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What do employers want from new students?

Book open Reading time: 5 mins

Understanding the expectations of your employer will not only help you make the most of your ACA training agreement, but can lay the foundations for your future career. We asked ICAEW authorised training employers for some tips.

Putting the accountancy theory into practice is an essential component of your ACA training. Your agreement with your employer sets out what to expect, including the length of time your training agreement will cover and the amount of study leave you will be granted. 

But beyond that, what will your employer expect from you? And, how can you make sure you stand out from your peers and make the best impression possible?

Genuine interest in the business

You’ll stand out if you proactively try to understand the business, service lines and role you’re joining, says Dan Richards, Recruitment Director at EY for UK and Ireland.

“This could involve being inquisitive and asking questions, and putting in meetings with colleagues to get an understanding of what the team does and what their role will entail. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for help,” he says.

Resilient to work pressure

Accountancy roles are renowned for being high pressure careers, with one in three accountants admitting to feeling stressed every day, according to research from chartered accountants’ wellbeing charity CABA. 

Having the resilience to cope under pressure will stand you in good stead. “A professional qualification is a mountain to climb,” says Dan Cooper, Accounting Manager at ecommerce marketplace Groupon UK. “There will inevitably be moments when a new student will question whether they are good enough, whether they can get through the exams, or they may face setbacks at work.” 

If you’re worried that asking for help will damage your career prospects, it’s worth knowing that all ACA students are eligible for free and confidential support from CABA, as well as counselling, debt advice and personal development training online to help keep their mental health in check.

Hungry for knowledge

Your employer isn’t going to expect a working knowledge of accounting from the outset, but a desire to learn is definitely a prerequisite. 

With 15 exams to sit on top of your normal workload, the accountancy industry has one of the most gruelling qualification regimes out there. Don’t underestimate the self-discipline required to forfeit nights out in favour of knuckling down to your studies at the end of a busy and potentially long day at work. 

Careful planning and a responsible attitude towards exams are key, Richards says, adding: “Students should ensure they allow themselves enough time to study and prepare for exams. Consider forming study groups with new colleagues and seek support on anything you do not understand before taking an exam.”

Take control of your own development

From an employer’s perspective, it’s impressive to see a new entrant who is keen to tackle issues independently and seeks to further their understanding at every opportunity. 

“It’s about asking what you can do to progress, and taking personal responsibility for your own learning and career development,” says Tom Hartgill, Learning and Development Director at PwC.

Dominic Ahern, a director of accountancy firm Best suited says the ability for students to take control of their own development is key to making the most of their work experience. 

“I’m always upfront with students, as many expect you to invest lots of time in them personally, but it doesn’t really work like that. The learning experience comes through reviewing their work. How well they use feedback is really important to their personal progression; we just don’t have time to handhold.”

Alignment with organisational values

“We expect our new entrants to possess the relevant key behaviours and personal integrity that are relevant to a people business like ours,” says Marie Louise Teng, Regulatory Contact Partner at BDO Mauritius. 

At Groupon, the company’s five core values are just as applicable to students. These include ‘Respect, Integrity and Inclusion’ – the idea that we should solve problems the right way, together; and ‘Inspiration’ – making life less boring. 

“Any new entrant that adopted these values would display excellent characteristics for their further development and future careers,” Cooper says.

Although it’s human nature to want to fit in, students should be authentic and let their individuality shine through, Hartgill urges, adding: “We pride ourselves on having diversity in the workplace – and that blend of background, experiences, personalities and viewpoints is really valuable.”

Determined to progress

No one likes being thrown in the deep end, but try to embrace tasks that will push you, and help you progress faster. 

“The best students are determined, willing to give stuff a go and relish taking on new challenges. They push forward and get things done and in return we can give them more advanced work and greater responsibility,” says Ahern. 

And Hartgill adds: “It can be a steep learning curve, so having energy, enthusiasm and positivity is really important.”

Top notch communication skills

Your ability to communicate articulately and professionally – both verbally and in written communications – will go a long way to helping you to create a great first impression. 

Given today’s remote working environment, it is likely that you will meet many of your colleagues via email, explains Cooper, adding: “An email that is well thought-out, to the point and doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity really does create a great impression.”

Ahern adds: “Good digital communication is especially important now, but even before coronavirus we were increasingly working remotely and communicating by email and video calls, so our students need to be comfortable doing that.”

A questioning mind

Worried that asking a question will make you look stupid? Don’t be – it’s better to seek clarification if you’re unsure about what to do. 

“I can safely say that there is no such thing as a ‘silly question’, particularly when you are starting out,” says Cooper. “The most important thing especially in those initial months is to firm up your understanding of tasks that are assigned and how they fit into the bigger picture. Having a questioning mind – the ability to ask questions freely to further your understanding – and a can-do and proactive attitude towards problem-solving will really help you stand out from the crowd.”

Additionally, the starting point for creativity and innovation is asking ‘why’. “We want individuals to be willing to challenge the convention,” Hartgill says.

An honest relationship with your line manager

Actively seeking constructive feedback from your line manager speaks volumes about your commitment to doing the best possible job. “I would encourage students to continuously ask for feedback,” says Cooper. “You need to know when you’re doing a fantastic job and likewise you need to know your weaknesses so you can work on developing those areas.” 

Don’t be afraid to challenge approaches when tasks are assigned to you, if you feel there is a way it could be done better or more efficiently.

Well-rounded skills and interests

If you thought relevant extra-curricular activities and complementary skills simply serve to get a foot in the door, think again. Relevant experiences – for example, volunteering and team sports – will continue to make an impression on your employer and show students to be well-rounded individuals. 

“If I were to give any other advice to new students, it would be that additional skills – for example, a foreign language or IT skills – are a bonus,” says Teng.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in accounting, discover what ICAEW have to offer here