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What High-Schoolers Can Do Right Now to Prepare for an Accounting Career

Karen Osterheld

In a previous IMPACT post, I wrote about what skills millennials will need in the accounting field of the future. A high-school business teacher asked, in response, what I’d like to see from high-school students who are interested in pursuing accounting in college. It’s a great question.

I teach accounting to college freshmen at Bentley University, and it’s a rich and rewarding experience. But it’s also challenging, because many freshmen are not well prepared for the rigor of the college academic model. They’re used to the high-school academic model, which is generally answer-specific, as opposed to the college academic model, which stresses critical thinking.

Companies who will employ these students in the future tell us how essential critical thinking is for post-university success — a sentiment echoed in Bentley’s own Prepared U research. It’s so much more than parroting back a teacher’s lecture notes on a test.

So, having said that, what’s the best way that college freshmen can start developing critical thinking skills and, thus, start taking control of their own career destinies?

It is terribly important that high-school students get in the habit of preparing for their classes in advance.  For me, preparation for every freshman class is first and foremost. If students use the extra time they have in college to truly prepare for each class, then the teacher doesn’t have to review — or spoon-feed — the basics. Instead of going back and laying out the underlying principles, we can move on to a high-level, analytical conversation during our time together as a group.   

It’s all about discussing, assessing and understanding a wide range of scenarios and problems — the what-ifs, and the out-of-the-box situations. Very often, there’s simply no right or wrong answer in these classroom conversations. But there is a thought process, and a willingness and ability to sift through a number of unexpected variables. In my experience, that is exactly what the best accountants have to do — and do well — to maximize their success.

Now, if you are a CPA, there’s definitely a right and wrong way to prepare financial statements. But say you’re trying to provide the CEO of a company with financial advice as they’re about to launch a new product. They need to know and weigh the risks and rewards from your perspective as an accountant. Certainly, you can calculate the price and cost of the product, and then use a simple formula to figure out when the company will recover its outlays. But what if the economic conditions change? What if an unexpected competitor emerges in the marketplace? That’s where critical thinking and judgment come in — and where the top-tier CPAs add the most value in today’s competitive marketplace.

This is the kind of enriched knowledge and training I try to offer my freshmen students during each class. It’s how I try to prepare them for the real world that waits upon graduation. 

Certainly that sort of nuance is beyond the scope of a typical high-school senior. And, to the degree that students are interested in accounting, understanding the fundamental nature of the accounting practice comes first. But establishing the academic and intellectual routines and habits that will prepare students to tackle issues like those above is also critically important.

Freshmen have to stretch beyond the high-school mentality many of them bring to the college campus. In other words, it’s no longer just “What’s on the test.” Now the bar is raised and it’s “What’s going on in the classroom conversation.”  

Success at this level, and true preparation for the professional environment, means that freshmen have to step up and take real academic ownership — probably for the first time.

As a teacher, I’m always here to help nurture this process and facilitate the intellectual transformation. But, in the end, it’s up to the student to dig in and explore all the possibilities.

Karen K. Osterheld is a senior lecturer in accountancy at Bentley.