How to Get Accounting Experience

How to Get Accounting Experience | Accounting Smarts
Charles Hall

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Charles Hall

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March 1, 2021

For many people hoping to transition into accounting, gaining the mandatory one year of work-related experience for a CPA license can feel like a real problem.

For many people hoping to transition into accounting, gaining the mandatory one year of work-related experience for a CPA license can feel like a real problem.

Even if the license isn’t a priority, gaining accounting experience can be a great asset for future job prospects.

The most beneficial and practical way to get accounting experience is through internships while you’re in college. You’ll encounter more opportunities to gain experience if you get a bachelor’s degree and a CPA license. Outside of that, you can volunteer or work at accounting-related jobs.

As you can see, accounting doesn’t necessarily have a linear path towards getting experience. There are many different valid ways you can get accounting experience.

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Why Do You Need Accounting Experience?

The age-old problem of needing the experience to get a job and a job to get experience is especially relevant in accounting. To become a CPA, or Certified Public Accountant, you need a minimum of one year of accounting-related work experience.

Since a corporation's finances are very important for its success, corporations don’t want to take a risk on hiring accountants with no experience. Therefore it’s crucial that you get your experience out of the way and try to get an accounting job.

This can seem daunting at first, but getting experience won’t prove to be too difficult of a problem for you if you meet some general requirements. In general, the more education you have, the more opportunities you’ll have to get experience. 

While not all accounting-related jobs require the same degree of education, if you want to become a licensed CPA, you’ll need at least a bachelor's degree, which typically takes up to four years to acquire. You’ll find even more opportunities if you get a master's degree.

CPA Work Experience Requirements

For the vast majority of people interested in getting accounting experience, the big hurdle that needs to be overcome is getting the CPA license to practice professional accounting legally. Not only does a CPA license grant you access to practice, but it opens up doors for possible experiences; many accounting jobs require a CPA license to be eligible.

Individuals interested in becoming a CPA must meet specific education, age, residency, and ethics requirements. In other words, the level of education, eligible age, amount of time spent as a resident in the country, and score on an ethics exam can vary from state to state. To take and pass the CPA exam, you don’t need work experience, but you won’t be granted your license unless you meet your state’s work experience requirement.

This is absolutely crucial because you can ultimately pass a CPA exam, but you will never be awarded your license without the verified work experience. To many candidates, this can seem a tad bit premature mandating experience before getting an accounting job, but this is the reality of the situation.

Typically for people who are already working in the field, this isn’t a problem. Still, for individuals who are new to the field of accounting and hoping to change their careers to it, or college graduates hoping to get this knocked out before future stresses, this can be a challenge.

Luckily, there are a few different places you can look into for gaining experience.

Where Can You Get Accounting Experience?

In entry-level positions, corporations have the opportunity to train you up in the language and ways of the business, but this does come with a lower pay on average. This isn’t necessarily bad since many companies would like to save on payroll costs by hiring someone new and training them up, versus hiring an experienced accountant.

Some entry-level positions give you the benefit of gaining accounting experience without needing the credentials for one. Despite most accounting firms wanting someone with experience to be confident in their choices, they sometimes offer entry-level work for people to learn the ropes.

Public Accounting

Not all entry-level accounting jobs are created equally. If you’re interested in accounting, then you’ve probably heard of the “Big Four” firms that dominate the accounting space: Deloitte, PwC, EY, and KPMG. 

These are the most prestigious firms in the accounting world, and they’ll offer you the best pay as well. With that being said, it’s only natural that if you want to get accounting experience from one of these four firms, you’ll have to be a qualified, stand-out candidate in their eyes. Luckily, there are some ways to boost your qualifications.

Generally, if you apply straight after college, they’ll interview you if you have at least a 3.5 GPA. However, their hiring process is holistic, so they’ll consider characteristics outside of your ability to do well in school, such as your involvement in campus leadership, whether you were an athlete, and if you worked many hours while attending school.

Keep in mind that they hire new interns and employees in the fall semester. If you intend to stand out, you should do your best to pass the CPA exam ahead of time; although you won’t have your license, the truth is that many of the Big Four firms don’t usually expect candidates to have their CPA exam passed already and it’s something they don’t see very often.

