Applying to the Big Four: a guide

If you know enough graduates you probably know someone who has applied for a position with the Big Four: KPMG, Deloitte, PwC and Ernst & Young (EY). They’re huge companies with well-established graduate programmes that can set you up for great careers in management, finance and business.

Understandably this comes with some pretty huge odds. The Financial Times has a few statistics for the odds of successful candidates to unsuccessful candidates, and they’re pretty high.

25 applicants per position. (40,000:1,600)
16 applicants per position. (15,000:950)
28 applicants per position. (28,000:1,000)

The number of applicants for Deloitte is undisclosed, but the others speak for themselves.

To paraphrase David Tennant’s speech to graduating actors, if there’s anything else you think you want to apply for, then apply for that. The process is long, and it might be hard, and the odds are high, so if you can spare yourself all that be nice to yourself and do something else. But if you can’t, if you really really have to, then that drive and desire should serve you well, so good luck.

Now, applying to the Big Four is a lot easier than being a successful actor, but it’s not a cakewalk. For any of you still with us, here is a breakdown of the application. KPMG, Deloitte, PwC and EY all have very similar selection processes, so this is a one-stop guide to all of them. By the end you should feel just as confident as these terrifying stock photo children.


Let’s jump straight in.

N.B. A lot of the tips here (particularly in the Application and Interview sections) are useful for any form of job application, so you’ll find something useful no matter where you’re applying.


1. Application – Getting to know you, getting to know all about you

Stage one: the pitch. The first impression. And, as all the Big Four agree, first impressions count. The application forms vary slightly between companies. Some ask for little more than personal information, others ask for your reasons for applying and details of your work experience, though the same advice applies to all of them:

Do your research

Say you’ve chosen to apply for an audit position with Deloitte. You could have applied for their consulting job, or auditing with KPMG, or even an executive assistant with FitnessGenes.  My point is you’ve chosen one particular position: show them why. Look at their website, their marketing materials, some testimonials. Figure out exactly what they do and what you hope to be doing.

Then have a look at the market. In these positions it’s essential to keep up to date, so read the news, both about the company and about the competitors. If you show your learning they know you’ve worked hard on this form.

Education and skills – know the balance

Recent news has pointed out that a stellar academic record is not the most important thing on an application for the Big Four. What they’re looking for is applied learning, and useful skills. This affects everyone, both high-scorers and low. If you’re not leaving a highly respected university with a top First they won’t hold that against you as long as you can show all the skills you know that didn’t come up in your degree. Equally, if you have left Oxford with a published dissertation you can’t rely on that to coast through your application. As PwC puts it, “awareness and evidence” of relevant skills and qualities are what they’re looking for.

Be interesting, be personal

Very important, considering the last two points. It sounds a bit vague, but this is what a KPMG recruiter is screaming out after reading 20,000 applications that are just lists of qualifications and quotes from their own website. The company wants to get a sense of what you’re like, and this is your chance to give them that. Tell specific stories about you to show your skills, take things from the marketing that resonates with you for a reason. Engage with the people on the other side, they’re human too.

Know when to stop

This is your elevator pitch, it shouldn’t go into every detail. You want to save some things to elaborate in an interview, so tease them with some of your stories. If everything else you’ve said is interesting enough to them they’ll definitely be back to ask about them.

So you seal up your form in a nice online envelope and send it off, and all going well you’re through to the next round!

2 Online testing (very testing)

Numerical reasoning, verbal reasoning, situational judgement tests: if you don’t know what they mean don’t worry. Neither did I before researching this article and I managed to find out with a little googling, so I’ve done that step for you!

By and large when you’re invited to do these tests you have a time limit to complete them in. You may have a week to finish all the tests and each one has to be completed within 20 minutes. Never fear, though, because the internet is peppered with example tests to keep you in practice.

Numerical and verbal reasoning

All of the companies do one or both of these tests at some point in the process, so it’s best to brush up on them. Numerical reasoning tests your knowledge of (unlikely as it may seem) numbers, specifically percentages, rates, trends, sales analysis and the like. Verbal reasoning has similar trend and relationship analysis, but is based on words (surprise, surprise), and is a bit more like an English comprehension exercise.

EY  and PwC  provide their own links to reasoning test websites. GreenTurn has examples for all four companies.

