It’s happening! You’re finally invited to interview for that accounting role you’ve been searching for. You’re not sure what to expect, but you know you want to put your best foot forward by getting prepared and knocking this interview out of the park.
You can start by reviewing the most common interview questions. But don’t stop there—you should also make sure to be ready for some more accounting-specific interview questions.
How do I know? Some might call me a “recovering CPA”—I used to work as one at a Big Four accounting firm. And before becoming a career coach, I spent years handling recruiting efforts at a public accounting firm for five offices spanning up and down the East Coast. I worked directly with leadership to identify top talent, built recruiting processes, and screened candidates for accounting opportunities. Based on my experience, I have some advice on how to answer the most common accountant interview questions and what qualities recruiters are looking for when they ask them.
What Are Recruiters Looking for in Accountants?
According to recruiters in the accounting industry, the most desirable candidates have experience working in public accounting for a large firm. But if you don’t have that, don’t let it deter you! There are many other skills and experiences that you can demonstrate to set yourself apart.
When interviewing for accounting roles specifically, it’s important to demonstrate a healthy mix of both technical acumen and soft skills. One of the biggest myths I hear about accountants is that they sit behind a computer for hours, looking at numbers and ridiculous formulas in Microsoft Excel with no human contact, ever. On the contrary: Accountants must demonstrate skills in a variety of areas to be successful in the job hunt, such as communication, client engagement, data analysis, and time management.
Here are the five main skills that I found most valuable as a recruiter:
- Written Communication: Hiring managers will want to know that your writing skills are on point—after all, you may be drafting audit reports, creating workpapers, developing and editing financial statements, and providing updates to your internal or external clients as needed.
- Verbal Communication: Strong verbal communication skills are important to your success in accounting as you’ll be speaking with clients, internal or external, in just about every aspect of your work.
- Time Management and Prioritization: Accountants take on a great variety of tasks, especially during month-end, quarter-end, and year-end accounting. Just in one day, you may be in and out of client meetings, drafting workpapers, reviewing financial documentation, and walking through your clients’ accounting processes. It’s important to be able to work well when there are many things going on at once and know how to organize your work so your tasks get done on time.
- Technical Experience: There’s no doubt that accounting is a pretty technical role. Aisha Holt, a corporate accounting recruiter at Tradesmen International, makes sure to gauge candidates’ experiences with various accounting tools and software. Accounting programs are used to prepare financial statements, make journal entries, perform account reconciliations, and complete other important accounting procedures. You’ll find yourself working with these tools every single day, so recruiters want to see that you’re knowledgeable and up-to-date on the latest emerging technologies of the profession.
- Attention to Detail: Maintaining accurate reporting with zero errors is crucial in accounting. Can you imagine the financial implications if an account was overstated or understated by $1 million dollars and an auditor didn’t pick up on the error? The work of an accountant is to maintain high integrity, as the public is dependent on ethical reporting, and there are also a slew of regulations that accountants must uphold. As such, candidates need to show that they do sweat the small stuff and aren’t likely to make or miss an error that leads to a massive loss.
Here are 10 questions that you may be asked in your accounting interview so that recruiters and hiring managers can see whether or not you have the skills and experience needed to do the job—plus advice on how to answer them.
- Tell Me About Your Background.
- What Accounting Processes Are You Most Familiar With?
- What Is Your Technical Experience With Accounting Software?
- What Is Your Background Working in Various Industries?
- Do You Have Your CPA?
- How Do You Handle Challenging Situations or Difficult Conversations With Others?
- How Do You Organize and Prioritize Your Day?
- Tell Us About a Time When You Were Up Against a Tight Deadline. How Did You Handle It?
- How Have You Added Value to Your Company Outside of Your Client Activities?
- Why Are You Interested in This Company?
1. Tell Me About Your Background.
This might feel like a broad or vague question, but here recruiters want to understand the depth of your accounting experience, Robbins says, as well as how you think and talk about your career trajectory. If you’re interviewing for a tax role, what type of returns have you worked on? If audit, what was the size of your client and industry? What type of projects have you worked on?
