How to get into a Big Four firm

Lucy Mair quizzes PwC's Head of Student Recruitment, Richard Irwin

Why is PwC a good place for a graduate to start their career?

We're the UK's largest private sector graduate employer and we have a variety of opportunities for graduates across the business, from financial audit to management consulting, which can be undertaken in offices across the UK. Our graduate programme involves a combination of professional training, personal development, and practical experience, so people emerge from the programme as very capable and flexible business advisors, which is a strong foundation for their future career at the firm, or elsewhere.

At PwC, ambitious graduates can expect rapid career progression and there's a very structured path to help high performers move upwards within the firm. Depending on the area of business you go into, the graduate programme will last for two to three years, and then you'll become a senior associate, which involves more project management and client relationship responsibilities. Employees who we think have high potential can be promoted to manager around five years into their career, and, through our leadership development programmes, you can become a partner 12 to 13 years after joining as a graduate.

What does PwC look for in graduates?

In our business, our "product" is our people, so the knowledge and capabilities that our employees can bring to clients are paramount.

We're looking for driven, motivated and resilient people with intellectual agility and curiosity, who can stay focused and get things done. It's also important that candidates have a high degree of self-awareness, that is, they understand their own strengths, weaknesses and development needs. As a firm we invest heavily in developing our employees' skills, so we're looking for people who are passionate about learning, improving their abilities and progressing in their career.

To demonstrate these attributes, it's important that candidates go through an honest process of self-analysis and think about what they've achieved in the context of the skills we're asking for. For example, a candidate may demonstrate their drive and motivation through having sought out a valuable internship and gained skills from the experience. It doesn't matter whether you've been involved in voluntary work, academics, sporting activities or work experience - we're interested in what you've learnt, rather than the context in which you did it.

What is the typical route into a graduate programme at PwC?

The first stage is an online application, which involves an application form, some numerical and logical reasoning tests, and some questions about PwC and the role you're applying for. If you're successful at the first stage, we'll then conduct a first interview, either over the phone or face-to-face.

If your application is taken further, you'll be invited to an assessment day, which involves a group exercise, a written assessment, and an opportunity to meet people currently on the graduate programme. All being well, you'll then be invited to a final-stage interview with a partner, who'll make a final decision about whether to make you an offer.

Taking part in a penultimate year internship is also an excellent way in to the graduate programme at PwC. The application process follows the same structure, and it's an opportunity for students to gain experience working in the area of the business that interests them, and to make sure it's right for them before committing to the graduate programme. Last year, 90 per cent of our interns received an offer for the graduate programme based on their performance during their internship.

Are there any other ways in to the firm?

Last year, we introduced our Inspired Talent application route for students who are highly motivated and intellectually capable, but haven't met our academic benchmarks because they've been excelling at something else. So that might be a candidate who achieved great A-Levels, but failed to get a 2:1 because they were creating a new volunteering initiative, setting up a business on campus, or excelling in sport. Through Inspired Talent, we're recognising that some candidates can demonstrate the attributes we're looking for in a different way. Beyond the academic requirements, the application and assessment process is the same as the mainstream route.

We also offer Insight opportunities to students at every stage of their academic career and decision-making process. Insight days are essentially open days at PwC offices, where you can come and find out more about the firm, see a series of simulations of the type of work we do, and learn about the career opportunities available to you. They're open to everyone, so whether you're a first year student, a finalist, or a graduate still looking for your first job, it's never too late.

What are your tips for making a successful application?

None of our processes are designed to trip students up! They're there to give you a fair and open opportunity to demonstrate your skills to us. The online testing is designed to assess your reasoning skills, and whether you've got the type of intelligence that leads to successful performance in our business. You can't really study for the tests - it's all about whether you have the ability in the first place. Having said that, we'll give you access to practice questions, so it's important to familiarise yourself with the format and do some preparation so you know what to expect. It's also important to take the test in a calm environment where you won't be disturbed and can focus.

For the interview stage, the most important thing is to reflect on your skills, and think about how you're going to demonstrate to us that you have them. If, for example, you're asked about your team-working abilities, you should have your best example at your fingertips and know how you're going to communicate it to your interviewer.

What makes an outstanding candidate?

An outstanding candidate is someone who doesn't just grasp an opportunity when it comes along, but who goes out and creates opportunities for themselves. They could also be someone who's been passionate about developing their skills while studying, because it gives us confidence that they're going to make an impact in the workplace. Finally, an outstanding candidate is someone who is focused not just on doing what is needed to get the job, but also on developing the skills they'll need to be successful in the role if they're made an offer.

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