How to help your students land great internships

May 12, 2015

American Institute of CPAs Magazine

Faculty members can get to know what firms are looking for and can direct students to resources

Andrew McClaskey is living many an accounting major’s dream: He’s 21 years old, is less than one year away from graduation at the University of Denver, and already has a great job with KPMG waiting for him.

McClaskey previously interned with KPMG, and he believes that internship enabled him to secure the position at the Big Four firm. “If a student chooses to pursue a career in public accounting, there is a very high chance that they will have an offer after graduation and often will receive the offer a year prior to graduating,” said McClaskey, who, as a graduate of his university’s undergraduate/graduate dual degree program, will finish with concurrent bachelor of science in accounting and master’s in accounting degrees this year.

An internship can set the course of an accounting student’s entire career because it often leads to the student’s first post-college job. But landing an internship can be a difficult and stressful process, and students often look for guidance from their professors. 

Demand for accounting interns is high—Denver-based regional firm EKS&H alone plans to hire 69 accounting interns this year, said human resources Senior Manager Rebecca Himango, CPA—and so students may receive offers for internships from several firms. Faculty, who not only know the students but also are familiar with the culture of many firms, can help advise students on where to go. They can also partner with university career centers, organizations like Beta Alpha Psi, the international honor society for financial information students and professionals, and the employers themselves to ensure that students make the right connections. And they can help students learn about the application process and cultivate the soft skills needed to create a strong impression when being interviewed.

Professors and recruiting staff offer the following tips to faculty who want to help their accounting students find the best internship opportunities:

  • Meet with accounting firms and companies regularly. “We have special functions, lunches, and get-togethers with professors once a year, if not twice a year, just so they know who we are,” Himango said. These functions give faculty the chance to talk about their students and what opportunities they are seeking.
  • Be responsive to employer requests, and get to know what firms want. Sharon Lassar, CPA, Ph.D., professor and director of the School of Accountancy at the University of Denver, said her school works closely with potential employers to understand trends in the industry so that students can be prepared with necessary skills. “Employers will let us know how our students are performing, particularly with regard to soft skills, so that we can address deficiencies they notice,” she said.

    In addition, when speaking with representatives of different firms, ask about what qualities they seek in their interns. “We are looking for somebody who is pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree in accounting, someone who works well on a team, but can also work independently in doing research,” said Jessica Seidlitz, CPA, managing director for fund accounting for Charles Schwab Investment Management. “Our interns are not just people who will make copies—they are true members of our team.” Himango said that EKS&H looks for interns that have a great attitude, a willingness to learn, a high grade-point average, experience in leadership positions, and job and volunteer experience.

  • Tap the alumni base. “Alumni are often interested in supporting their alma mater,” said Seidlitz. Charles Schwab, which will hire 110 interns in various disciplines over this academic year, advises accounting faculty to reach out to alumni in early winter to determine whether their employers will have openings for internship opportunities in the summer.
  • Adopt a firm. At California State University, Fullerton, each of the accounting faculty has “adopted” two or three firms, meaning the faculty member interacts with firm recruiters to determine their needs. “We as faculty have to buy into the idea that placement is part of our job, so the faculty here have ongoing interaction with businesses to find out what they are looking for, and then tell students what they need to do to get the internships,” said Betty Chavis, CPA, Ph.D., professor and accounting department chair at Cal State Fullerton.
  • Direct students to on-campus resources. Many schools with strong accounting programs have robust resources to help students find internships. At CSU Fullerton, the career center hosts an Accounting Expo each fall in addition to on-campus interviews each year. At the University of Denver, the career center helps employers by posting positions and by scheduling interview rooms, informational sessions, and meet and greets. Beta Alpha Psi organizes regular meetups between students and prospective firms and companies on campuses nationwide. Be sure your students are aware of these opportunities.
  • Prepare students for the application process. Faculty can have students write resumes and cover letters as part of their class work. In addition, professors can help coach students for trial interviews with potential employers. “Sometimes the mock interviews lead to an internship,” Chavis said.