Landing a great internship

Prepare for the first big step on your career path.

For accounting students, the path to a satisfying career can be a bumpy road, but an internship at a CPA firm can pave the way for a smoother transition from college to a career.

Some colleges and universities require accounting students to participate in internships, many of which are paid, as graduation prerequisites, so internships can be competitive. But with careful preparation, students can land great internship opportunities.

As an accounting student at Rutgers University, Ryan Lopes interned at PKF O’Connor Davies in Cranford, N.J. After he graduated in 2016, PKF O’Connor Davies invited Lopes to join its tax team. He is now a business solutions senior associate, a job he has held for the past two years and is preparing to sit for the CPA exam. He credits that important internship with helping him jump-start his career and encourages college students to make it a personal goal to land at least one internship before graduating.

“It’s not only a great stepping stone to get real-world experience, it’s also a chance to see if you truly enjoy accounting in a professional environment,” Lopes said.

Before he was ready to start an internship, Lopes had to build a résumé and develop a strategy for landing a quality internship, not unlike preparing to search for a professional job.

Lopes and two other accounting professionals offer advice to students who are seeking a valuable internship.

Hone your leadership skills. All colleges have clubs and societies that offer opportunities to lead. When Lopes started getting serious about securing an internship, he joined the Rutgers University chapter of the Association of Latino Professionals For America (ALPFA), serving as director of events. He supervised seven committee members in planning and managing the logistics of more than 30 professional development events per semester. Lopes credits this service with giving him the leadership experience that helped him stand out. “The most important thing in college is not only studying and working hard to get good grades, but also being a leader in an extracurricular activity,” he said.

Seek out a mentor. As a shy student, Lopes could not imagine himself approaching accounting firm recruiters and talking about himself until he found a mentor. Through encouragement and one-on-one coaching, an assistant dean and director of career management at Rutgers Business School helped Lopes overcome his fear of public speaking. His mentor helped him improve his interview skills, taught him how to give a 30-second elevator pitch, and helped build his confidence. “It is important to find a mentor who is there to answer questions and guide you in the direction you want to go,” Lopes said.

Gather details about your targeted firms. Maryann T. Reyes, CPA/PFS, a senior manager at Withum of Whippany, N.J., who helps manage the interns in her office, is impressed when internship prospects demonstrate knowledge about her firm. “And if they can talk about some of the more fun and quirky aspects, we give them bonus points because it shows they’ve gone the extra mile,” she said. Students interested in internships can gather more insight into a firm’s culture and personality by looking up the firm on social media platforms than from what they would see looking at the company’s website alone, Reyes added.

Improve your technical skills. Students aiming for an accounting internship should make sure they can demonstrate they are proficient in fundamental accounting principles, said Kristel Espinosa, CPA, a partner with JLK Rosenberger in Irvine, Calif. “This might sound a little unusual, but cracking open the accounting books and boning up on debits and credits will refresh your technical skills,” she said. Espinosa also suggests prospective interns take supplemental accounting classes through local continuing education programs, watch instructional videos or webinars, or simply review college coursework, financial statements, and common tax forms.

Practice your pitch. Lopes attended as many career fairs as he could and visited every accounting firm recruiter participating in those events. At first his nerves got the better of him, but after pitching his qualifications over and over, he got more comfortable and scored his ideal internship. “Practice obviously makes perfect, because PKF was the very last table I went to, and that was the best recruiting experience I had,” he said.

Reyes advises students to get comfortable showcasing their individuality along with their other soft skills. “We look for interns who are enthusiastic,” she said. Withum values individuals who are good communicators, are fast learners, and demonstrate a positive attitude that would make them a good fit with the firm, she said.

Learn to be assertive. When you meet with a recruiter, be prepared to ask about their requirements of interns, and don’t be afraid to outline what you hope to get out of the experience too. “I like to hear prospective interns ask what we expect of them and inquire about how they can advance to a full-time position,” she added. Espinosa also listens for a prospective intern’s career aspirations. “If I know that this student has specific goals, I can assign them projects to help them reach those goals,” she said.

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, an associate director on the Magazines & Newsletters team at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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