What to expect as an intern at a large accounting firm

Sara Herbel, talent acquisition campus manager at RSM US LLP, shares her insight.

You've been asked to intern at a large public accounting firm and the nerves are setting in. What can you expect? How can you best prepare for your internship? Will you have a day-to-day routine? And how can you set yourself up for success? We put all these questions and more to Sara Herbel, talent acquisition campus manager at RSM US LLP, a large firm that works with interns from colleges and universities nationwide. Here is her advice:

Expect to prepare for your internship

Be ready before you begin your internship. Contact firm employees or the firm's recruiter you met during the internship recruitment process and ask them for advice prior to your start date. "If a candidate is curious about a firm’s culture, then I would recommend asking various questions that will help paint a picture of how the company engages and supports its employees, such as ‘What do you enjoy the most about working at your firm?’ Or, ‘How would you describe your firm’s culture?’ Or, ‘How does your firm support professional growth and career development?’” Herbel advised. In addition, she said, take classes in skills that you may want to sharpen before you begin work. These courses may fall within your accounting curriculum, but emphasize certain skills that could be beneficial. Also, consider online tutorials to brush up on things like Excel, she noted. Finally, start setting your alarm a few weeks in advance for your soon-to-be new schedule, she said, so you adjust to your internship wake time. You don't want to be late.

Expect to embrace technology

Technology is changing the landscape of public accounting, and college students should absorb as much as possible in school so they are primed for real-world auditing, tax, and advisory work. "Emerging technologies continue to impact clients, so it's crucial to be a critical thinker during this revolutionary time," Herbel said. "Students who are able to take additional technology courses will have an edge because they will be more agile thinkers."

Expect training and mentorship

While all public accounting firms operate differently, many offer formal training and pair you with a mentor once you begin your work. RSM interns, for example, spend their first week at a formal training in Chicago, meeting interns from the firm's 87 offices nationwide. After they return to their home offices, they are assigned to a client and receive informal training from local team members. They also meet regularly with their mentor, or "navigator," Herbel said.

Expect to collaborate and meet clients

Audit interns will spend most of their time at client sites, working with a team. Tax interns spend most of their time in-house, but also will work with other firm employees. So it's important that interns be team players, embrace working with others, and have a positive attitude, Herbel said.

Expect to take notes and ask questions

"Internships are learning opportunities, so we don't expect our interns to have all of the answers," she noted. Be curious and courageous about soliciting feedback. In other words, be a sponge. By doing all of these things, you are setting the stage to not only thrive in your internship, but perhaps get hired once it ends.

By Cheryl Meyer, a freelance writer based in California.

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