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What to do when you're rejected by the Big Four

If you're trying to get a job with an investment bank, a Big Four accountancy firm, or the so-called MBB Consulting firms (McKinsey & Co, Bain, Boston Consulting), you will almost certainly have experienced rejection. Tens of thousands of people apply for jobs in each and many fail. Goldman Sachs has over well 100,000 applications for around 5,000 internships, for example. 

So, what should you do when the inevitable happens? And how can you palliate the pain of being turned down? A new study by Laurence Daoust, an assistant professor at HEC in Montreal, offers some pointers.

The obsession with elite employers 

Daoust spent two years studying undergraduate students at universities in Canada as they pursued jobs at the Big Four accounting firms (EY, PWC, Deloitte and KPMG). Daoust's recently published analysis* applies entirely to the Big Four, but could just as easily apply to banks or consultants, or any other highly prestigious employers who go out to persuade students to apply.

Contrary to their historic image as bean counters, accounting firms are increasingly portraying themselves as 'trendy and fun,' 'exciting' and 'jet-setting,' says Daoust, citing previous academic studies. As undergraduates come to appreciate the excitement and social recognition on offer, he says the students become increasingly obssessed with applying for Big Four jobs and build a so-called 'illusio' which prevents them from questioning whether it's even such a good idea.

Only when they're finally rejected does the illusio burst. - Sometimes painfully.

Why students want to work for the Big Four

The students gave Daoust all sorts of reason for their Big Four obsessions. They wanted the "exit opportunities", the "networking," to "transition" into other jobs later, to work for "well recognized" companies that were "big global brands" and they wanted the prestige - to be somewhere they'd be "proud" to work for.

"There’s the status that you have once you have a job. When you have a firm behind your name, then people ... perceive you in a different way ... they associate you with that firm," said one student.

But Daoust noted that there was also a frisson of fear. - The Big Four played on the risks to students if they didn't get a job there, and students ended up feeling that the Big Four were all that mattered. "Big Four is all you care about. And it’s kinda stuck in all our minds, like, ‘Oh I only want to get to Big Four. I don’t really care about the smaller firms," another student told him.

The success narratives and the summer outings 

As Daoust followed the students around, he noticed that they were increasingly exposed to "success stories" told about people who'd got Big Four jobs. Professionals turned up to campus events and delivered testimonials about how exciting their careers were. Students who previously described accounting jobs as "lame" or "not the sexiest" had their heads turned. ‘‘[L]ook at him now, he’s young and powerful and successful and happy,” said one student.

It helped, too, that the Big Four took prospective student employees on exciting outings. There was sailing and rock-climbing and scavenger hunts, and cooking and body-pump sessions (yes) and trips to Disney Land. 

There were also excursions to bars, restaurants and five star hotels. "I was absolutely blown away," said another student after a three day executive five star retreat. 

The addiction 

The upshot of all this was that students became so obsessed with working for the Big Four, that they forgot about everything else.  "It doesn’t make sense, I know it doesn’t make sense. . .," one student told Daoust. "Sometimes I wonder if it’s actually what I want or if it’s what I feel everything around me is telling me to do. . . it’s addictive. That’s the word I would use. They [the Big Four firms] have a way of making you feel like you need them.

The pain and shame of rejection

After all this, the students who received job offers from the Big Four felt great. "They try really hard to make you feel like you belong right from the beginning. You’ve got branded stuff. When you sign, there’d be like an ‘‘I Heart [Big Four 3]” shirt and that sort of thing," one student said.

But the students who didn't get a job (and 16 out of the 51 students Daoust followed didn't), felt awful.

One rejected student told Daoust she was ‘‘devastated” by rejection. Another said she felt, "life was over.” Another spoke of students being, "emotionally distraught." 

The problem, says Daoust is that the Big Four recruitment process makes students into "cliques." Those who don't get in are seen as "not smart enough," and belittled the elite group. They have lower social status and say they feel "ashamed."  

How to let yourself down gently 

How can you avoid this entire painful process - and still apply for elite employers if you want to? Daoust isn't explicit on how to sidestep the elite recruitment conveyor belt, but he does offer students' insights into where they went wrong.

Firstly, he notes that most students didn't discover much about the actual jobs at the Big Four during the campus events and recruitment process. - Most students went into it with almost no knowledge of what auditing involves and they came out none the wiser. 

"I even had coffee chats with some people [at the Big Four], asking, ‘‘So what would a typical day be like in your firm?”," one student told Daoust. "They do emphasize a lot of client involvement, and they say that you’re not really at the office all the time, you’re more out with clients and working with people. But I still don’t really know what to expect going into it." 

Other students said the same. "They try to make it seem like your life’s going to be a party, like you’ll be travelling the world, going out to fancy dinners, going out to fancy bars, going to Florida on conferences, all of this stuff where at the end of the day, it’s still a job. You’ll have work to do. You’ll have deadlines. You’ll have hierarchy," said one student.

If you think of the Big Four as sitting a desk all day and completing audits for clients, missing out won't be such a big deal. Several students complained they'd been misled about the internship hours (until 10pm), the coaching support (there wasn't any) and the fun events with summer interns (there were very few). - The dream doesn't always match the reality. 

Secondly, don't be so blinded by your obsession with elite employers that you forget the alternatives. Daoust noted that students stopped exploring other options, and then regretted it.

Lastly, remember that you're involved in a transactional rather than an emotional relationship. And when that transaction doesn't work, you'll be dropped. Daoust came across students who thought they'd "bonded" with Big Four firms, only to feel disappointed when they were dropped and the recruiters stopped responding to their messages.

"I was pretty negative about the whole dressing up as a monkey and doing all these things and not getting any return from it," said one student. "I would email the recruiters to say, ‘‘Thanks for coming. It was great to meet you. It was just so good having this specific conversation.” You never get any response."

*Playing the Big Four recruitment game: The tension between illusio and reflexivity

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: in the first instance. Whatsapp/Signal/Telegram also available. Bear with us if you leave a comment at the bottom of this article: all our comments are moderated by human beings. Sometimes these humans might be asleep, or away from their desks, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. Eventually it will – unless it’s offensive or libelous (in which case it won’t.)

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • ch
    30 April 2019

    imagine thinking a big four job is prestigious

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