Certified Public Accountant: How to Become a CPA?

Certified public accountants require a significant amount of formal education. Learn about the degree programs, job duties and certification requirements to see if this is the right career for you. View article »

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Essential Information

Degree Field Bachelor's degree plus additional courses
Degree Field(s) Finance or accounting
_Licensure/Certification_) CPA certification requires some graduate-level coursework and passing 4 exams
Experience 2 years required to sit for CPA exam
Job Outlook (2014-2024) 11% for all accountants and auditors*
Average Annual Salary (2015) $75,280 for all accountants and auditors*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Certified public accountants (CPAs) advise clients regarding tax and financial matters. They may also perform internal and external audits to ensure companies are following the guidelines for financial reporting. Prior to becoming certified, individuals first become accountants, which requires a minimum of a bachelor's degree in finance or accounting.

Certification requirements vary somewhat per state; however, one of the common requirements includes completing 150 semester hours of postsecondary study, which includes some graduate-level coursework. Upon meeting the education requirements, public accountants can sit for the certification exams. There are four different exams, and individuals have 18 months to pass all four exams. Once certified, CPAs maintain their certification through continued education coursework.

Let's look at what steps you will take to become a CPA.

Step 1: Complete a Degree Program in Accounting

Most states require aspiring CPAs to complete at least 150 semester hours of study to become licensed. Students generally accrue 120 hours via a traditional bachelor's degree program. To earn the required 150 hours, some schools offer the option of a combined 5-year bachelor's and master's degree program in accounting. Coursework generally begins with fundamental topics in accounting theory and advances to cover more complex topics like cost accounting.

Step 2: Consider Graduate Degree Options

Next, consider completing a graduate degree program. A graduate degree is usually not required to become a CPA, but for students who have only completed a traditional 4-year bachelor's degree program, it may help them meet credit hour requirements to become a CPA. Options include a Master of Science in Accounting, Master of Arts in Accounting or Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a specialization in accounting. Although coursework varies depending on the chosen program, most curricula cover advanced topics from tax planning to financial controls.

Step 3: Enter the Workforce

The next step is to begin working in the field. Prior to taking the certification examinations, state boards typically require accountants to complete at least two years of work experience. Aspiring CPAs may find work with public and private accounting firms or in an accounting department of any type of company. Duties may range from verifying financial documents to preparing tax returns and may include implementing financial measures to reduce mismanagement of products and services.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated that accountants and auditors will have a 11% job growth in the years 2014-2024. In 2015, these workers earned an average annual salary of $75,280, according to the same source.

Step 4: Take the Exams

Once education and work experience requirements are met, step four is to take the certification exams. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) has developed four exams that must be successfully completed in order to earn the CPA designation. The exams test candidates on accounting aspects like attestation and financial reporting.

Upon completing the first exam, candidates must complete the rest within 18 months. Those who pass all exams within the allotted time earn their license and become CPAs.

Step 5: Continue Education

Your final step is to participate in continuing education. In order to stay current with laws and practices, most states mandate CPAs to renew their licenses. CPAs may meet renewal requirements by completing continuing education coursework. Some states may require CPAs to include ethics courses as part of their continuing education.

To become a certified public accountant, you must complete 150 hours in a degree in accounting, gain practical experience, complete all four exams, and participate in continuing education to keep your license valid.

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