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Certified Public Accountant: How to Become a CPA?

Nov 18, 2019

A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is an accountant who is licensed through their state's Board of Accountancy. Read on to learn about how to become a CPA, including the educational requirements, experiential requirements, and licensure information for becoming a CPA.

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What Does a CPA Do?

A Certified Public Accountant, or CPA, is a financial advisor who helps their clients file taxes, stay compliant with government regulations and manage finances. They can choose from a variety of career paths, including public accounting, corporate accounting, academia, non-profit, and government. Requirements to become a CPA vary by state, so students need to check the requirements for licensure in the state in which they would like to work as a CPA. The table below offers an overview of the career.

Educational Requirements Bachelor's degree in accounting
Licensure Requirements 150 semester credit hours
Uniform CPA Exam
At least two years public accounting experience
Educational and experience requirements vary by state
Job Outlook (2018-2028) 6% for all accountants and auditors*
Average Median Salary (2018) $70,500 for all accountants and auditors*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

How to Become a CPA

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

First, students should earn a bachelor's degree in accounting. To become a CPA, a student must have 150 semester hours of education. This is 30 credit hours in addition to the 120 credit hours required for a bachelor's degree.

Students have several options for completing the required hours:

  • Take some graduate-level courses in addition to their undergraduate courses
  • Enroll in a 5-year program that will fulfill the 150-hour requirement
  • Double-major
  • Take CPA exam prep courses at a community college
  • Earn a Master's degree.

Students may be able to complete some or all of these credit hours to become a CPA online.

Step 2: Consider Earning a Master's Degree

A master's degree is not required to become a CPA, though some employers might prefer candidates with one. To reach the required 150 semester hours of education, students may consider getting a MAcc (Master of Accounting) or an MST (Master of Science in Taxation). An MBA with a concentration in accounting is another option. Students may also consider 150 credit hour programs which lead to a master's degree.

Step 3: CPA Certification

Once the educational requirements for taking the exam have been met, the next step to becoming a CPA is to take the Uniform CPA Examination, which is administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). The exam consists of four sections: Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) and Regulation (REG). Each section is four hours. Candidates must complete all four parts within 18 months and must earn at least a 75 on each part.

Step 4: Licensure

Many states require that candidates have at least two years of public accounting experience to become licensed as a CPA. As with educational requirements, the type of experience and amount of experience required varies by state, so candidates should check these requirements before they begin their initial job search. Some states will also require candidates for CPA licensure to take an ethics course or an ethics exam. Once all of the state's requirements for CPA licensure have been completed, candidates may apply for licensure through the state's Board of Accountancy.

Step 5: Continuing Education

To maintain their licensure, most states require CPAs to take continuing professional education courses (CPE) and to participate in professional development opportunities that will maintain their professional competence. The rules and regulations will vary by state. CPAs must keep up with the continuing education requirements of their state's Board of Accountancy, which typically means attending classes and seminars.

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