Steps to Becoming a CPA

Aug 15, 2018

Learn how to become a Certified Public Accountant. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career in accounting.

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CPA Career Info

Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) can fulfill all the duties of regular accountants, but they are also licensed for additional responsibilities, such as auditing financial statements and filing reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Other common job duties include preparing tax returns, inspecting a company's accounting systems, and recommending financial operations changes for companies. CPAs can work for public or private accounting agencies or firms. Travel may be required, and work hours are often long during tax seasons and near the end of budget years.

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; some employers prefer a master's degree
Degree Field Accounting or a related field
Experience At least 1 year of experience may be needed
Licensure State licensure required; voluntary certifications available
Key Skills Strong math, organizational, analytical, and communication skills; attention to detail; ability to use accounting and financial analysis software
Salary $67,190 (2015 median annual salary for all accountants and auditors)*

Sources: American Institute of CPAs, *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET OnLine, (July 2015)

Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Completing an undergraduate program is an important first step in becoming a CPA. The Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting and Bachelor of Science in Accountancy are degrees commonly held by CPAs. These programs introduce students to the fundamentals of accounting and finance, including accounting systems and professional ethics. Some colleges and universities offer extended degree programs for students wanting to prepare for the CPA exam prior to graduation. The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) provides specific details of each state's educational requirements.

Students in undergraduate accounting programs may have the opportunity to select from a number of elective courses. Most states require a certain number of courses in accounting to qualify for the CPA exam, so students should select courses that satisfy this requirement while they're in school.

Making connections with professionals and other students can be also helpful to aspiring CPAs. Some programs offer the opportunity for students to study accounting in different settings and observe the real-world applications of the subject they are studying.

Take Uniform CPA Exam

Many states require that CPA candidates complete at least 150 semester-hours of coursework prior to sitting for the Uniform CPA Examination, with at least 33 of those semester-hours focused on accounting. Other states may require a certain number of business courses in addition to the previous requirements. However, students should check the specific requirements of the state they hope to work in. If an undergraduate program doesn't fulfill this requirement, individuals might continue taking accounting courses in a certificate or master's program.

The Uniform CPA Exam is the standardized test given to prospective CPAs across the country. This 4-part exam was designed by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) and administered by the NASBA. The 4 major areas of testing include auditing and attestation, financial accounting and reporting, regulation, and business environment and concepts. In addition to the Uniform CPA Exam, many states require individuals to take a professional conduct examination.

Gain Work Experience

In most states, an additional aspect of becoming a CPA is acquiring approximately 1 year of work experience. This experience is often gained under the supervision of a CPA and should include tasks in tax advising, issuing financial reports, and providing auditing services. Some states require individuals to obtain a limited practice license before gaining work experience.

CPAs use a variety of different financial and accounting software in their work. Aspiring CPAs who have become proficient with the most common programs used in the profession may have an advantage when beginning their careers.

Apply for Licensure

Once an individual has passed the CPA exam and met all other state requirements, he or she can apply for state licensure. Licensure is granted from an individual's State Board of Accountancy. Most states require CPAs to renew their license every few years, which may include fulfilling continuing education requirements.

Consider Specialized Certification

Although becoming a CPA may be the pinnacle for accountants, obtaining voluntary certification in a specialized area can lead to more advanced job options. CPAs who would like focus their careers on the auditing aspect of accounting may consider several certifications offered by The Institute of Internal Auditors. These include the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP), and the Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA). Earning these designations requires passing an exam and having experience working in the field, which can be at least 2 years, as is the case for the CIA credential.

To quickly recap, a bachelor's degree is the minimum education requirement for aspiring CPAs; however, a graduate education and at least 1 year of experience in the field can help them meet licensure requirements and obtain a position.

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