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How to Become a Certified Public Accountant
Certified Public Accountant Snapshot
What is a Certified Public Accountant?
Certified public accountants (CPAs) are licensed accounting professionals who perform many services, including tax preparation, bookkeeping, auditing, and more. A CPA may work for an accounting firm, within a company, or for a government agency.
Steps to Become a Certified Public Accountant
To become a CPA, you'll need education, work experience, and certification. These steps will get you there.
Find the right school.
It's important to weigh multiple factors when deciding which school is right for you. Two things to look for are:
• Accreditation: A school that's accredited has met standards for quality education. Some employers and graduate schools may require that you have a degree from an accredited program.
• Online programs: Online programs can be helpful for working students and those with family responsibilities who need extra flexibility. Many online programs feature pre-recorded lectures that let you study when it works for you. Some programs are even self-paced, giving you more flexibility during times when your life is particularly busy.
Choose a degree.
If you want to become a CPA, you'll need a four-year bachelor's degree plus additional credits. There are several ways to get there.
• Associate degree: If you have limited finances and want to begin your career as soon as possible, you can earn a two-year associate degree in accounting. In this scenario, you can work while completing two more years of school to earn your bachelor's degree.
• Bachelor's degree: If you pursue a bachelor's degree in accounting, you'll have three to choose from: a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in accounting, a Bachelor of Science (BS) in accounting, and a Bachelor of Accountancy (BAcc). These four-year degrees generally consist of 120 credits, but you'll need 150 credits to become a CPA.
• Master's degree: To earn the additional credits you'll need, you can pursue a master's degree or take classes at a community college. A master's degree will take one to two years to complete.
Gain admission to a program.
While requirements for a bachelor's in accounting vary by school, all programs will require applicants to have a high school diploma or GED.
You may also need:
• High school coursework. It is often recommended or required that you take certain high school classes like accounting or calculus to prepare for your college coursework.
• Minimum GPA. Depending on how competitive a school or program is, applicants might need to have a minimum GPA, typically ranging from 2.5 to 3.5.
• College entrance exam scores. Many schools also require minimum SAT or ACT scores.
Earn your degree.
To earn your bachelor's degree, you'll take general business courses but focus on accounting, with classes such as:
• Financial accounting: Accounting principles and concepts, plus how accounting is used in business.
• Taxation: Income taxes for individuals and businesses, as well as the principles of taxation
• Business law for accountants: Legal issues that accountants often encounter, like bankruptcy and ethics
• Auditing: Audit risk, strategy, and reporting
• Principles of management: Business management principles, including strategic decision-making and human capital management
• Introduction to spreadsheets: Spreadsheets for analysis and for business applications
• Principles of economics: Theories and principles that explain how economics contribute to business decisions and management
• Applied probability and statistics: Statistics fundamentals like graphing and probability
In addition to your classwork, you'll want to complete an internship. "Internships in college are important," says Kirsha Campbell, CPA/CMA. "You get that hands-on insight and experience, and you're in an office environment where you're seeing what it's like to work with deadlines."
Internships also provide an opportunity to network and make your resume more competitive. If you're an aspiring CPA, an internship in a tax preparation or bookkeeping office can give you a sense of the ins and outs of a CPA career.
Find your first job and launch your career.
You'll need at least one year of accounting work experience before you can become a CPA, so landing a position is a crucial step. Roles that allow you to work under a CPA, such as junior clerk, can be particularly valuable and help prepare you for certification.
Here are some tips for your job search.
• Attend job fairs. These events give you a chance to network, talk to representatives from multiple firms, and make a memorable first impression in person.
• Ask about open roles where you interned. If the firm has an entry-level opening, you could be a strong candidate.
• Reach out to your network. Circle back to contacts you made during your internship and elsewhere and ask if they know of any job opportunities that might be a good fit for you.
Pursue your CPA credential.
The CPA credential demonstrates that you have the expertise deemed necessary by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) to be a top-level accountant. You can earn the credential by passing the national CPA exam and obtaining a license in your state.
Depending on your state, a bachelor's degree may qualify you to take the CPA exam. However, most states require 150 credits, 30 more than most bachelor's degrees.
There are several ways to earn these additional credits:
• Enroll in a program that allows you to earn your bachelor's and master's degrees in accounting at the same time. These programs generally take five years to complete.
• Earn a master's degree. Your options include a master's degree or an accounting MBA. If you have a bachelor's in accounting, you'll need about 30 credits to earn a master's, giving you the 150 credits you'll need to become a CPA. These programs take anywhere from one to two years, and they are offered on campus and online.
• Take extra accounting coursework. Courses may be available online or at a local community college.
Qualify for the Uniform CPA Examination.
Aspiring CPAs must pass a challenging, in-depth exam administered by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA).
