big Four firms' recruitment process and is the first hurdle you'll need to cross if you want to get in. KPMG requires 300-340 UCAS points for its programmes. Deloitte looks for the equivalent of three Bs at A Level. EY wants a minimum of 300 UCAS points and a 2:1 in any degree discipline.
PWC has famously dropped some of its academic requirements, however. While it still requires 240-280 UCAS points for its school leavers programme and 340 UCAS points for its degree programme, it's dropped the UCAS points requirement for its graduate scheme. Similarly, while PWC prefers its graduates to have a 2.1 degree, it can be flexible and will accept candidates with a 2.2 if they've done, "something exceptional outside their degree."
6. When you're applying to the Big Four expect numerical tests, verbal reasoning tests and 'personality tests'
The Big Four are big on psychometric tests. You should expect them at the initial stages of your application process.
PWC runs a selection of numerical tests, logical reasoning tests and personality tests at the first stage of its selection process. Justine Gregson, head of graduate programmes for advisory at KPMG, says the professional services firm operates numerical and verbal reasoning tests along with a "situational judgement test" to assess how candidates will react in different scenarios. At EY, Emma Judge, head of student recruitment, says you can expect a 'situational strengths test' which will help reveal "how and where you naturally work best."
Bargery is reticient when it comes to explaining which types of personality PWC doesn't want to hire. "We look at particular situations and how people will respond to them," he says. "We're looking for a range of personalities and are not screening out anything particular. The personality tests are taken into account alongside the numerical and logical tests."
If you perform badly on the tests you'll be out. "Around 50% of our applicants are rejected following online tests," Bargery adds.
7. Know who top accounting firms want to hire
If the Big Four are coy about what they're not looking for, they're very forthcoming about what they are looking for.
EY wants excellent team-workers with integrity, respectfulness, enthusiasm and 'courage to lead.' PWC looks for relationships, business and global acumen, leadership skills and technical capabilities. Deloitte has a list of 'shared values' which it looks for in candidates.
Prepare to be grilled on these values and behaviours in interview. And expect to be subjected to a new style of 'situational interviewing'.
"We ask situational questions that examine whether candidates demonstrate our values under different circumstances," says Dyer. He adds: "An example might be, 'Your manager is ill with a broken leg and a client calls with a question. Do you a) take a punt and give it your best shot, b) Explain the situation and say it will take a while for you to get back, c) Refer the matter to someone more senior.'"
At PWC, Bargery says you'll be asked more old-fashioned 'competency questions' during the interview process. Competency questions ask about past experiences in which you've demonstrated the values and behaviours a firm is looking for. Make sure you've prepared a few examples before you step in. The S.T.A.R. interview technique is a good way of concocting competency-based answers.
8. The Big Four love telephone interviews
The Big Four are strongly attached to interviewing by telephone. In most cases, if you make it through the initial tests and application forms, you can expect a call from recruiter. Don't treat this telephone interview lightly: 50% of candidates are rejected at the telephone interview stage at KPMG.
9. Be prepared for the assessment centre at KPMG
The penultimate part of the Big Four application process is the assessment centre. Here, you'll typically be subjected to more psychometric tests, a presentation and a case study.
At KPMG, for example, candidates who make it through the telephone interview and online tests are invited to a. 'one day immersive assessment day.' 12-14 graduates take part at a time. "The assessment centre replicates a day in the life of the graduate," Gregson tells us. "You'll be expected to analyse data in different formats, create a written report, take part in role play exercises and participate in different scenarios which replicate your role when you join KPMG."
10. And then one final interview at KPMG and EY....
While investment banks tend to use assessment centres as the final stage of their application process, the Big Four will often invite you back for one final interview. EY does this, for example. So does KPMG.
55%-60% of those who attend KPMG's assessment centres progress to the last interview. And if you make it this far? You have a 90% chance of getting the job.