How to Become a CPA in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for certified public accountants. Get the facts about education, salary, licensure requirements and job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Accounting degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Certified Public Accountant Do?

Certified Public Accountants (CPA) are licensed accountants who are eligible to file reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). As a CPA, you'll perform tasks that include auditing, consulting and accounting. Your job duties will include analyzing data, preparing reports and maintaining records. You may specialize in areas such as taxes or forensic accounting.

The following chart provides an overview about becoming a CPA.

EducationRequired Bachelor's or master's degree
Field of Study Accounting
Licensure and Certification All states require CPAs to be licensed; professional certification in various accounting specialties is available
Key Skills Knowledge of financial statements, auditing, taxes and accounting principles; attention to detail; strong mathematical ability
Job Growth (2014-2024) 11% (for all accountants and auditors)*
Median Salary (2015) $67,190 (for all accountants and auditors)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Is a Certified Public Accountant?

As a CPA, you will analyze financial data and prepare financial statements for clients. You help determine the profits and losses of a corporation. You utilize computerized record keeping systems to prepare tax returns and ensure your clients' taxes are paid correctly.

You may advise clients on matters such as employee benefits and estate planning or inform company management of the state of an organization's overall finances. You may manage your own company or work for public accounting establishments.

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

You need a minimum of a bachelor's degree in accounting to become a CPA. A typical bachelor's curriculum includes general education courses such as English, history and mathematics. A program also includes courses specific to accounting such as microcomputer applications, statistics, business finance and marketing. A major emphasis is placed on learning basic accounting practices and procedures.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

For certification in some states, you may need to complete a master's degree program. A master's degree program may also help you to acquire the interpersonal, presentation and communication skills you'll need as a certified public accountant. A master's accountancy program might include such courses as cost and operations management, management information systems, audits and accounting information systems. Most programs include an accounting project, which lets you highlight the accounting skills you have learned.

Step 3: Get Experience in the Accounting Field

While you're earning a degree, you might participate in an internship program or obtain a part-time job at an accounting or tax preparation company as a way of gaining valuable experience. You may also work as a junior accountant and learn from experienced professionals.

Step 4: Obtain Certification

To become certified, you must successfully complete the computerized Uniform CPA Examination, which consists of four parts. Applicants can take the test in sections, but all sections must be passed within a year and a half of passing the initial section. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) administers the Uniform CPA Examination. It is often a state requirement that applicants have prior accounting experience before being allowed to take the examination. You must meet any requirements of the state in which you plan to practice.

Step 5: Enroll in Continuing Education Courses

Most states require that certified public accountants take continuing professional education (CPE) courses in order to renew their licenses. CPE courses will help you remain professionally competent and keep your skills updated. You have the option of acquiring CPE through university courses, seminars or trade association conferences. If you are a member of the AICPA, you'll need to complete approximately 120 hours of CPE every three years.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

With a bachelor's degree, one may also consider becoming a financial manager and financial analyst. Financial analysts evaluate investments and look at trends to assist clients in making investment opportunities. Financial managers are professionals who make financial reports for organizations, and also direct the company in making good investment and financial choices.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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