The accounting-mathematics connection is widely known but not widely understood outside of the accounting profession. Do you have to love math to be an accountant? Due to the importance of numbers in the work of an accountant, you might think that you will have to take numerous – and difficult – math courses to earn your accounting degree.
For potential accounting students who don’t enjoy or excel at complicated mathematical formulas, this concern could deter you from pursuing a career that would otherwise be a great fit. It is true that math skills are important for success as an accountant, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, you should know that most of the math involved in accounting requires proficiency in basic math skills rather than complex high-level mathematics.
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Is Accounting Math?
At its simplest, accounting is the recording and reporting of financial data, which is communicated in numbers.
Accounting may be a math-intensive area of business, but it isn’t, in and of itself, a branch of mathematics. In colleges and universities, the accounting major is offered as a business degree program, not a math degree. The work that accountants do is, generally, very different from the work that a mathematician – even an applied mathematician – does. There’s nowhere near as much high-level math in accounting as there is in careers that are truly part of the mathematics occupations, such as actuary, operations research analyst, statistician and mathematician. For students who really love math but have no interest in business, a career in accounting may even seem boring because it doesn’t offer enough opportunity to use high-level math techniques, models and equations.
For this reason, the field of accounting is the perfect fit for people who enjoy working with numbers but aren’t necessarily crazy about the complicated formulas of calculus, algebra and geometry. Accountants use numbers – and, by extension, math – in the service of business efforts. They may compute and prepare tax returns for individuals or handle the financial reporting needs of businesses. Whether they work in public accounting, management accounting or government accounting, accountants will use math, but they aren’t math professionals.
Management accountants also go by job titles like private accountants, managerial accountants, cost accountants, corporate accountants and industrial accountants, according to the BLS.
Do You Have to Be Good at Math to Be an Accountant?
How much skill in mathematics you need to be an accountant is a somewhat different question. If you want to work in accounting, math will be a part of your career and, in fact, your daily life. You can’t avoid math entirely in most areas of business, but you will likely use more math as an accountant than you would in a role like human resources specialist.
If math skills exist on a continuum, you don’t have to be the biggest math wiz to work in accounting. As long as you are good, or at least capable, at basic math and arithmetic functions, you will likely be able to master accounting math. In fact, you may find that the math courses you have to take in college to fulfill your general education requirements are more difficult than the classes you take for your accounting major.
You don’t necessarily have to excel at math to be an accountant, but you should be comfortable working with numbers. In fact, 22 percent of accountants surveyed reported that working with numbers was what gave them the most job satisfaction, according to Robert Half.
Bachelor’s in Accounting Math Requirements
The math requirements in an accounting degree program appear in both your major coursework and your general education classes.
Math Courses in an Accounting Curriculum
If you’re considering majoring in accounting, you might be relieved to learn that it is more important for aspiring accountants to be good at research, logic, problem-solving and using computer software than to excel at advanced mathematics. As an accounting student, your core business and accounting major curricula might include classes like business analytics, business calculus or business statistics. These classes are often used to teach accounting students how to analyze financial data, which is an important part of work as an accountant.
Your accounting classes themselves may test your math skills somewhat, even if they’re not technically math classes. As you develop the skills to record financial transactions, develop operating budgets and prepare balance sheets and income statements, as you will do in your introductory through your sequence of intermediary accounting courses, you will need strong skills in basic math and arithmetic.
The type of accounting degree you earn can play a part in how much math is a part of your curriculum. At the undergraduate level, there are a variety of possible degrees you can earn in the subject of accounting. A Bachelor of Accounting or Bachelor of Accountancy (BAC) degree focuses more on the foundational concepts and practices of accounting than on developing students’ math skills. A Bachelor of Science in Accounting (BSACC) degree emphasizes technical accounting and analytical skills and is more likely to include some advanced mathematical coursework.
You can also choose a more general business degree, like a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) or a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (BSBA) with a concentration in accounting. These programs include studies in a broad range of business and management topics with some emphasis on accounting principles and practices. BBA and BSBA degree programs are less likely to require extensive studies in mathematics, but they also focus more on a general business core than on more specialized accounting topics. In a business administration program with an accounting concentration, you would most likely take courses in financial accounting, managerial accounting, taxation, auditing, accounting information systems, and a sequence of introductory through intermediate accounting classes. However, you would probably spend considerably more of your coursework taking general business classes in topics like human resources, management, marketing, and strategic planning for business.
While each degree program covers both theory and techniques to some degree, it’s important for aspiring accountants to consider whether they prefer to study applied or conceptual accounting coursework and choose a degree program that fits their needs.
