CPA job interview tips from a recruiter

Learn what skills employers really look for.
By Courtney L. Vien

Beth A. Berk, CPA, CGMA, is a Maryland-based recruiter who started her business in 2005 specializing in matching CPAs with the right employers. The JofA asked her how CPAs can stand out from the competition during a job search.

JofA: What are the most common soft skills that you see companies looking for in interviewees?

Beth Berk: In hiring CPAs, obviously, attention to detail, accuracy, transparency, and the necessary technical skills seem to be common expectations. However, I think the top soft skill set they're looking for is the ability to effectively communicate and get your point across. In general, a hiring manager wants to know whether you're able to understand their question, and are able to answer it and explain with enough details, versus not answering the question by either using one-word answers or being very wordy.

JofA: How else can CPAs demonstrate communication skills in an interview?

Berk: CPAs need to be aware of their tone of voice, attitude, and body language. If it's a telephone interview, I usually tell candidates to smile since it does change the tone of their voice. I can always tell when somebody's smiling when I'm talking to them during a telephone interview. In face-to-face interviews, of course, smiling is a great thing to do as well.

And make sure that your body language is appropriate — for instance, avoid folding your arms as if you're bored, or even if you're cold. Keep your hands either on your lap or on the top of the table or desk. And if you tend to be jittery, plant both feet solidly on the ground. Sit in a poised position if there's no place to put your hands. And do look straight at the interviewer and maintain great eye contact. Do be aware when a sensitive or tough question comes up that you don't answer in a defensive manner, whereby your voice or body language reflect that.

Also, in terms of communicating, be careful about using filler such as "uh" or "mm" or "like." How you communicate during the interview provides a preview of how you may communicate with your clients and peers.

JofA: What about management-level jobs? Are there things that interviewers are looking for there that are a little bit different?

Berk: Management-level jobs, whether in public accounting or industry, usually require the ability to be resourceful or even creative, to think on one's feet as well as solve problems and come up with solutions on a timely basis. Most management-level jobs require some form of curiosity and willingness to keep learning — for instance, the ability to research and apply regulations and learn about ways to lead, manage, motivate, and retain staff, enhance efficiencies, etc. These jobs also require professional skepticism, especially if someone will be doing a job involving investigative or audit-related services or skills. The ability to set boundaries is really important, and also to set priorities and stick to them as best as possible.

Interviewers will find out whether a candidate has these qualities by asking them situational questions or to describe challenges they faced and how they dealt with them and the outcome. Companies may also find this out upon speaking to a CPA's references.

JofA: What are the biggest differences between applying for management accounting jobs and applying for jobs at firms?

Berk: Depending on the size of the firm and where it's located, a public accounting firm may be less flexible in terms of requirements than industry jobs. For example, say a CPA firm is looking to hire a manager for their real estate audit practice and they have identified a great CPA coming from another firm. Then they find out the CPA's audit experience is in an unrelated industry. It's very possible that they will not be willing to relax their requirement for experience auditing real estate clients and hire this CPA. They might think that too much time may be needed for the CPA to get up to speed for that salary level or that it is possible the staff they will manage have more industry experience.

However, what I've found many a time with industry jobs, fit is just as important — if not more important — than having certain technical skills.

JofA: What kinds of questions should job candidates ask about prospective employers' technology?

Berk: It's extremely important for the job seeker to ask about and be aware of what technology a prospective employer uses, as well as to ask about their strategy and plans for upgrades, new applications, etc.

I have worked with a lot of organizations where the technology is not as important to the owners or management as it should be. As a result, they don't want to invest in upgrading their accounting software packages or implementing other tools that can provide much better results. As a job seeker you don't necessarily want to work for a company where you're not going to gain additional or marketable technology skills.

Many times employees coming from a paperless environment do not want to go work in an environment that isn't completely paperless. How technology is used — or, shall I say, not used — could impact the viability of your next employer as well as your options for other roles in the profession.

JofA: Today, it's very easy to send in a résumé online. How can you get noticed?

Berk: It's important to make sure that at the very top of your résumé, the summary is very clear as to how you're qualified for the job, and that it is easy to read and understand. And if you are able to include and upload a cover letter, do so, and convey why you are qualified, including information that may not be easily gleaned from your résumé.

Also, answer all of the questions on the application. If you don't, or don't include a cover letter that addresses the questions or expresses why you're qualified, it's very possible you may be overlooked on that alone. So sending the résumé, in and of itself, may not be sufficient.

And, usually there is a question about salary. People usually don't like to put what their salary requirements are. If you are truly flexible, I would state that in your cover letter or state that you are looking for market rate for the role. And if you are truly looking for a particular amount at the higher end if a range is disclosed, I would also indicate that. If your salary requirements are much higher than what they may be willing or able to pay, you might be wasting your time.

Courtney L. Vien is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at

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