Life in the Big Four, Part I: Recruiting

It is said that "truth is stranger than fiction." While I'm not entirely convinced of that, I can testify that the truth can be pretty damned strange. My goal in this series will be to give the reader an uncensored look at entry-level life in a Big 4 firm. It won't contain any deep insights into "office life," mostly because I rarely spent any time in the office. I couldn't even tell you the color of the carpet.

In order to be completely honest with the facts,, (and because I value receiving a paycheck), I am going to remain anonymous. The firm will remain anonymous, too, although you have a 25 percent shot at randomly guessing correctly. Since the firms are all pretty much the same, that omission shouldn't particularly matter. Names and places have been changed until the various statutes of limitations reach expiration.

Conventional wisdom is to start at the beginning, so this first column is more about how I ended up at a Big 4 firm. The meat and potatoes will come later.

My first selected major while I was an undergraduate student was in Biology. I had wanted to be a veterinarian for as far back as I could remember. Unfortunately, my grades in my first year of undergrad were dismal.

The summer after my first year of college, I was working at a snack bar at a resort in the mountains. I was talking with the guy who drove the Coca-Cola truck out once per week, when he mentioned that he had an undergraduate degree in Biology.

Let me say up front that I've become convinced of the importance of truck drivers. In fact, by own reckoning, truck drivers are more valuable to the everyday American citizen than 90 percent of the professional services field.

Don't believe me? Suppose every truck driver in the country disappeared tomorrow.

  • Grocery stores would soon run out of food.
  • Circuit City would run out of DVDs.
  • Retail stores would run out of clothes.
  • Liquor stores would run out of whiskey.
  • Mothers, clutching their children in the streets, wailing, "Why, God, Why?!?!?"

Now suppose that every corporate auditor in the country disappeared tomorrow.

Average American would yawn, scratch himself, and return to watching the game. I can't say that I'd blame him.

With all of that said, I had no desire to drive a Coca-Cola truck for my entire adult life. So, in the autumn of 2000, dreaming of riches, I proudly changed majors to Computer Science at the tail-end of the Dot.Com bubble.

No one ever accused me of having a great sense of timing.

At this point, I wanted nothing more than a degree in something which would get me a job upon graduation, so I switched majors a third time to accounting. This major stuck, and I rolled along until the autumn of my last year. This is "Recruiting Season," and it is where this story really begins.

Recruiting

The advisor of my accounting program lived for recruiting. In addition to holding a huge reception in the fall for all of the Big 4, regional, and local firms to mingle with his students, this guy knew each recruiter personally. He gossiped, harassed, praised, and threatened all of them. He gave recruiters his opinions on who his smartest students were, his favorite students, his most social students.

His biggest obsession was the fall reception, which occurred roughly a week before the various firms selected their candidates for on-campus interviews.

"Don't screw this up!" he would yell at us. "If you make an ass of yourself at this reception, we won't be able to find you an interview, let alone a job!"

He was wrong.

I distinctly remember this reception. It had started at 7 p.m., but I was not there. Three other accounting majors and I were in our fraternity house arguing. In particular, we were arguing about an unopened bottle of $3 wine.

My argument was clear and logical: "When we're professionals, we'll have to drink wine at social gatherings all the time. We need to practice now to show how sophisticated we are."

Keep in mind that, at the time, my drinking habit was mostly limited to Old Crow Kentucky Whiskey and Natural Light.

All three friends argued against me. Their basic argument was that I was an idiot. Further, if we showed up drunk to this (alcohol-free) reception, not only would we be unemployed upon graduation, but the accounting advisor would burn our fraternity house to the ground.

We couldn't agree, so I drank the entire bottle of wine by myself in about 20 minutes, and we walked (I stumbled) down to the reception at 7:30.

In the end, I was the only one hired by a Big 4 firm.

I'm getting a little long-winded here, but if any students are reading this, it is probably worth it to emphasize that luck plays a big factor in the process, especially once you land an office visit.

If the people you meet gel with your personality, you'll get an offer. If they don't, you won't. End of story.

Out of my Big 4 office visits, I left three with an offer in-hand, but the fourth was a complete disaster. I was the same person every time, but I was exposed to vastly different people (more on this later).

So as we enter recruiting season, I can only give a handful of advice. Be yourself and pretend to be professional (whatever this means)... and let the chips fall where they may. Also, if the office visit is a two-day trip, try to get back to your hotel before 5 a.m. The "magic hangover cures" that are sold in the hotel convenience store don't really work. This is experience speaking.

* This is the first in a series of reminiscences about life in the Big Four accounting firms. The author has asked to remain anonymous.

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