While you'll take the same exam regardless of where you live, eligibility requirements differ slightly in each state. In general, you'll need to be at least 18 years old and have a bachelor's degree. In addition, most states require:
• At least one year of work experience in accounting
• 150 college credits
Pass the exam.
Format: The online exam is actually four tests that take four hours each to complete. You can take them together or separately during an 18-month testing window. Questions are a combination of multiple-choice, task-based simulations, and written answers.
Content: The tests are broken down by topic and cover auditing and attestation; financial accounting and reporting; regulation; and business environment and concepts.
Passing score: 75
Test prep resources: The AICPA administers the exam and offers free resources to help prepare for the test.
Become licensed as a CPA.
After you pass the CPA exam, you'll need to meet your state's board of accountancy requirements to get your CPA license. These may differ slightly from state to state:
• Many states require at least one year of public accounting work experience. Some states may accept other types of accounting experience.
• Most states require a passing grade (90 percent) on an ethics exam.
In most states, you must be 18 to be licensed, but in a few, the minimum age is 21.
• You must be licensed in the state where you will live and work. Some states have reciprocal agreements with other states, which is particularly helpful for CPAs practicing in areas near state borders.
Advance your training and career.
Becoming a CPA can open the door to management roles, especially if you focus on developing your business and leadership skills. Earning additional credentials, including a master's degree if you don't have one already, can better position you for these upper-level jobs.
Some CPAs decide to open their own firms. Running a firm can be a lot of work, but it gives you the chance to be your own boss. Plus, since you can choose the types of clients you want to work with, you're in control of your career path.
Some CPAs choose to earn additional certification to specialize in one or more areas of accounting, including:
Risk management and internal control. In this role, you'll identify and respond to technology risks and cyber threats and improve efficiencies.
Forensics. CPAs in this field investigate fraud, bribery, and embezzlement.
Personal finances. These CPAs work with clients on investing, estate planning, retirement planning, insurance, and wealth management strategies.
Management. Certified management accountants (CMAs) help companies identify trends and risks and strategize.
Is Certified Public Accounting the Career for You?
A CPA's career can be diverse, and they aren't limited to one specific field within accounting. Instead, they may perform many functions across many industries. These are just a few potential responsibilities:
Why Become a CPA?
While all CPAs are accountants, not all accountants are CPAs. Only CPAs can give advice, analyze financial statements, and represent clients in an IRS audit.
Becoming a CPA raises your credibility and can significantly increase your lifetime earning potential, says Angel Chatterton, senior lecturer of accountancy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a CPA herself. While the requirements are demanding, Chatterson says she's never regretted earning her certification and encourages students to do the same.
"It's really getting a new set of skills," she says. "And it's opening the door for these accountants."
Among their exclusive duties, CPAs can:
Where You'll Work
CPAs work in many places, including companies, accounting firms, non-profits, education organizations, and government agencies.
CPAs with accounting firms perform work for businesses that pay for the firm's services. If you work for a firm, you may have clients in a range of industries. Larger companies commonly have CPAs on staff because of the complexity and volume of work they do.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that jobs for accountants will grow by 5.6% through 2031. That's about average when compared to overall job growth.
The complex nature of tax regulations means there should be continuous demand for accountants. In addition, as businesses grow and expand, it's likely they'll need more CPA services.
The BLS reports that accountants earn a median wage of $77,250. This statistic reflects all accountants and aren't specific to just CPAs.
Earning your CPA designation can qualify you for higher-paying positions, particularly because CPAs can prepare audited financial statements. A CPA license also helps to qualify you for upper-level management and leadership positions, which tend to pay more than entry-level opportunities.
Earning your CPA designation can qualify you for higher-paying positions, particularly because CPAs can prepare audited financial statements, which non-licensed accountants cannot.
Experience, where you work, and where you live can also influence your pay, as this state-by-state salary chart shows.
Median Salary: $77,250
Projected job growth: 5.6%
10th Percentile: $47,970
25th Percentile: $60,760
75th Percentile: $99,800
90th Percentile: $128,970
Projected job growth: 5.6%
|State||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
|District of Columbia||$101,280||$61,720||$162,600|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
A career as a CPA can be rewarding beyond a high salary, says Campbell. "I don't see accounting as crunching numbers—it's so much more than that," she says. "It's saving a business from going bankrupt, helping businesses expand with the right strategy, and ensuring you stay in operation to support the workers and their families."
Once you've earned your CPA license, you'll want to stay on top of the latest news and trends in your field. Professional resources can help you do that, plus broaden your network as you advance your career. Here are some resources to get started.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants: AICPA offers an online job board plus an online library of continuing education courses.
Accounting Best Practices with Steve Bragg: A podcast that features discussions about accounting management, with new episodes twice a month.
Accounting Today: An online magazine that publishes monthly, featuring interviews and news about taxes, management, and other topics.
Journal of Accountancy: This journal, produced by AICPA and CIMA, covers news and best practices for a range of topics, including financial reporting and auditing.