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CPA: Summary of How to Become a Certified Public Accountant

Certification by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants is a required credential for accounting professionals who file reports with the SEC. Get some quick facts about the education and experience requirements necessary to qualify for the CPA credential.

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Aspiring Certified Public Accountants must take a number of steps in order to pass the necessary exam that provides certification. These steps typically involve earning a bachelor's degree plus further credit hours, gaining two years of work experience, passing the exam, and taking the necessary steps to maintain certification.

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Essential Information

Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) are accounting professionals who have passed the Uniformed CPA Examination. Like accountants, CPAs provide various auditing, tax and financial consulting services; however, only CPAs are permitted to perform audits on publicly traded companies and file reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Requirements vary slightly by state, but generally they require applicants to meet a combination of education and experience requirements and pass an exam. Continuing education is required to maintain licensure.

Education Requirements 150 credit-hours of college-level coursework
Experience Requirements Two years of work experience
Exam Requirements Pass the 4-part Uniform CPA Examination
Job Outlook (2014-2024)* 11% for all accountants and auditors
Median Salary (2016)** $62,054

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; **PayScale.com

Step 1: Research State Requirements

CPA eligibility requirements are set by each state's board of accountancy. Most states require CPA applicants to hold at least a bachelor's degree, have two years of experience and pass a national exam. Specific requirements vary by jurisdiction. Students may benefit from consulting the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, which provides jurisdiction-specific licensing information and application materials.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Most states require CPAs to obtain 150 hours of college-level coursework, which exceeds the coursework requirement for typical bachelor's degree program by 30 hours. To meet these additional hours, students may choose to earn master's degrees or simply complete extra courses at the undergraduate level. Bachelor's degree programs in accounting focus on foundational instruction in business and accounting. Core courses may include financial management, business strategy and law, cost accounting, information systems management, auditing, federal taxation and corporate finance.

Step 3: Gain Experience

Accountants are generally required to have at least two years of professional, public accounting experience to be eligible for CPA certification. Some states accept accounting experience outside of the public sector, such as in private business and government settings. Accountants may find employment in accounting and bookkeeping firms, tax preparation services and payroll companies in the public and private sectors. Many states allow CPA candidates to earn professional experience in place of a college degree.

Step 4: Pass the Certification Exam

CPAs in all states are required to pass the Uniform CPA Examination administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). This 14-hour, 4-part exam assesses skills and knowledge in auditing and attestation, business settings and concepts, financial accounting and regulation. Every year, less than 50% of candidates pass the exam on their first try; however, candidates are not required to pass all sections at one time and have up to 18 months after passing the first section to pass the entire exam.

Step 5: Maintain Certification

CPAs must renew certification at regular intervals by earning a number of continuing professional education credits determined by the state's board of accountancy. Continuing education is often in the form of courses, seminars, conferences, self-study and group study. Such programs may be available through accountancy professional organizations, such as the AICPA.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates faster-than-average job growth of 11% for auditors and accountants in the years 2014-2024. Reports from PayScale.com indicate that the median salary specifically for CPAs was $62,054 as of 2016.

Gaining CPA certification requires more credit-hours than typically required for a bachelor's degree. Further credit hours can be earned through taking additional courses, or pursuing a master's degree. Before an aspiring CPA can take the exam, they must typically have two years of work experience in accounting. Then, they can take the Uniform CPA Examination. Once passing the exam, continuing education is needed to maintain certification.

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