Blake Christian

From Campus to Clients

Top 10 essentials to make the transition.

May 22, 2008
by Blake Christian, CPA/MBT

Even though the current economic downturn will likely have limited impact on the need for CPAs in the next few years, students seeking future employment in the public accounting and private industry accounting departments should be fully armed with the skills necessary to distinguish themselves from other CPA candidates.

I have been fortunate to have experienced my career, spanning three decades, as a Big 4 partner, a private industry tax director and currently as a partner in a large regional CPA firm. This experience has given me a broad perspective on what clients, employers and co-workers expect in the challenging and rewarding accounting industry.

Following are 10 critically important areas that students and even experienced accounting professionals should focus on in order to reach their full potential.
  1. Education — In addition to maintaining solid GPAs, preferably at or above 3.5 in both general and major subjects, a student aspiring to an accounting career should focus on writing skills, finance and international business. Active participation in the Accounting Society, Beta Alpha Psi and similar organizations is extremely useful as a networking platform.

  1. Experience — Solid work experience, particularly with respect to bookkeeping, banking, finance, tax preparation, etc., will be a plus to any employer. Spend time developing a clear and thorough resume that fully outlines your skill set and ability to multi-task.

  1. Exam Passage — Make passing the CPA exam a top priority, as it will be a bigger challenge (and bigger distraction) as time passes. Many CPA firms will limit advancement and job assignments if you have not passed the exam. Career flexibility is also enhanced for employees who have obtained the "CPA" designation.

  1. Early Arrival/Late Exit — Both with the firm and in dealing with clients, you can distinguish yourself by arriving to the office (or arriving for a client or prospect meeting) a little earlier than others. This helps establish your work ethic and also presents valuable opportunity to interact more with superiors, co-workers, clients and prospects.

    Your stress level will also be lower than most since you will avoid being the last one to show up for meetings. And very important, don't be the first one to leave, whether it is the office or a client meeting. You should make it a point to stay late, get in that last-minute call to a client, finish up the file you are working on or if you are at a client meeting, make sure you are there for any last-minute questions they may have.

  1. Etiquette — Spend time asking good questions of classmates who graduated a year or two ahead of you, as well as professors, regarding proper etiquette in the office, with a client and at other business functions. Business etiquette is rarely taught in school, but it can make or break your career. If you will be working with international clients, additional cultural research is advisable to minimize faux pas.

  1. Empathy — Always put yourself in the client's, employer's or prospective client's place and be sensitive to their time constraints when asking for information, etc. But — NEVER COMPROMISE ON ETHICS — see number seven below.

  1. Ethics — Even as new staff, you will be faced with ethical issues. In addition to reasonably clear AICPA and State Accounting guidelines, you need to go with your gut and raise any issues ranging from filling out time reports, to accepting a résumé or job offer from a client's employee, to deciding whether to report book or taxable income.

  1. Excellence — As in college, the work environment is highly competitive and the economic stakes are even higher. Ninety percent or 95 percent accuracy will not get you an "A" at work. Your work must be 100 percent accurate to satisfy clients and supervisors. Self review of your computation, letters and e-mail is critical to establish a reputation of generating quality deliverables. Constant technical and industry focused reading is highly recommended. Advanced degrees can also improve your client service capabilities and career path.

  1. Efficiency — The effective use of your time is a key to cost-benefit analyses performed by clients and your supervisors. Balancing fast turnaround on projects, while delivering highly accurate work product is a tough balancing act. Therefore, by familiarizing yourself with both in-house software, as well as useful industry Web sites, can allow you to be more time efficient.

  1. Evolution — While the fundamental job requirements for CPAs have not changed dramatically over the past two decades, the globalization of the world and the technology revolution have seen the development of many sub-specialties within the accounting profession. These more specialized jobs, such as international tax experts, e-commerce experts, forensic auditors and supply-chain experts, are in high demand and can command high salaries. Students entering the workforce need to monitor trends, be flexible and adapt in order to stay competitive.


Public and private accounting, tax and financial consulting positions should see strong demand for the foreseeable future. Students who proactively plan out their career paths, focus on quality and efficiency and maintain a flexible and "constant improvement" attitude will generally find a smooth transition to a rewarding professional career.

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Blake Christian, CPA/MBT, is a Tax Partner in the Long Beach Office of Holthouse, Carlin & Van Trigt, LLP and is Co-Founder of National Tax Credit Group, LLC.