How to become a Certified Public Accountant
If you have a degree in accounting, or are considering getting one, a logical career goal would be to become a Certified Public Accountant, or CPA. CPAs interpret financial information to help companies make the decisions that lead to their success. Every company, large or small, needs to ‘account’ for their revenues and expenses, and to use this information to help them stay in business and, hopefully, grow.
Becoming a CPA
There are three components to the requirements to become a CPA: education, examination and experience. Here’s what you need to know about each of these three Es.
Candidates must have a bachelor’s degree in order to qualify to sit for the CPA exam. Moreover, all U.S. states now require or will soon require 150 semester hours of education, which is more than what is provided by a typical four-year undergraduate program. Aspiring CPAs can meet the 150-hour requirement in one of three ways: by completing a five-year program which leads to a master’s degree in accounting, obtaining a master’s degree in another business discipline, or taking enough graduate-level courses to meet the requirement.
Some states have different requirements about specific courses you need to take. The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) has a directory of the requirements for each state.
Once you have completed the education requirements, you must take – and pass – the Uniform CPA Examination®. The exam consists of four sections, and you have to pass all four, although you don’t have to pass them all in one sitting. The sections are Auditing and Attestation, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting and Reporting, and Regulation. To pass, you must get a score of 75 or higher on each section, and you have to pass all four of them within an 18-month period.
Most states also require the CPA ethics exam. This is an online course you can take at home, and you typically have two years after passing the CPA exam to take it. Check with your state Board of Accountancy to see if it’s required in your state.
Even after you’ve passed the CPA exam, you’ll need some experience before you can put those three letters after your name. Most states require at least two years of public accounting experience in order to be licensed as a CPA. You may be able to get your experience at another organization, such as a private corporation or government entity, but it may take longer. Again, check with your state Board of Accountancy for the requirements in your state.
Once you have gotten the requisite education, aced the CPA exam, and put in your time in public accounting, you can apply for your CPA license. With your license, you can pursue many different career paths in accounting. For example, you could:
- continue in public accounting, where you will be auditing and advising other companies on accounting matters
- work in corporate accounting, as a controller or a chief financial officer of a public or private company
- work for a government agency or non-profit in a variety of roles
- teach accounting in an academic setting
Some CPAs specialize in certain areas, such as business valuation, forensic accounting, or financial planning.
Becoming a CPA is not easy – there’s a lot of hard work involved. But once you get your license, it can open up the door to a wide variety of interesting employment opportunities. If you decide to go into practice for yourself, be sure to protect yourself with business insurance. Even the most conscientious accountants face the risk of claims and lawsuits, so general liability and professional liability insurance are critically important.