How to Answer
Don’t tell your whole life story; briefly summarize your career and the work that you’ve done at a high level. The recruiter will most likely ask follow-up questions based on what you share in your response. Think about using stories of how you gained an interest in the field and what led you to the roles you pursued. This is also a great opportunity to share your future goals and further express your interest in the company. If there was something specific about the company or position that caught your attention, say what it was! Share how your prior experience has prepared you for the position you’re interviewing for. Remember, it’s all about relevance and connecting the dots.
“I’ve always had a love for numbers and really enjoyed my accounting courses in college so I’ve known this was the path for me since I was young. I started my career in public accounting with a Big Four firm in audit. Audit allowed me the opportunity to work with clients of all sizes and industries. I focused on testing controls, writing audit reports, and overseeing the work of my audit team. I also trained our new hires and interns. I got a lot of experience auditing complex accounts such as derivatives and statement of cash flow. What I’ve enjoyed most throughout the course of my career is building relationships with my clients and helping them understand their financials better. I also am up to date on my CPA license and recently obtained my Masters in Accounting, and I’m looking for a position that will allow me to use my experience auditing financial statements to have a hand in creating financial statements.”
2. What Accounting Processes Are You Most Familiar With?
Recruiters typically ask this question to get an idea of what type of functions you’ve performed within accounting—as it looks different from department to department and company to company—and how the work you’ve done is relevant to the work you would be doing in the new role.
How to Answer
Think about your past and current responsibilities as they relate to performing technical accounting work. For example, if you worked as a staff accountant, you may be responsible for month-end close procedures and can share what that work entailed. If you worked in a financial accounting role, you may be responsible for reviewing quarterly financial statements and cross-referencing workpapers.
You’ll want to go as in-depth as possible for the recruiter to understand the significance of your role. You would want to include the accounts you’re responsible for (i.e. accounts receivable, derivatives, accounts payable, or cash) or, if you’re responsible for specific parts of the financial statement, share which parts as well as which financial statements (i.e. balance sheet, income statement, or cash flow statement). Include dollar amounts of accounts (if it’s not confidential) or the number of accounts you worked with to further substantiate that you were a key player on the team.
This would also be the perfect time for you to share with the interviewer any processes you improved or implemented, especially if your changes minimized error. If you do this, back up your response with examples and numbers.
One possible answer might be:
“In my current role, my company wants us to get the month-end close done in six days. I focus on reconciling accounts, posting closing journal entries, and reviewing general ledgers. I also work with my leadership to look at analytics and assess uncommon fluctuations, primarily for high-risk accounts. I work for a large organization, so I’ve also spent a lot of time working with my internal clients or business group leaders to request documentation necessary for processing and completing my tasks. While there is a lot of technical work involved, there’s quite a bit of communication that I handle between coordinating with my team and other business groups and reporting back to my supervisor. As part of my day-to-day responsibilities, I handle the books for accounts of up to approximately $2 million.”
3. What Is Your Technical Experience With Accounting Software?
The interviewer will ask this question to assess your experience using accounting tools and software in your day-to-day work. Bonus points if you have experience using the specific software that the company you’re interviewing with uses. Some companies use common industry software while others might have customized software—this varies by company size and industry.
How to Answer
To prepare yourself to answer this question, take a look at the job description of the role to see which software and tools the company uses. You’ll want to be prepared to speak to your experience with using the ones specified in the job description. But you won’t know every system out there and that’s OK, so emphasize the experience that you do have with specific tools and with learning new tools—especially if you can show that it will help you succeed in the role you’re applying for. Also think about how your technical background has positively impacted your team or company.
For example, your answer might sound like:
“I have seven years of experience working with SAP and Oracle with clients in the healthcare and financial services industries. I also used QuickBooks in a former role. Along with these accounting tools, I have been using Microsoft Excel throughout my entire career and have become very adept with it, often teaching myself new things and bringing them back to my team. For example, in my current role, I create pivot tables and use the VLOOKUP function to get our financial analysis and budgeting done more efficiently. I’d be excited to share my Excel expertise with a new team here and to quickly get up to speed on your proprietary software—as I have with other tools in the past.”
4. What Is Your Background Working in Various Industries?
Recruiters want to see if your experience aligns with the company's size and industry, says Chris Robbins, Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist with Dixon Huges Goodman, a top 20 public accounting firm. Since accounting is such a vast profession, rules and processes differ across industries.