Private Accounting

With private accounting, you are stuck in one company that’s typically associated with a particular niche. You typically don’t need to be a licensed CPA to work for private businesses, but the pay is better for those who are. Private accountant’s day to day work consists of management reporting.

Private accounting tends to have the same educational requirements as public accounting, with a CPA license being the ultimate qualification for getting a job. The degree of importance of the CPA license in private accounting differs, however. For public accounting, having a CPA license can help you advance to management positions in the firm, but the same doesn’t apply to private accounting.

Owning the license can give you a nice leg-up in your career, but you don’t necessarily need it if you’re interested in private accounting. In private accounting, you’ll be preparing budgets, so it’s necessary for you to prove your competency through the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).

Alternative Jobs to Get Accounting Experience

You don’t necessarily need to be a formal accountant to get accounting experience. Accountants engage in their respective corporations' finances, and you can do that without the specific title of “accountant.”

There’s no harm in looking for work in adjacent accounting fields if you want accounting experience. If you’re young, you obviously don’t have access to many financial jobs, but for instance, being a cashier can give you valuable transferable skills for the day that you do choose to become an accountant.

Ideally, any position that has to do with managing finances can work as a substitute for accounting experience. The goal is to gain experience in one job, learning skills and tools of the trade on your way up. You’ll eventually be able to translate the experience you’ve accumulated into the perfect accounting job.

The good news is that there are a few different places or sectors that you can look into. Accounting is a broad umbrella term for a diverse field of options and career paths that you can choose from. Accounting can take the form of forensics, traditional bookkeeping, and even data entry, so the experience can vary significantly from one person to the next. To get started, here are some positions that may be of interest to you:

Bookkeeper

Bookkeepers are the closest job you can have that’s similar to accounting but not quite accounting. You can use your experience as a bookkeeper in getting your CPA license for the real deal.

As a bookkeeper, you’ll likely be doing a lot of keeping track of maintaining accurate and up to date financial records. The great thing about being a bookkeeper is that you don’t need much education to get into the field. A minimum of a two-year degree can suffice.

Accounting Clerk

With as little as a high school diploma, you can be an accounting clerk. Accounting clerks are quite similar to bookkeepers, except that accounting clerks are generally responsible for a more specific accounting area. In contrast, bookkeepers have a broader role in the grand scheme of their company.

Clerks are responsible for much of the same things, and their day to day can look like checking for errors in financial documents, recording purchases, and verifying company transactions.

Staff Accountant

This is an excellent position because it also doesn’t require your CPA for valid accounting experience. As a staff accountant, you can anticipate engaging in general bookkeeping tasks such as generating financial statements and reconciling accounts. You also get the benefit of assisting senior accountants in auditing.

This also presents you a great opportunity to shadow accountants at your firm, especially any senior or mentor figures.

Collections Specialist

This position requires no accounting degree. You’ll be responsible for being the liaison between creditors and customers with outstanding bills. Collections specialists regularly observe accounts to keep track of any overdue payments, collection activity, and inquiries.

Collection specialists are frequently in contact with customers, usually attempting to work out repayment plans.

Getting Accounting Experience without a Degree or License

Plenty of accounting opportunities exist without requiring a bachelor's degree, CPA license, or both.

Internships

The quickest, most effective way of getting good accounting experience is through internships. The truth is that students who get an accounting internship in their junior or senior year of college have a huge advantage over regular applicants. 

The importance of internships can’t be understated; 50% of the entry-level hires at the Big Four firms were previous interns. If you can intern, you aren’t guaranteed a job, but you’re significantly more likely to get one. 

Internships give you exactly what you’re looking for in an accounting job (without the pay, of course, generally speaking). They allow you to grasp the day-to-day moments of being an accountant on a flexible schedule. You’ll get a great understanding of what the work culture is like, you’ll gain mentors who can help guide you through your career, and you’ll also learn what different paths you can take with a CPA license.

Internships are a great way to gain accounting experience. Nowadays, they are actually considered the new “entry-level job” as many jobs called “entry-level” still require some experience.

Where Can You Find Accounting Internships?

You can find internships through various professional development websites and job searches such as Indeed and Internships.

