A certified public accountant, or CPA, is a qualified financial adviser with in-depth knowledge of financial planning, mergers and acquisitions, tax laws, and much more. CPAs’ advanced skill levels in business accounting and finance afford them a range of career opportunities, including working at large public accounting firms, owning their own businesses, and holding corporate executive positions, such as chief financial officer. Prospective accounting professionals wondering how to become a CPA should know that the path to success begins with higher education.
What Does a CPA Do?
CPAs’ extensive understanding of business finance and tax regulations makes them assets to all businesses. CPAs have many duties, such as preparing tax returns for individuals and corporations, thus ensuring that their clients comply with tax laws. They also help businesses and individuals create plans to reach their financial goals.
Corporations hire CPAs as consultants and to facilitate major mergers and acquisitions, while federal agencies employ them for performing audits and investigating tax fraud.
Steps to Become a CPA
Becoming a CPA requires developing business and financial knowledge in addition to earning the necessary degrees and certifications. The following steps outline how aspiring CPAs can achieve their goal:
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
The first step toward becoming a CPA is to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting. This gives students the opportunity to develop foundational business and finance skills, as the curriculum offers courses in business relevant to the accounting industry. Undergraduate programs teach students a range of applicable skills, such as good business communication, strategic financial analysis, and key computer concepts. Examples of core classes include managerial accounting, microeconomics and macroeconomics, business law, and principles of marketing. Required courses also cover accounting basics, such as accounting theory, auditing, information systems, managerial accounting, and forensics.
Step 2: Build On-the-Job Experience
One possible route to becoming a CPA involves working through the ranks from an entry-level position. However, it’s important to note that one cannot become a CPA without passing the required exams. That said, the real-world accounting experience that professionals can gain from working in entry-level or midlevel jobs while pursuing a degree and preparing for CPA exams can be invaluable. These kinds of opportunities may exist at small or large public accounting firms, private corporations across multiple industries, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations.In these career paths, accounting professionals can choose to focus on financial analysis, management accounting, financial forensics, business valuation, information technology (IT) consulting, or treasury and cash management.Those who excel at their positions and work to earn a CPA license, and potentially a master’s degree, may be able to advance their careers to senior positions, such as manager, executive, or firm partner. With their extensive business strategy skills and financial knowledge, CPAs can also take on entrepreneurial ventures by starting their own public accounting firms or other businesses.
Step 3: Pass the CPA Exam
The CPA license is the best-known proof of competency in accounting and is recognized by businesses, clients, and governments. Having a CPA license can also increase the potential of opening doors to top-level financial jobs.
To become a CPA, accounting professionals must pass a national exam and fulfill the licensing requirements of the Board of Accountancy in the state where they want to practice. On the national level, applicants must pass the four-part Uniform CPA Examination offered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), which consists of task-based simulations, multiple-choice questions, and written communication tasks. CPA candidates may take each part separately, but they must complete all parts within 18 months.
While state requirements may vary, almost all CPA candidates need to complete 150 college semester hours, which is 30 hours more than the average bachelor’s degree. Once professionals have attained the CPA license, they must continue their education and renew this license according to their state’s regulations.
Step 4: Earn a Master’s Degree (Optional)
Professionals who want to expand their education or be eligible for enhanced career advancement opportunities may choose to complete a master’s degree in accounting. Pursuing a master’s degree to fulfill the aforementioned 150-hour requirement makes a lot of sense. (It should be noted, though, that there are other options to meet the hours requirement, such as taking a double major.)
Master’s degree students get advanced business and financial knowledge, as well as unique chances to learn the responsibilities of a CPA. Courses are geared toward graduates with a bachelor’s in accounting or offered as part of a bridge program for career changers without an accounting degree. Advanced courses are integrated into the curriculum to prepare graduates for the CPA exam. These pay particular attention to topics covered on the exam, including auditing, business environment and concepts, accounting regulation, and financial accounting and reporting.
Step 5: Attain Additional Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations as Needed
There are a number of prestigious certifications that accountants can acquire in addition to the CPA license. The AICPA grants the following credentials to applicants who qualify and pass the required examinations:
- The Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV) credential represents an expertise in business valuation and enrolls holders as Forensic and Valuation Services (FVS) Section members.
- The Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF) credential can help candidates potentially advance in the specialized field of forensic accounting. CFF holders also have access to the FVS membership.
- CPAs who want to become specialists in personal financial planning gain credibility with the Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) credential. They also have access to a variety of marketing, business development, and media resources.
- The Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) credential signifies a CPA’s ability to perform a wide range of IT and business solutions services. This credential demonstrates that CPA professionals can confidently maintain information governance programs, perform data analytics to assist in business decision-making, and evaluate IT risks to increase security and privacy.
To become a CPA, candidates must develop a strong set of technical and administrative skills. The following skills are recommended to succeed as a CPA:
- Math skills
- Computer savvy
- Communication and interpersonal skills
- Attention to detail
As the economy grows and tax laws become more complex, employment opportunities for qualified accountants and CPAs will remain strong. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that employment of accountants and auditors is projected to grow by 6% between 2018 and 2028, which is as fast as the growth projection for all other occupations. The BLS further indicates that accountants who have earned professional recognition, such as CPAs, should have the best job prospects. As of May 2018, the median annual wage for accountants and auditors was recorded at $70,500, although earners in the top 10% reported annual earnings in excess of $122,840.
Start Your Journey Toward Becoming a CPA Today
The demand for qualified accountants will continue because businesses and organizations rely on good financial information to succeed. Professionals with drive and determination can advance along the path to becoming a CPA and may even aspire to holding high-level executive positions in the future.
Discover how Maryville University’s Master’s of Science in Accounting online program can provide you with the tools to advance a CPA career.