Many jobs in the accounting field call for advanced certifications— Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Certified Financial Analyst (CFA®), or Certified Management Accountant (CMA)—but even at the entry-level, an accounting interview calls for real preparation in order to excel.
An interviewer’s questions are designed to tease out whether you are a good fit for the role. So, identifying the type of questions you will face requires doing your due diligence by thoroughly researching the job description and the company. You may want to contact HR, or search on Linkedin, to find someone within the organization who can better explain the role you might fill, company operations, and its culture.
If that’s not possible, there are certain skills and characteristics that a hiring manager or recruiter will look for in an accounting candidate. These are:
Attention to detail.
In-depth knowledge of fundamental accounting standards and principles, such as the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or GAAP.
A love of numbers.
Below is a deep dive into some interview questions and answers that might be asked at the entry-level, mid-level, and management level of the accounting profession.
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Attention to detail is a critical characteristic of those who work in the finance or accounting fields. Therefore, the answers to the following questions should show a systematic approach to work and one that uses tools to identify inevitable mistakes along the way.
1. How do you ensure accounting accuracy?
There are various tools available to minimize errors. You can talk about popular software, such as Quickbooks, and systems that you put in place to minimize errors at the data-entry stage. Emphasize your appreciation for meticulous bookkeeping and documentation.
2. Do you prefer to focus on the big picture or the small details? Can you give an example?
Most likely, you are a detail-oriented person if you are an accounting professional. However, if you seek a management role, you must also have the ability and foresight to delegate much of the small details and focus on overall management and leadership. Your interviewer will be interested to hear how you will, or have, made the transition.
3. Would you describe yourself as a perfectionist? If so, why?
This is both a work style question and a personality question. If you describe yourself as a perfectionist, which you should be when it comes to math and numbers, also state the drawbacks to that characteristic. For example, how do you balance your perfectionism to not become detrimental to your work relationships? It’s best to answer with a nuanced reflection of when your perfectionist quality comes out, and the times when you are able to refrain from that tendency.
4. Describe a time you identified an error made by your manager or a senior. How did you address it with them?
This is an excellent question that shows your soft skills. Great answers highlight skills such as attention to detail, maturity, and emotional intelligence in terms of handling your boss, and problem-solving. If you have an example that shows a positive outcome, you’ll be in great shape.
The level of accounting knowledge that you need will vary depending on the position. Consequently, the complexity of the questions that the interviewer may ask to assess your knowledge will reflect whether you are seeking an entry-level, mid-level, or executive-level post. The following are examples from the most basic to a more advanced level.
These questions might be asked for entry-level jobs such as bookkeeper, accounts receivable clerk, or accounts payable specialist. Candidates for these jobs will likely have an associate’s degree. Their responsibilities may include managing financial transactions, using Excel and software programs, and generating monthly financial reports.
Entry-level bookkeepers or clerks may obtain tax documentation from the IRS, validate payments and deposits, record unpaid invoices and bad debt, and contact customers with outstanding balances.
1. What are the three critical financial statements?
For entry-level positions, the questions will not be too technical or complex, although a fundamental level of accounting principles is expected. This first question is as basic as it gets. A candidate who could not answer this would probably be a non-starter.
There is only one answer to the question: the balance sheet, the income statement, and the cash flow statement. The balance sheet shows the company’s assets, liabilities, and shareholder’s equity. The income statement outlines the company’s revenues and expenses, and the cash flow statement shows the cash flow from operating investing and financial activities.
2. Which statement is the best to refer to if you want to gauge the overall health of a company?
This question is a little more advanced. The interview is trying to find out if you know what each statement tells you and how to interpret the information on those statements. This type of question could be asked in an interview where financial analysis is a component of the job.
The answer here could be the cash flow statement. Cash is King, and the cash flow statement shows how much cash the company is generating. However, all three statements are linked and should be considered when seeking a full picture of the health of a company.
3. What happens when inventory goes up by $100, assuming you pay for it with cash?
This question is asking whether you understand the effect of various transactions on each statement. In this case, there will be no changes to the income statement. On the cash flow statement, inventory is an asset, so you will have $100 less cash flow from operations, and there will be a net change in cash at the bottom of the statement.
4. What is working capital?
Working capital is current assets minus current liabilities. Capital represents the funds used in day-to-day transactions.
5. What accounting software have you used, and which do you like the most?
Examples of accounting platforms are Quick Books, Freshbooks, and Zoho Books, and examples of ERP systems, or enterprise resource planning, are Oracle Enterprise Manager and Microsoft Dynamics GP.
