Audit vs Tax – The Accounting Major’s Major Decision

May 09, 2018

By Ben Cotlar

It’s a cliché; I admit that. “I was in your spot just a couple years ago.”

Yes, I was a college student who had determined that accounting was a solid major, a stable choice, and a sound decision. And accordingly, I began following through with all the steps. I looked into accounting organizations, I tailored my resume for an accounting position and I began completing internship applications with the firms on campus.

But, there was one lingering question that always gave me some unease. It always made me question my resolve and doubt my decision. At every table I approached at the career fairs, every internship form I filled out and every professional I schmoozed with… the question was everywhere! “Audit or tax?”

At this point, I had only taken six accounting courses (one tax class, one audit class) and spoken to some people in each field. No real experience doing either! I didn’t know which one I wanted! I ended up submitting my applications for five audit internships and five tax internships.

I know I’m being a little extreme. You can have a decent idea of which public accounting track you want even without having had any actual experience. Personality, comfort zone and career goals can help direct you. Let’s explore those. 

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Individuality or Team Environments

Tax people tend to work independently from one another within their experience level. To contrast, the audit group typically functions as a team. The tax preparer works his or her magic from the comfort of their office every day, enjoying (relatively) routine and predictable day-to-day work. The auditors spend most of their busy-season at assorted client sites and are expected to conform to the team and client’s schedule. 

Exact or Material?

Tax people tend to be precise. There is room for estimates and interpretation, but tax work generally requires specific data.  Uncle Sam’s not cool if you understate your wages by a thousand dollars, even if you did report ninety grand of earnings that year. 

But on the audit side? Things are generally viewed in terms of being materially correct or materially misstated. If the client’s depreciation expense excluded the last month of the year on these eight assets, resulting in depreciation expense being understated by three thousand dollars… waive. Pass. 

Client Relationships

Another key difference is your relationship with your client. At Weinstein Spira, we say “relationships count.” Tax and audit oftentimes boil down to a different sort of relationship. On the tax side, the objective is aligned: Legally minimize tax obligation. You and your client are on the same team. 

On the audit side, there is a stark contrast. You will need to be comfortable with a degree of friction or differing opinions with your client.  You have to be able to maintain a certain degree of “healthy skepticism.” An auditors job is to explain and educate their client about complex issues while building a relationship.

So, you’ve made your decision, right? No worries if not! 

I still felt I needed a 15-month rotation between audit and tax before selecting my career track. Fortunately for me (and you), there are some accounting firms that will provide you with the opportunity to try both tracks.   

Weinstein Spira places its interns on a two-month rotation program, and then allows first-year staff to continue the rotation for their first year. If there is any formula for making the best possible decision, I can’t think of anything better than joining a firm that will give you a taste test for each side.

Don’t rush into your decision. Choosing tax or audit is a big one! Find a firm that will best equip you to enjoy your job and applaud your path.

Category: Audit