Like many professional level careers that require a standardized competence level for success, becoming a certified public accountant (CPA) requires multiple steps. Namely, you must complete an undergraduate degree, a graduate level program, and finally a professional qualification exam and license application. Read on to learn more about each stage in this process.
Earn a CPA-Eligible Degree
The first step in becoming certified as a public accountant is to complete an appropriate CPA degree program. Some colleges and universities offer CPA programs, while other students decide to earn their bachelor’s or master’s degree in accounting or business and then complete the additional CPA-require credit hours, which are defined by state-level CPA testing and licensing rules. Before choosing a degree program, you should consult NASBA CPA exam requirements for the state in which you intend to become licensed and put your CPA skills to work in the field. Exam registration and licensing requirements vary by state. You must ensure the degree program you select will satisfy the requirements in your home jurisdiction.
Choose a Program Based on Career Goals
For most CPAs, an undergraduate CPA program will satisfy the education requirements for working in their chosen field. CPA undergrad programs typically consist of a five-year degree program or require the completion of a four-year bachelor’s of accounting program, plus an additional 30 semester hours in the CPA concentration. If however you wish to work in specialized fields, like forensic or managerial accounting for example, you may choose instead to complete a more advanced degree in accounting or business, with a CPA or accounting concentration. Some colleges and universities even provide accelerated CPA training programs for students that already hold a master’s degree. A graduate level education in addition to a CPA license can make you a more attractive candidate in the employment market, particularly within certain career fields. The completion of a graduate program can also make CPAs more competent in handling the types of issues their clients or employers need, which is why organizations like the AICPA, American Institute of CPAs recommend considering a master’s degree, if you are interested in a strategic or leadership-focused career.
Prepare and Sit for the CPA Exam
Prior to taking the CPA exam, most accountants choose to pursue an exam preparation course or intensive self-study program. A passing score on the test is required before you can apply for your CPA license. The complexity of the exam and the expenses, effort, and time commitment associated with taking the test lead most candidates to invest in a formal exam preparation program.
Get Your CPA License
The final step in becoming a CPA is obtaining your license. After passing the CPA exam, you are qualified to apply for licensure through the State Board of Accountancy in your home jurisdiction. Each state also sets its own rules for maintaining a license, with most requiring licensing renewal every three years, along with the completion of CPA continuing education units or courses.
The most common educational path to becoming a CPA includes the completion of a five year undergraduate degree program, followed by a brief CPA exam preparation course. You must then sit for and pass the CPA exam and apply for your license.