You may not have used many of them if you don’t have much experience. If you can, show that you know what systems the company uses. Let them know that if you are not already familiar with a software or system, that you are confident that you can come up to speed quickly.
6. What is double-entry bookkeeping?
Double entry is an accounting standard where every debit has a corresponding credit for the same amount. Within this system, one account is debited, and another account is credited at the same time when a transaction occurs.
7. What is the difference between accounts payable and accounts receivable?
Accounts payable is defined as the amount the company owes for purchased goods or services on credit from a vendor or supplier. They are liabilities. Accounts receivable is the amount to be collected in return for goods sold on credit to a customer. Accounts receivable are assets.
8. What is the difference between a trial balance and a balance sheet?
A trial balance is a sheet with all the balances in a ledger account used to check the accuracy in recording and posting. The balance sheet is a statement that shows all the assets, liabilities, and equity of a company at a certain point in time.
9. What is the difference between inactive and dormant accounts?
Inactive accounts are closed accounts that will not be used in the future. Dormant accounts are not currently functioning, but they may be used in the future.
10. Are accounting standards mandatory?
Public companies in the United States must follow GAAP when their accountants compile their financial statements. Private companies may choose to follow GAAP, especially if they wish to obtain loans or other financing. GAAP financial statements are widely understood by lenders and investors.
These common interview questions might be asked in interviews for mid-level CPAs, staff accountants, or senior staff accountants. At this level, applicants will have a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, or other similar field and significant experience in transactional accounting,
The responsibilities at this level may include follow-ups of external and internal audits in response to accounting and audit recommendations, furnishing accounts, operational, logistical, and/or financial findings to management, solving problems, and conducting financial analysis.
At this level, you can expect the interviewer to assume that you already know the fundamentals of accounting principles. They will likely delve into subjects that are directly relevant to the job that you are applying for. It’s crucial that you have done your research on the company and the job so that you can better predict what the interviewer may ask you. That said, here are some general questions that might be asked.
1. What is executive accounting?
Executive accounting is specially designed for businesses that offer expert services to users.
2. Can you differentiate between public accounts and private accounts?
In the accounting industry, public accounting is conducted by one company for another company. Private accounting is done for your own company.
3. What auditing work have you done?
Accounting is recording the daily business activities while auditing is checking the accuracy of journal entries and the recording. Answer honestly. If you have not done much auditing, express the desire to and explain why you’re excited about it. If this question is being asked, it’s implied that it will be a component of the job you are interviewing for.
4. Do you have any background in statistics applied to accounting?
Accountants use statistics for budgeting and to predict future consumption, earnings, cash flow, and book value. Forecasting involves guesswork about the future, which can lead to errors. Accountants must understand how to evaluate errors using metrics and statistics tools to make accurate predictions about the future.
Advanced accountants will have a certificate as a Certified Public Accountant or a master's degree in accounting. They will have a minimum of five years of recent financial audit or reporting experience with a public accounting or advisory firm. They should have strong knowledge of U.S. GAAP or International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS)
Functions of this type of position might include cost analysis and reconciliation on general ledger accounts, risk assessment, calculating depreciation, analysis of financial information, advisory support to clients, Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) regulatory filings for spin-offs, initial public offerings (IPO), debt offerings, and other acquisition filings.
At this level, a senior accountant might report on mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, complex capital raising and financing structures, financial instruments, revenue recognition, and provide startup and bankruptcy accounting support to clients. Accountants at this level are also responsible for staff management and business decisions.
If you are interviewing at this level, it is critical that you show your leadership and management skills. You will be expected to delegate the accounting operations to mid-level managers. Your role is to maintain oversight and develop a strategy. Thus, the questions here are more likely to try to determine how your management style will fit into the executive suite at the company in question.
These questions might be asked in an interview for a lead accountant, specialized accountant, senior accountant, supervisory accountant, or advanced accountant role.
1. What is the biggest challenge facing the accounting profession today?
If you have researched the firm and, ideally, talked to insiders who can familiarize you with the company’s operations and systems, you will be better equipped to answer this question. Discuss a subject that is relevant to the firm. For example, if the firm is breaking into international markets, you might discuss the difficulties in standardizing international accounting practices. If the firm’s focus is tax accounting, discuss notable recent changes in the tax code.
2. What applications are familiar with?
You are not expected to be a tech expert at the management level. However, the interviewer will want to see that you grasp recent technology events and what competitors might be moving towards. Awareness of the current and future market is crucial to developing strategy.
