There are accountants, and then there are Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). Becoming a CPA offers many benefits, such as a substantial salary increase, prestige and opportunities for advancement. However, the process also requires a great deal of time and hard work. The requirements for becoming a CPA vary from state to state, but generally all CPA candidates across the U.S. need to get a college education, acquire real-world work experience and earn a passing score on the challenging CPA exam.
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Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
If you want to be an accountant, you need to go to college. A bachelor’s degree is generally the minimum education required to work in accounting and auditing, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It is also the minimum degree required to sit for the CPA exam. In a bachelor’s degree program in accounting, you will complete core coursework in business subjects of all kinds, including economics, finance, marketing, management and organizational behavior. Of course, the most important part of your accounting education is your major coursework. At the undergraduate level, accounting students should expect to study financial accounting, cost accounting, auditing and taxation.
Technically, you don’t have to major in accounting in order to become a CPA. Licensure requirements don’t specify what your degree is in, though many states require students to have completed a minimum number of courses in accounting or business. This formal accounting course requirement could take the form of a number of credits needed in accounting and business topics, or it could require courses in specific content areas. A business or finance degree might meet these minimum requirements, as might a minor in accounting alongside a different major program of study.
Even if you don’t want to be a CPA, a bachelor’s degree is the best choice for students who plan for a career as an accountant. As many as 98 percent of accounting jobs analyzed included a bachelor’s degree among the job requirements.
Complete 150 Semester Hours of College Study
If you based your education decisions solely on the degree requirements, you might think that you were all set for your CPA career once you earned your bachelor’s degree. In fact, you’re going to have to spend an additional year in school to meet the CPA license’s 150 semester hour requirement. A traditional bachelor’s degree requires only 120 college credits or semester hours, so you still need to complete 30 more credits to be eligible to become a CPA.
You have options when it comes to completing those extra semester hours, according to the Association of International Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Some students choose to take extra undergraduate classes as they work toward their bachelor’s degree. They may use their additional courses and extra time to dual major in a relevant subject such as finance or economics or to add a minor or concentration to their program of study. Graduate coursework also counts toward your semester hour requirement, and many students choose to earn a master’s degree in accounting, taxation or business administration. Accounting master’s degrees are often 30 credits, and many schools offer accelerated programs that allow a master’s degree to be completed in around a year. You can also enroll as a non-degree-seeking student at the undergraduate or graduate level, saving yourself the cost of some degree fees.
Community colleges are another place you can look to for completing your 150 semester hours requirement. Courses at community colleges are as much as two to three times more expensive than those taken at a four-year public college.
Gain Work Experience
If you’re already thinking about CPA licensure at the time you’re fresh out of college, you may have to be a little patient. In most of the U.S., you need a minimum of two years of work experience in the field of public accounting before you can get your CPA license, according to the AICPA.
This particular CPA requirement isn’t unique among professional credentials. Accountants also need two years of experience to attain other certifications, such as the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) offered by the Institute of Management Accountants and the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) designation from the Institute of Internal Auditors, the BLS reported.
If your accounting experience is in another field, such as cost accounting or government accounting, you may need more years of experience to qualify to take the CPA exam.
Pass the Four-Part Uniform CPA Exam
Once you have completed all of the requirements to sit for the exam, you may still face some big challenges. Before you can sign up to take the test, you need to apply for the exam and pay your fees. This can take a month or two, the AICPA reported. Then you receive you Notice to Schedule, or NTS, which allows you to reserve your seat at the testing center. While it’s recommended that students reserve a spot 45 days in advance, this can be done as late as five days before the test.
Once you take the first section of the four-part Uniform CPA exam, you must complete the entire exam in 18 months or less. Certain states may have more specific requirements with regards to how long you have to complete each section.
The national average CPA exam pass rate is just 52.9 percent. To pass, you need a score of 75 or higher.