5 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid in Public Accounting

I have been working in public accounting as an associate for about nine months now and I cannot even list all the rookie mistakes I have made. Technical knowledge comes with time and you are certainly not expected to know everything when you first start but there are a few expectations that may be unspoken. I have narrowed this list to my top five mistakes to avoid.


When you first start in the profession there will be countless technical things that you simply will not understand. Auditing cash and reconciling retained earnings are not exactly common sense, so you likely will struggle with it at first. Rest assured, this is expected. On the contrary, there are several things that you do know how to do, so make sure you don’t mess those up. Every work project comes with a few task that do not require much technical knowledge. These include things like signing off on work papers, checking in the client binder when you have finished, completing all of the tabs on those Excel spreadsheets, and so on. While completing these task may not score you a gold star, forgetting to complete them will definitely annoy whoever is reviewing your work.


Often you will find yourself working on mind-blowing task and everything will seem like rocket science. Try not to get so wrapped up in the difficulty that you forget to use common sense. If you find yourself struggling to find the answer to something, try a simple google search (use with caution). If you have not committed to memory what the MACRS useful life of a copier is, look it up on IRS.gov. True story: I once submitted an “open items” list to a partner requesting the value of some stock that a client had sold. The partner responded with “You know you could look this up online because you have the exact name of the stock, right?”. It was at that moment that I realized I had not been using common sense.


Repeating mistakes is a common error that I struggled with in the beginning. For the people you are working with, it gets old fast. When you receive feedback on your work, make a detailed list of the things you made mistakes on. Try and uncover why you made those mistakes but most importantly, try not to make them again. If someone bumps you with their grocery cart once you will probably forgive them and keep walking. After the third or fourth time, there may be words exchanged. Consider this scenario when you are submitting your work.


There will be repeated instances when you will need to reach out to your team for help. This needs to be both timely and effective. If you have several questions on a project, make a list and try to ask them all at once. This will avoid you from having to bug the same person every five minutes. It is also likely that the answers to these questions will yield more questions, so it helps if you group them. Another important tip is to make sure your communication is timely. As soon as you realize you have run into a “hiccup”, speak on it. If you are waiting for the partner to ask for an update on the project before you mention any issues, it is already too late.

Bonus tip: Remember to actually attach the attachment that you say is attached in the emails that you send.

It may be acceptable to be the inexperienced associate who doesn’t know the difference between an adjusting entry and a reclassifying entry. However, not knowing where the client meeting is taking place is a bit less acceptable and just reckless. The reality is that in the beginning you will not be great at the technical side of your job. Avoid adding insult to injury by showing up to work late, forgetting about meetings, and showing up ill prepared. If there is a pre-reading assignment to complete for a CPE session, you better show up prepared to discuss the reading. Ultimately, you should strive for proficiency with these less significant tasks to “soften the blow” of all the work errors you will make. Do not be both a rookie accountant and a terrible employee, pick a struggle.


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