General Education Math Courses
Of course, you should expect to take some math coursework during your college career. Like students in other majors, students of accounting must complete their college’s general education requirements, which usually include at least one or two math classes. To fulfill this requirement, you might take a basic college-level course in algebra or a class in precalculus, applied calculus or business calculus.
Other course options that may fulfill your general education math requirements might include general classes like Introductory Survey of Mathematics.
What Math Do You Need for Accounting?
The most important accounting mathematics skills are simpler than you might expect. Much of the financial reporting that happens in accounting has to do with credits, which you add, and debits, which you subtract. Although that may sound too easy to be true, accounting math skills mainly involve such basic functions as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. Since businesses don’t deal exclusively in whole numbers, it’s also important to have a solid grasp of percentages, fractions, decimals and ratios. There’s a good chance that you have been using many of the math skills needed for an accounting career since elementary school.
How Accountants Use Math
The reason the BLS reports that you don’t need complex math skills to be an accountant is because the math used to manipulate numbers in accounting is generally basic. The notion that accounting is all about math is one of the most prevalent myths about accounting. Accountants certainly do work with numbers, and they follow formulas to create financial statements. However, those formulas are consistent and typically require accountants to simply plug in the right numbers. The math used in these formulas can be done with a calculator or spreadsheet software, so you don’t have to be a master at mental math or enjoy writing out the long-from solutions to complicated equations.
If you aspire to become a certified public accountant (CPA) or attain another accounting certification, then you will need to perform enough math to pass your exams. Some accounting professionals report that the math needed to pass their credentialing exams is more complex and difficult than the math they use daily in their work as an accountant. In particular, the Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) section of the CPA exam requires you to put your math skills to work in analysis and application tasks that include calculating fluctuations and ratios in comparative balance sheets and preparing single-step and multi-step income statements.
The FAR section of the CPA exam traditionally has the lowest pass rates of all four exam sections. In 2020, the cumulative pass rate for the FAR section of the test was 49.98 percent, compared to 52.84 percent for the Auditing and Attestation (AUD) section, 62.29 percent for the Regulation (REG) section and 65.56 percent for the Business Environment and Concepts (BEC).
What Else You Need Besides Accounting Mathematics
Success in accounting takes a lot more than math skills. Although accountants work with numbers on a daily basis, math is just a small part of what they do. Some of the most important qualities for accountants to have, according to the BLS, include:
- Problem-solving skills: A lot of accounting is about solving problems, which happens to be done with numbers. In fact, 41 percent of accountants surveyed said that the problem-solving aspect of the work was what gave them the most job satisfaction, according to Robert Half.
- Analytical skills: A big part of accounting is analyzing financial reports and statements. In fact, as software programs increasingly become able to perform the work of actually generating reports, accountants spend more of their time and effort on analysis. Analysis is also a crucial part of roles in auditing, which focuses on examining financial statements and reports for accuracy.
- Organizational skills: Accountant and bookkeeper are two different jobs, so it’s not necessarily an accountant’s job to make sure that invoices and receipts are properly filed and entered in a ledger rather than being thrown haphazardly in a drawer or a shoebox. Still, organizational skills are essential for keeping track of different types of financial documents and information, especially if you handle accounting work for multiple clients, as you might do as a public accountant who prepares tax returns or while working in an accounting firm.
- Attention to detail: In accounting, a single mistake could throw off your entire financial statement, not to mention any business operations and strategic decisions made based on that statement. Accountants should be detail-oriented to avoid putting numbers in the wrong column of debits or credits, as well as to make sure the right regulations are being applied to a given situation, such as the right deduction allowances for income tax preparation.
- Technology skills: Today’s accountants use computer technology for a lot of their work, including accounting software programs like Intuit QuickBooks, tax preparation software like ATX Total Tax Office and financial analysis software like Delphi Technology and Oracle E-Business Suite Financials.
- Communication skills: If you think accountants have little need for communication skills, you might be surprised. Accountants don’t work in a vacuum, instead discussing goals, strategies and the outcomes and insights of financial reports with company managers and public and corporate clients. Ideally, accountants will develop skills in all areas of communication, from active listening and speaking to writing skills.
If you want to be an accountant but you’re not good at math, don’t give up hope. Instead, speak with an advisor or career counselor at your school or an established accounting professional to find out how much math you will really need to do to earn your accounting degree. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you already have sufficient math skills for the job.
For students who have solid skills in basic math and arithmetic, an accounting mathematics education is more a matter of learning accounting theories and how to apply them than it is studying math.