Situational Judgement Test (STJ)

While other companies may ask you to complete one of these, KPMG is the only one that mentions specifically. An STJ tests your reasoning and prioritisation in work-based scenarios, and will likely mention hypothetical scenarios that pit work and social life against each other and ask you to choose the best path.

It’s important to see this from the employer’s perspective: in these scenarios side with work for now. They are only hypothetical, and they just want to see that you will commit yourself to the job. It will not contract you into working late on your birthday.

You can practice the test here.


Deloitte and possibly others also have a simulated email inbox exercise. It sets you up in a fictional business based in real-life working scenarios, and asks you to prioritise and organise tasks. It might take some getting used to, so I’d definitely recommend trying this one out here (The program doesn’t support Chrome).

All of these practice tests should tell you what the best answers and course of action are in each case, so you can track how well you did and learn for the real thing. If you’ve done well (and we all hope you did), then you’ll be straight into the next stage:

3. Interviews

The terror! Interviews can be scary, but remember this stage all the questions are about you, so you know all the answers. Plus, except for Deloitte, the first round are phone interviews, so you can dress in the comforting onesie of your choice.

Things to remember:

If you researched before then refresh your news knowledge to wow them with up-to-the-minute expertise, If you didn’t do your research before then congratulations for getting this far and DEFINITELY do some now. You want them to feel like you could start working that afternoon if you needed to.
Ask questions
This job interview business is a two way street: they want to know about you, but you should want to know about them. It looks great if an applicant wants to learn about the job, the company, even about your interviewer. It shows engagement, which is never bad.
All those teased stories can really flourish now you’ve got them on the phone. Go into more detail about how great you are and why, coincidentally, every job you’ve ever had is perfect experience for this position.
Take your time

One piece of advice says that in an interview you should pretend like you’ve already got the job. It’s a useful tip as long as you don’t get too cocky. What it does remind you is to be confident in yourself and what you’re saying, and to not expect too much of yourself. Don’t just blurt out the first thing that comes to your head, let a question land, take a moment, and respond calmly, casually dropping in a reminder of how great you are.

Assuming your calm and confident self breezes through this first round some of you may take a different direction. For PwC applicants the next round is an individual face-to-face interview, in which case review the information in this section and take a look at section 4. But, for everyone else you’re off to…

4. Assessment centres

Now you meet your competition! Or your co-workers, depending on how you look at it. The assessment centres are described by most of the Four as immersive, and are designed to simulate actual work (though are often based on a fictional business, like the e-tray exercises). Now we don’t have any real example material, but there are plenty of forums where you can find testimonials of previous applicants. These are my favourite. Above all, though, remember again to think from an employer’s perspective: they are looking for team work, leadership, “energy and enthusiasm” (as EY put it).

For all but Deloitte this is also the first face-to-face contact with the employers you’ll get. Think of how you’re presenting yourself, and as PwC says: “If in doubt, dress conservatively.”

Assessment centres vary in their content, but may feature
  • More e-tray exercises (whoo!)
  • Individual written assessments
  • Teamwork exercises
  • Pits of hot coals

They’re unlikely to feature all of the above, but it’s best to be prepared. Use your research, use your intuition, and more than anything remember to be yourself and be unique.

5. Final steps

Deloitte has a final assessment involving an interview case study (which they’ll give you beforehand) and KPMG has a final interview, so just follow the steps in section 2. Remember now, of course, that body language is important, so think about your posture and use eye contact (though not too much). We’ll have an article on this sort of thing soon.

PwC and EY decide after the assessment centre, so though you may be called into a final interview, all that’s left is to wait.

6. The aftermath

If you’re unsuccessful try not to be disheartened. That might be hard; If you’ve followed this guide you would have done a lot of work for it, but at the end of the day remember those odds at the beginning.

The upsides: you can ask for feedback and learn from that. Going over each practice test again, re-write your application content to be your best sales pitch. There are plenty more opportunities to reapply. And, if not, spend some times in some internships to build up your professional experience. You could get internships with the Big Four to gain a knowledge of how they work or have a scroll through our website to see if anything catches your fancy.

If you are successful, great! But remember the hard work has only just started. Luckily you want to do it, otherwise you wouldn’t have read all the way down to here.

Best of luck!

All of the applications can be accessed through our website.

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