How to Become a CPA
Many accounting professionals aspire to become a certified public accountant (CPA). The highly-esteemed designation signifies that the individual has expert knowledge, adheres to high ethical standards, and serves as a testament to their professional integrity.
In addition to the professional designation, a CPA credential expands the career opportunities and salary ranges available to accountants, especially in public accounting firms. These firms provide a range of services to the general public including auditing, consulting, tax services, and accounting services - to both Individuals and organizations.
If you have some accounting experience or are interested in pursuing an accounting-related career path, you may ask yourself questions like, “how do I become a CPA?” and “should I become a CPA?” Please know that an accounting career can still be a rewarding career without the CPA certification if you choose to take that direction. You can also continue your education journey without making that decision right away.
The path to a CPA license requires a significant time commitment, motivation, and perseverance. In addition to specific educational and experiential learning requirements, CPA candidates must pass the Uniform CPA Examination®, a credentialing exam that tests professionals on the skills necessary to practice as a public accountant, administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).
To help you recognize the full extent of what it takes to become a CPA, as well as the benefits of licensure, we’ve gathered some resources and information to guide you through this challenging-yet-rewarding process.
What are the Steps to Becoming a CPA?
The first step to becoming a CPA is to determine which state(s) you would like to work in. CPA licenses are granted by individual state boards of accountancy. Once you obtain your license and become a certified public accountant, you’ll be permitted to practice as a public accountant in that state. Each state will have different eligibility criteria, so be sure to verify your state’s CPA requirements to determine your eligibility status to become certified. You can learn more about each state’s requirements here. It’s worth noting that many states have reciprocity with other states, which means earning your CPA credential in one state may allow you to also practice in a number of other states.
While the intricacies of each board’s CPA requirements will vary, the criteria needed to become a CPA in any state can be organized into three main categories: educational, experiential, and exam requirements.
There is a 150 credit hour requirement to sit for the CPA exam. Enrolling in an accredited bachelor’s degree program in accounting will help you fulfill the bulk of those hours. Coursework requirements typically involve:
- 30 semester hours in accounting subjects
- 24 semester hours in business administration subjects
- 15 or more semester hours of upper-level/graduate accounting courses
You will need to have a copy of your transcript ready to submit with your application to sit for the exam. In most states you can do so with a bachelor’s degree and the noted coursework above.
Since bachelor’s degrees are typically 120 credit hours, you will still need 30 more credit hours to become eligible for licensure. Taking additional accounting certifications through Champlain College Online (CCO) will not only allow you to reach these requirements, but will also help advance your accounting knowledge and prepare you for the examinations through practical coursework.
You do not need to have a bachelor's degree in accounting to sit for the exam. Individuals who hold a bachelors in another discipline, should look into master’s degrees or certificate programs in accounting to advance their technical aptitude and meet the educational requirements needed for their exam.
Candidates must have professional accounting experience in order to qualify for CPA licensure. On average, most states and jurisdictions require one year of public accounting experience.
The most common way to get this experience is to work for a professional accounting firm or other companies specializing in accounting, tax, or audit work. If you had experience as an accountant, you may consider internship opportunities so you can gain experience while you earn your degree.
Again, because of the inconsistencies between state-level requirements, check with your local state board to ensure there are no information gaps that could stand in the way of your journey to becoming certified.
All CPA candidates must pass the Uniform CPA Examination® required by AICPA, which is divided into four sections. Each section is a four-hour test that relates to an area of professional proficiency necessary to become a public accountant:
- Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
- Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
- Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
- Regulation (REG)
Each section of the exam is scored out of 100 points. In order to pass this exam, it is required to receive a passing score of at least 75 points on all four tests.
These four exams can be taken in any order; however, they must all be completed within 18-months of the date of your first scheduled exam. Upon receiving your notice to schedule (NTS), you can register for your first examination. As of July 2020, testing is done on a continuous basis, meaning that you can schedule your next exam whenever is convenient and testing scores will be rolled out accordingly.
Some states will also require CPA candidates to take ethics exams or courses to receive licensure, which can be verified here.
Why should you become a CPA?
It’s not necessary to obtain your CPA license to have a successful career in an accounting profession; however, career opportunities and benefits within public accounting firms require a CPA credential. The following list outlines the career benefits in the public accounting field that come with professional certification. (NOTE: CPA certification can also be a plus when changing jobs.)
Advancement & Promotion
Many of the large accounting firms usually require junior-level accountants to have their CPA license to receive promotions and advance in their company.
Greater Authorization & Access
Senior-level accounting associates work with high-profile clients and have to sign off on highly sensitive and confidential financial documents that are viewed by the IRS. Without a CPA designation, you are not authorized to sign off on such documentation.
Start Your Own Firm
Unlike accountants and bookkeepers, certified public accountants have the ability to provide their accounting services to the general public; this means they also have the option to open their own private firm.
Generally, other advantages of having a CPA designation include better pay, greater job opportunities, job security, advancement opportunities, and increased credibility.
Getting an Accounting Degree with Champlain
It is evident that you will need an extensive educational and technical background in accounting to qualify for CPA licensure. CCO offers a bachelor’s and an associate degree in accounting, as well as a variety of accounting certificates. These programs equip you with the knowledge, practical skills, industry ethics, and best practices needed to prepare you for the CPA exam and a successful career in the accounting field. Champlain also provides an accelerated pathway for students to earn 150 credit hours in four years.
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