How to Answer
For this answer, you want to think about the role and company you’re interviewing for. If you’re interviewing to be a private, or internal, accountant, hiring managers primarily want to hear about your experience and interest in the company’s industry. But if you’re interviewing for a public accounting role, they’ll want to hear about your experience across industries since you’ll likely have clients of different types.
In either situation, be sure to emphasize your experience in and tailor your answer to the industry or industries relevant to the role. If you aren’t sure what those are, this is a great opportunity for you to ask the interviewer.
One answer might sound like:
“While my experience has ranged across manufacturing, energy, and financial services, I found myself most interested in manufacturing due the complexity of the work. In my last job, I prepared taxes for a number of manufacturing clients and got to learn about the many intricacies of that industry—so much that I became the go-to person to ask when my colleagues had questions about manufacturing clients. And the large manufacturers that your website mentions as clients are actually what initially drew me to this role.”
5. Do You Have Your CPA?
The Certified Public Accountant license is the ultimate certification, and it shows commitment to the profession. If you have your CPA, it will make you stand out against the competition. However, there are many other certifications in accounting that you could pursue—having a CPA isn’t the only way.
How to Answer
There are no tricks to this one. Tell the interviewer briefly and straightforwardly about your CPA or other certifications or your progress toward them:
“I don’t have my CPA license yet but I am actively working toward it. I have passed two out of four parts—BEC and FAR—and am planning to take the other two sections within the next six months.”
On the other hand, if you have a CPA, you might answer like this:
“I obtained my CPA during the first two years of my career and have maintained it ever since—keeping up with the CPE annual requirement by attending trainings and conferences. I am also pursuing my CFE as I’ve developed an interest in forensic accounting and that certification will be valuable for the direction my career is going in.”
6. How Do You Handle Challenging Situations or Difficult Conversations With Others?
Accountants don’t work in silos and will be working with internal or external clients to get the books in order. There may be times when you encounter a discrepancy with a client or when an account reconciliation is inaccurate and you have to confront your colleague about the error. Recruiters want to see that you have no issue handling difficult conversations and are efficient at quickly solving problems that may arise, especially if you’re under a tight deadline. Be sure to avoid badmouthing your company or colleagues as this could reflect poorly on you as a future employee or coworker.
How to Answer
For behavioral questions such as this, the STAR method is a great approach to follow to ensure you answer the question completely, emphasize your specific contribution to handling the situation, and describe the outcome. Hey, if it helps, you can literally say these four words (situation, task, action, and result) in your interview like in this sample answer:
“I handle difficult conversations with others by making sure I address the problem directly with the right people while maintaining a solutions-oriented and collaborative approach. I have quite a bit of experience with this, because in my current work it’s not out of the ordinary to find problems in the financial statements or with payroll that have to be rectified before an audit is complete.
“In one situation in particular, I served as the In-Charge Auditor for a large public filing client. I had a team of two staff auditors who reported to me, and I also handled the budget and schedule and served as the main point of contact for the client relationship. The client was upset since the entire audit team had changed more than once, so he would be working with new people each year after he had grown to trust the prior year’s audit team. He was frustrated and seriously considering taking his business to another firm.
“I was tasked with getting him on board with our audit team and assuring him that we would handle the audit effectively and professionally—so that we could keep his business.
“I took actions to resolve this matter by setting up a meeting with him and the rest of company leadership to run through the schedule and answer questions they had going into the audit, followed by a lunch with the entire audit team. I wanted to make sure they felt comfortable and confident in our capabilities to get the audit completed. I also set up weekly one-on-one check-ins with the client as the team worked through the audit to keep him up to date on progress and any high-level issues.
“This resulted in a strong relationship with the client, and we had good communication throughout. By the end of the audit, we celebrated with the client. It was great to see the relationship completely turn around, and he is still a client of ours four years later.”
7. How Do You Organize and Prioritize Your Day?
There are many moving pieces in an accounting role, so the interviewer will want to understand how well you balance and prioritize your work when things get busy.
How to Answer
The work of an accountant is driven by processes, impending deadlines, and a ton of cross-functional collaboration. So organization, time management, and healthy communication between your team and clients are all super crucial to demonstrate here. According to Holt, it’s important for accountants to explain how they are able to keep track of their schedule and effectively split time between accounting procedures, client check-ins, and team check-ins.
