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How a student landed 3 undergraduate accounting jobs without an accounting degree

Frances Chan

Careers Commentator
Learn what an undergrad accounting role is and how you could land one even without an accounting degree!

We recently chatted with a student who snagged several undergraduate accounting positions at leading mid-tier firms. Initially a finance student, she realized it wasn't her cup of tea and pivoted to accounting—landing not one, but three roles. Let's find out how she made the switch.

Note: She spoke with us under the condition that we keep her university and employer anonymous.

  1. What is an undergraduate accounting job?
  2. How to get an accounting job without the degree
  3. What to consider when choosing your first accounting firm

About undergraduate accounting jobs

What's an undergraduate accounting job?

So an undergraduate accounting job is basically a permanent part-time position at an accounting firm. Under this arrangement, I work three days a week and go to classes for the other two days. 

Unlike an internship, which falls under casual employment and has a set duration (e.g. a summer or semester), you can be an undergraduate accountant for as long as you want! You can keep working part-time until you graduate or decide to commit to the firm full-time. It's a nice, flexible gig in that sense.

What do undergraduate accountants do?

At least at my firm, we basically do the same thing as graduate accountants. We get to take on our own clients, for instance. I've helped mine prepare tax returns and other financial statements. We're also able to attend the firm's training workshops for grads.

The difference is that we get fewer clients than graduate accountants since we don't work full-time. But you get the same responsibilities. This is something I found really surprising actually, because I just assumed I'd be an assistant or something like that, but you're actually given real responsibilities!

How to get an accounting job without the degree

What was the hardest part of the application process?

For me, getting the interview was the hardest part. Once I got an interview, I was able to convince them that I would be the right person for that position, and in all the interviews I got, I always got an offer afterward. It's getting your foot in the door and landing the interview that's hard!

What did you put on your CV as a non-accounting student?

Since I wasn't an accounting student, I tried to show that I had still done the relevant coursework. For example, I had taken courses in business law, taxation, financial planning, and data analytics. So I mentioned these courses I took and the scores I got (e.g. "a seven in X course").

It's also good to think about what employers are looking for. For example, if you're applying for an auditing position, don't just mention the unit you took on auditing, but also any other experiences that show you're analytical. These can be academic coursework or even volunteer experiences.

A tip is to check the job descriptions and find what keywords you think they're looking for. For example, I heard the Big 4 uses software to scan resumes for keywords. If they say they're trying to find analytical or teamwork skills, then make sure to have experiences in your resume that show you have those qualities.

Lastly, stay focused. Instead of slapping everything onto your resume, focus on the experiences that are actually relevant and show why they're relevant. 

How did you handle interviews as a non-accounting student?

As a student without an accounting degree, the main issue during interviews is when they ask about whether you're eligible for CA (Charted Accountant) or CPA (Certified Practising Accountant) accreditation.

I took a chance and said yes, even though I was still majoring in finance at the time and was technically not eligible. Then after securing the job, I approached my university to change my degree so that I could qualify for CA certification.

Moral of the story? Just say yes and then figure out how to make it happen!

Any tricky interview questions?

Interviews typically start with the basics, like introducing yourself and explaining why you're applying.

One of the questions that did take me a while to think about was, "Describe a time you used technology that would be useful at work."

In my case, I highlighted my experience with Excel and accounting software like MYOB and Xero. At my uni, we use these in certain units and are encouraged to feature these skills on our CVs.

But I don't think they're necessarily looking for proof that you've mastered specific tools. They'll still teach them to you from scratch after you start the job. So while it helps to show that you're familiar with Xero and MYOB, it's probably still more important to show that you're open to learning new things and adapting to changes.

Any other accounting interview tips?

You won't always understand what they're asking about, and that's fine. Just ask them to repeat or clarify. 

Then if you still don't know how to answer their question, you make assumptions and answer based on your assumptions. For example: "Based on my understanding of X, I'd assume Y is true. In that case, I'd do ABC."

Basically, take your most educated guess! And remember they know you're a student. They're not expecting you to have all the answers, but they do want to see that you know how to work through problems in a logical and analytical way.

What to consider when choosing your first accounting firm

#1 Does it let you explore different career options?

As an undergrad (or even a grad), you're probably still figuring things out, so it's good to work for a place that's flexible and allows you to try out different service lines. 

#2 How accessible is senior management?

But besides the nature of your work, I'd also suggest paying attention to the people and the culture. The job is, well, just a job, but if you might be working at a place for many years, you'll want to get a sneak peek of the culture and management, which is why it's great to do internships.

For me, it's important that a company has an open-door policy, meaning that you can just walk up to directors or partners without having to schedule a meeting. Like I can't count the number of times I've spoken with our senior management.

This says a lot about a company's culture. It shows it's not a traditional firm with a rigid top-down culture. It's a firm where anyone can feel comfortable reaching out for help and asking all sorts of questions.

Plus, a good workplace culture, in my view, is one where there’s a strong rapport across all levels—from interns to undergrads to senior accountants, and also managers and directors. 

#3 What's important to you?

There are many different things to consider and trade-offs to make. For example, if you want a higher starting salary and don't mind slower career progression, then the smaller firms will be a better fit for you. However, if you want faster career progression and can accept lower pay, then go with the Big 4.

I have a friend who made it up to a manager role in five years at a Big 4. She then jumped over to a smaller firm for a better work-life balance. She's now a manager at that firm. It would have taken her a much longer time to make it to manager at the smaller firm if she had started there and worked her way up, so in a sense starting at a Big 4 accelerated her career.

So think about what matters most to you!