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How to Become a CPA

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You hate your job. Your boss is miserable, your cubicle is a repurposed Air Jordans’ box, and your annual bonus comes out of the cushions on your couch.

On the plus side, you’re good at math, you like working with money, and you’d like to help people make more out of their money or the money their businesses make. You, sir or madam, are in luck.

How to Become a CPA

Becoming a certified public accountant (CPA) is a straightforward, if rigorous, process. You’ll need some schooling, some study time, and some experience – which should start with ‘S’, but which refuses to let go of being an ‘E’ word.

Today, we’ll walk through how to become a CPA, from start to finish.

Three steps to your CPA

In the grand scheme of things, becoming a CPA is a pretty simple process. It’s not as complicated as understanding how human consciousness works or what a Kardashian is, for example. The AICPA – that’s the American Institute of CPAs, by the way – sums it up in three Es.

  1. Education
  2. Examination
  3. Experience

After you get your certification, you’ll need to keep up to date with continuing education credits, but to start off with, you just need these three pieces.

1. Educational requirements for the CPA

To start off with, you’ll need 150 credit-hours of college work. This used to be a degree requirement, but the AICPA changed it to account for the increasing complexity of the accounting field. The only place you can get away with fewer than 150 hours is in the US Virgin Islands – territory motto: “United in pride and hope.”

Classically, you can hit the 150 hour mark with an undergraduate and master’s degree in an accounting related field. While the AICPA only cares about the total hours, states have varying requirements as to how those hours are accumulated.

As an example, in California, you’ll need 24 hours of accounting beyond an intro course along with 24 of general business. In New York, you should complete a program accredited by one of the state’s licensing bodies or an equivalent – 33 hours of accounting specific classes and 36 of general business, roughly.

Different states also have different rules on what it means to have an out-of-state license. It’s not always as simple as just registering in your new state. In fact, it’s almost never that simple.

While the AICPA says a master’s is not required – just the hours it would provide – states tend to look for graduate-level work. For a great breakdown of what each state is looking for, check out ThisWayToCPA.com’s CPA requirement list.

2. Examination requirements for a CPA

After you finish all those classes, you’re going to have to prove that you actually learned something. Bummer. These tests are a mix of multiple choice questions, written questions, and practical, task-based skills testing.

Now, while each state may set its own requirements for sitting the exam, the exam itself does not differ from state to state. The test you take in California is going to be the exact same test you take in New York.

The test is broken into four chunks, covering auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts, financial accounting and reporting, and regulation. Since each section is meant to be taken in any jurisdiction, you’ll only be tested on federal requirements.

Guess what that means? Nailed it – some states have their own supplemental tests. Continuing with our example, while New York lets you by with just the Uniform CPA Exam, California has you take a professional ethics exam, as well.

The Uniform CPA Exam is not screwing around.

This is a 14-hour-long test. And we’re talking about real American hours here, too. Each section requires a 75 out of 99 possible points to pass and to pass the exam, you have to pass all the sections. The vast majority of your score is made-up of the multiple choice sections, but you can’t pass with those sections alone.

The business environment and concepts section is the only section with a written portion and it’s also the only one without a task-based section.

3. Work experience requirements for a CPA

Once you’ve locked down school and examinations, you’ll need to meet the experience requirements before you can be certified. Here’s an easy one to understand.

Ha ha! Of course, I am just fooling.

Experience requirements vary by state just like education requirements do. In New York, you’ll need a year’s full-time equivalent working in “accounting, attest, compilation, management advisory, financial advisory, tax or consulting services under the supervision of a licensed CPA.”

In California, you’ll need a year of work “providing any type of service or advice involving the use of accounting, attest, compilation, management advisory, financial advisory, tax or consulting skills” performed under the supervision of a licensed CPA. However, that doesn’t give you the ability to attest, which requires a separate letter, requiring 500 hours of attest experience.

Experience can usually be gained before or after taking the exam. This makes it easy for both candidates already working in the field and career switchers to log the required hours.

Summing it up

In short, to get your certification, you will need something like:

  1. 150 hours of education divided up into specific classes or topics depending on the state you’ll be certified in
  2. A 75 or better on all four sections of the 14-hour Uniform CPA Exam, which is uniform across jurisdictions, but which may need to be supplemented with additional local exams
  3. A year of work experience overseen by an active CPA, in most locations

So if you’re willing to put in the time, you should be all set. Well, you’ll also need to put in cash, as education, testing, and continuing education are all going to cost you, but that’s pretty small compared to the time commitment.

CPAs are great! You’ll be joining a group of clever and valuable folks who make major impacts on the way business is done in the US. Depending on what road you take, you may end up auditing major corporations, doing taxes for your local community, or working as a financial consultant for small businesses.

A CPA opens a lot of doors, and it’s a great certification for anyone who loves business. If you’re interested in the profession, I recommend checking out the Capterra finance blog to keep on top of changes and trends in the industry, especially as they relate to technology.

Looking for Accounting software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Accounting software solutions.

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About the Author

Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder is a writer for Capterra. His background is in retail management, banking, and financial writing. When he’s not working, Andrew enjoys spending time with his son and playing board games of all stripes.

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