You can also find internships in accounting firms. They don’t necessarily have to be Fortune 100 corporations, but the local family-owned accounting firm is just as valid for gaining accountant experience.

You can find more internships at government or non-profit organizations and your college career placement office. If you’re interested in being a particular kind of accountant, you should apply for internships in an organization that you intend to work for full-time.

Network

If you want to get experience, then being able to network is undoubtedly important. This is generally overlooked by people looking for entry-level positions, but it’s estimated that 85% of hires are from networking.

Look into professional accounting organizations to assist you in the expansion of your network. These include The National Society of Accountants, Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance (AFWA), Financial Executives International (FEI), and much more.

If you’re still in college, look into joining any business-related professional fraternities/sororities. Make contacts on LinkedIn that can help you directly or introduce you to someone. Knowing people seriously helps in acquiring an internship.

Volunteer

The next best way to get accounting experience is to volunteer. Finding an internship can be vexing and incredibly difficult. Internships can feel selective, so proving yourself as a worthwhile candidate is undoubtedly stressful when there are only so many. Volunteer opportunities are plentiful. The quickest path to finding volunteer opportunities and places that will take you in are non-profit organizations.

If there are any local charities or organizations that need help with their finances and bookkeeping, you can volunteer your services until you can get enough recommendations and references. 

Volunteering is an excellent form of networking because it gives you a chance to meet many of your peers and future coworkers this way. You can get familiar with the industry on your own time, making plenty of friends and professional relationships in the process.

If nothing local works for volunteering, you can always try the American institute of the CPA for volunteer opportunities.

Final Tips for Getting Accounting Experience

Getting accounting experience isn’t all about how well you do in school. You can try making yourself a more competitive candidate by working on the following and adhering to some general suggestions to aid in your journey to gaining accounting experience.

Work on Professional Development Skills

For better or worse, there are some professional development skills that need to be polished so that you really stand out as a potential hire.

For example, you should be up to date in your expertise in technology. Employers find it challenging to find hires who have prowess with technology in addition to their accounting skills. Having a strong skillset in using computers and finance-specific software programs can impress potential employers. If you’re unfamiliar with technology-related accounting skills, it is good to be proactive by enrolling in a course to teach you that specific skill.

Polish Your Resume

Make sure that your resume is relevant to the internship that you’re trying to get. Have those transferable job skills in there if you can, so that regardless of your work history and where you’re coming from, you can seem like a good fit for the company.

Include relevant phrases and keywords, and just make sure that your resume is completely free of typos. The quickest way to shooting yourself in the foot before even getting through the door is by having a bad resume.

Partner with a Staffing Agency

A staffing agency, otherwise known as an employment agency, helps match individuals looking for a job with relevant employers for temporary and long-term work. Staffing agencies can have information about hidden job-markets that aren’t made public, including entry-level accounting jobs.

An agency can use its connections to get your resume noticed, helping you stand out amidst an ocean of candidates. Furthermore, partnering with an agency can increase your chances of working in a workplace culture that accommodates your needs. They strive to make the best match between you and your employer.

Be Prepared for Interviews

Make sure that you’re prepared for interviews. Anticipate interviewers testing your basic knowledge of accounting. Have answers to potential questions they’ll ask. How can you tell the difference between bad debt and good debt? How do you check for errors in your work? Be prepared to do some research ahead of time to familiarize yourself with the company and common interview questions.

Final Thoughts

There are a few ways you can approach getting accounting experience, and there really isn’t any wrong way to go about it. If you’re in college, the best bet towards getting accounting experience is through internships. Internships are great because if you can secure one, you have a reasonably high chance of being offered a full-time position once you’re eligible.

Eligibility is essential when it comes to getting accountant experience. Without the necessary qualifications, you can find yourself completely barred from many public accounting positions. You can increase your opportunities and chances of being hired by getting a bachelor’s degree, preferably in accounting, and getting your CPA license. This will open up more doors for you to get experience.

If all else fails, there are plenty of jobs similar to accounting that can still give you a feeling for managing finances.

Charles Hall

Charles Hall

Charles has spent 25 plus years in the world of accounting and business. His experience includes working as a CPA/Auditor international accounting firms. He has worked as a controller and as a COO for small to medium sized companies.

Learn more about Charles Hall