For instance, how often are you checking in with your clients? And when you do, are you sending them updates on documentation needs or where things may be held up in the process (if you’re waiting on something from them)? Do you keep a running to-do list, use a checklist, or note due dates on your calendar? There’s no right or wrong answer here—share what has worked for you to stay on task and on time.
So you could say something along the lines of:
“I like to stay as proactive as possible, especially during busy times such as month- or quarter-end close. I keep a running to-do list and have each task marked as high, medium, or low priority, as well as how many hours it will take to complete. I also give myself deadlines for my tasks, especially those that need to get sent over to another team member—for example, budgeting has to get done before the financial analysis can be created, so I’d make sure to complete my work in plenty of time to set my colleague up for success. I also check in with my leadership often to make sure things are on track and communicate with my team regularly to understand any potential delays or risks to completing our work within the allotted time frame.”
8. Tell Us About a Time When You Were Up Against a Tight Deadline. How Did You Handle It?
Time management is a crucial skill for any job in the accounting world as there are many regulations that companies must abide by for compliance measures. Working with a short or difficult-to-meet deadline at some point is almost inevitable, and interviewers want to see that you’re up to the task.
How to Answer
This is the perfect time to show that you’re solutions-focused and don’t mind stepping up to the plate when duty calls. Remember the STAR method again for this behavioral question. Choosing which story to tell can be difficult, so before the interview you’ll want to prepare a story about a time you stepped up and successfully navigated the situation by demonstrating your leadership and time management skills.
“I was getting through a quarter filing and someone on my team fell sick halfway through, so we were down one person. We had to make it work with our timeline since there was no flexibility with it. I was tasked with getting our team through the filing period and keeping team motivation and engagement high while we were short-staffed.
“I rearranged our work to spread it out evenly and based on everyone's expertise. I held weekly team meetings—twice a week closer to the deadline—to discuss any areas where we were struggling, lagging behind, or running into issues and to support each other and brainstorm solutions. I also set up a shared calendar with reminders for important milestones to help everyone stay on task.
“This resulted in us building strong communication even after the filing was successfully completed on time. We motivated and supported one another through the process and each person felt valued as a member of the team. This actually worked out so well that I plan to use this approach with my teams going forward to ensure future projects run smoothly.”
9. How Have You Added Value to Your Company Outside of Your Client Activities?
Depending on the company or path you’re on within accounting, and especially if you’re an external auditor, hiring managers might want to understand how well-rounded you are and how committed you’d be to getting involved internally.
How to Answer
This is a fairly easy and straightforward question and a great way for you to show leadership skills beyond the day-to-day requirements of your accounting work. If you've helped with business development activities to grow the practice or led a committee or initiative, those are positive factors to demonstrate your versatility.
One possible answer would be:
“Outside of my daily responsibilities, I have gotten involved on the recruiting side by serving as a company representative during on-campus recruiting events. This includes volunteering at career fairs, conducting mock interviews, or taking candidates out to lunch during in-office interviews. I also lead our office social committee, so I am responsible for planning community outreach events and social events for staff.”
10. Why Are You Interested in This Company?
As an accountant, there are a plethora of paths, fields, and organizations to choose from. Whether you want to work at a nonprofit, corporation, or university, you have quite a few choices. A recruiter will want to assess how committed and enthusiastic you are about joining this company in particular.
How to Answer
This is when you connect those dots between your career goals and the company. You should show your interviewer that you’ve done your research: Always check out the company’s website and social media for insight and take the time to make sure your professional goals and values align with the company’s. For example, is one of your goals to work with a specific company size or industry? Have you been fascinated by this organization’s approach? Are you passionate about their mission? If so, you will want to share that during your interview.
Not only should you speak to how the company is aligned with your goals, but you can also reiterate how your experience is ultimately the best fit for what they are looking for in a candidate.
This might sound like this:
“I’m interested in working for the XYZ Art Museum because I’ve long been passionate about art—art history was my minor in college!—and would be so excited to have the chance to bring my accounting skills into an environment where everyone is similarly enthusiastic about the visual arts and uses their expertise (whether they’re curators or accountants like me) to advance this mission of introducing more people to modern art. I’ve worked at a couple of large nonprofit organizations that function similarly to a museum and spent a few years volunteering at ABC Museum’s outreach events back when I lived in Chicago—which only makes me more certain this would be an environment where I could thrive and contribute.”