You might describe the applications that you use currently, but then give an example of a new system that you think is potentially very exciting for the accounting or finance industry.
3. Define any accounting process that you developed or sought to improve?
Explain a past role where you changed the process or system to produce quantifiable results. For example, you introduced an app for staff to input travel expenses, which reduced processing time by 50%.
4. How have you helped reduce costs in a previous accounting job?
The role of an accountant is to record expenses with the ultimate goal of reducing expenses. Give an example of a time you were able to identify and eliminate unnecessary costs. For example, perhaps different departments were using the same software, but each was paying separate licensing fees. You were able to pay one fee for the whole organization and reduce the cost by 20%.
5. How do you ensure superior service to clients?
At this level, you probably will have a client-facing role. The interviewer needs to know if you understand customer focus and whether the client takes priority in your business approach.
This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate how you manage clients. Perhaps you had to walk a past client through a new process or persuade them to adopt a new system. Make sure the anecdote shows your people management skills and has a positive outcome.
6. How do you ensure tight deadlines are met?
Accountants face deadlines for financial statements. The interviewer wants to see time management skills and what safeguards you employ to meet deadlines. Basically, how good a project manager are you? How do you motivate people in times of crisis?
Give an example where your leadership made a difference. Perhaps you came up with a way to motivate a team to push through a difficult period but then rewarded them when the job was done. The interviewer wants to see how responsive and reliable you can be when things may not go completely to plan.
To thrive in the accounting profession, you absolutely must love number crunching. Whatever your professional level, if you can show excitement when you discuss the ins and outs of double-entry bookkeeping, statistical analysis, or price-to-earnings ratios, your affinity for all things numerical will shine.
1. What drew you to an accounting position?
Perhaps as a child, you loved to count, or perhaps your grandfather was an accountant with meticulous hand-written ledgers that listed out everything from bathroom soap to loan interest. This is a question where you can wax lyrical about what you love about Quickbooks or analytical statistical packages.
2. What are the skills that an accountant should have?
In addition to the obvious skills—math skills, communication skills, analytical skills, structured work style, aptitude for technology—don’t forget to mention client and leadership skills. Every accountant has a client, whether it be their direct boss or an external client that they provide services to.
Also, every accountant works with others, so people skills are important. Accountants also need to be able to point out mistakes in financial data to team members in a way that is not accusatory or demeaning. After all, an accountant is there to spot and correct accounting errors and mistakes.
3. What are the challenges that an accountant faces?
For this question, show that you understand the breadth of an accountant’s work—procurement, treasury, taxation, business development—and the need to collaborate with wide-ranging teams on a timely basis.
Show that you can connect the dots between the details and the financial truth on the one hand and the big picture objective on the other hand, which is serving the client.
Many firms will test their candidates. Administered tests could be on the fundamentals of financial accounting, like this accounting test offered on the website of the Corporate Finance Institute, or they might test your personality.
Personality tests are designed to determine how a person collaborates with others, whether they have leadership skills, whether they are critical thinkers, and if the person is a good fit for the organization.
Accounting tests can save time by eliminating candidates who clearly don’t have the required background or skill set.
If you have an impending interview, you can check with your HR contact to see if the company plans to administer any testing. If they do, test your knowledge and brush up on your accounting fundamentals. There are many online accounting assessment tests for a variety of roles including data entry, accounts payable, accounts receivable, bookkeeper, financial statements, payroll, taxes, QuickBooks, and even basic math skills.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) tests are popular for accountant applicants who have to deal with clients under stressful situations. Clients may not always tell the truth, and the accountant must know how to handle such situations diplomatically. The accountant must possess the ability to show empathy and be attentive to the client, for example, if they ask for help two weeks before a tax deadline.
Testing can be a more reliable way for an employer to determine an individual’s EQ rather than asking traditional and sometimes predictable interview questions, and case studies are often used for executive-level applicants.
It will be impossible to determine exactly what accountant interview questions or tests you will face. The best course of action is to thoroughly research the company and the position that you are targeting.
Try to find a contact within the company who can give you some insight. If you don’t have a contact, go to the company page on LinkedIn and reach out to some employees that you might have a commonality with. Perhaps you share the same alma mater, which is a good way to initiate a conversation.
Once you have a clearer picture of your potential role and the organization's systems and culture, you will be in a much better position to prepare yourself, your skills, and to convey your dynamic approach to work.
Best of luck!